Every prison within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has an inmate leisure library and an inmate law library. Both libraries are typically housed within the institution’s Education Department and are accessible to all inmates in general population. All leisure library and law library services are offered free of charge (excluding printing and copying costs).
The Traditional Library
While there are many layout arrangements for federal prison leisure libraries, the central component are the books. Much like a public library, prison libraries hold a variety of books for the population’s usage. The books include both fiction and nonfiction. Actual selections vary significantly institution-to-institution. This is because book purchase decisions are made depending on the local Education Department budget, the desires of the Supervisor of Education at each institution, and on which books are donated by individual inmates.
Leisure libraries in the BOP tend to be locations of congregation. This is because they often contain a number of tables and chairs for inmates from different housing units to socialize. While one would hope that the library would be a location of quiet contemplation and learning, this is rarely the case, and more often than not, federal prison libraries are loud places of commerce, not locations of learning and growth.
For the most part, inmates are allowed to check out books from their prison’s leisure library. This typically involves the library clerk writing down which inmate checks out which specific book(s). The inmate is then furnished with a card which states when the book(s) must be returned. Inmates can usually check out a book for two weeks before having to return it. If an inmate fails to return a book within the allowable timeframe, they will be placed on a late list; if this doesn’t work, the inmate will be placed on call-out (the BOP’s daily appointment system) in an effort to collect the text, or face disciplinary action.
While most books are allowed to be checked out, reference texts are usually exempt from being checked out since they are more expensive and of immediate use to a larger proportion of the inmate population.
The Law Library
All federal prisons are required by statute and regulations to have a law library. This used to consist of a room filled with legal texts, but the technological age has arrived within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Now, all federal inmates have access to the TRULINCS computer system, which contains a full electronic law library. By most accounts, this is a huge improvement.
The law library computers allow inmates to electronically access case-law from all federal courts, Federal Bureau of Prisons program statements (BOP policy), and various other legal resources (including a law dictionary, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Code of Federal Regulations, etc.). One of the terrific features about this electronic law library is that it is searchable. Thus, an inmate can type in a specific term and a hit list is provided to them. This makes legal research efficient and easy to manage.
With the TRULINCS computer system come the TRULINCS printers. Inmates can now print their emails and case-law through them. It costs inmates 3 TRU-Units ($0.15) per page to print. When considering that some cases and program statements can be a significant number of pages, cost factors can come into play. Regardless, inmates can utilize the electronic law library system for free, even if they can’t save documents or retain their place when logging off.
Typewriters and Neos
Most federal prisons allow inmates to utilize typewriters in the law library area. This is because inmates, for the most part, don’t have access to true word processors (TRULINCS now allows inmates to email approved contacts, but not necessarily draft non-emails, though, this could be done if desired). In order to utilize the typewriters, an inmate must purchase a typewriter ribbon ($7.75), a correctional tape ($1.55), a print wheel ($19.95), and typing paper ($1.95 per 100 sheets). Inmates who qualify as indigent are able to receive free supplies from their respective Education Department.
Typewriters are generally not available for checkout and they are often bolted down to tables. As such, they are available on a first-come first-serve basis. The typewriters tend to be a point of contention amongst most federal inmates since they are often broken and few fully operable ones are available for use. Thus, conflicts tend to abound where they reside.
Some institutions stock “Neos,” which are inexpensive keyboards with limited memory. The inmate can type text into the NEO and then print the output on a common printer, supplying their own paper. The devices are battery operated and cost inmates nothing except paper. They are quite popular with inmates notwithstanding the limited text options they offer, and are cheaper than conventional typewriters. They also have the benefit of not requiring a dedicated work station and can be used anywhere.
DVD and VHS Players
Many federal prisons offer a DVD/VHS viewing program. This is often offered in the Education Department (and/or in the Religious Services Department). In this program, inmates can sign up for specific time slots to view DVDs (and VHS tapes, which are rapidly being phased out). The DVDs are owned and managed by the respective department which is hosting the service and can include a vast array of titles. One can often find commercial movies (e.g., The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies) along with more educationally focused titles (e.g., History Channel videos). Some inmates sign up for the maximum number of slots every week. When this program is hosted in the Religious Services Department, most DVDs focus on religious instruction (lectures and documentaries), but many facilities have a liberal view as to the use of commercial films that have a religious connection of some sort.
Another staple of federal prison Education Departments is the inmate copier. This is a well-utilized piece of equipment, both for legal work and other uses. Most inmate copiers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons are operated with a copy card which is purchased from an institution’s commissary. Some prisons sell a 50 copy card for $6.50. Others place copy credits on the inmate’s account and the inmate utilizes his or her identification card to use the credits. Regardless of how copies are paid for, the existence of a copy machine — a basic staple in offices around the world — is a huge improvement for prison law libraries. Many state prisons have neither copiers nor law library computers. In this regard, federal prisoners are fortunate.