Advanced Legal Research Class Explores the World of Prison Libraries
By Babak Zarin
“Would you all be interested in seeing a prison library?”
It was with these words that Professor Renate Chancellor of CUA’s Library and Information Sciences offered her students in Advanced Legal Research the opportunity to hear about what it’s like to be a librarian in a library located within a prison. As future law librarians, the students will likely be expected to help conduct legal research for practicing legal attorneys or academics, but Chancellor felt that students might find the experience of seeing how inmates engage with a library helpful in gaining insight into a viewpoint that is not otherwise commonly examined in other legal research courses.
It was an opportunity that her students happily accepted. So, on April 5, the class visited the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, Maryland, where—after undergoing the same rigorous screening that all visitors and volunteers to the site are required to do— they were escorted to the facility’s library by the prison librarian.
The experience was fascinating. In general prison libraries have a unique presence in facilities like the one at Jessup. Beyond their ability to help inmates find materials to enjoy or serve as a recreational space, prison libraries are also areas where inmates can find and read materials to prepare better for their lives after their sentences are finished, including resources that help them study for their GEDs.
For Chancellor’s class, the focus in particular was on the library’s ability to help inmates read legal materials and better inform themselves about the laws of the state of Maryland, ranging from those materials that Maryland law requires the library to have available to materials that the prison librarian has been able to develop in response to the needs of the library’s patrons. How the librarian assesses and tries to address these needs were major questions that Chancellor’s students were able to speak about with the Jessup librarian at length, who also discussed how prison libraries balance and engage with the limitations and rules of the overall facility itself and the inmates’ lives more broadly.
After the visit was concluded, Chancellor’s class went to nearby Laurel, Maryland, to discuss further the strengths and challenges of working in prison libraries. The conversation covered topics such as how librarians in prisons develop the resources and emotional resilience to maintain the library collection in what is commonly viewed as a very emotionally taxing environment; how prison librarians can maintain current legal materials that can help inmates trying to develop a better sense of the law; and how the physical space of the library itself can be interpreted by the inmates.
Advanced Legal Research focuses on helping future law librarians develop the skills necessary to engage in legal research, both domestic and international, in a variety of practice and academic settings. Course attendees are sometimes able to conduct site visits to see legal practitioners in their working environments. This year, in addition to their trip to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, Advanced Legal Research will also be visiting the Law Library of Congress.