Nearly 1.6 million people were in federal or state prisons in 2011, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. City and county jails are also full of people. Though there are increasingly vocal calls to reevaluate stiff sentencing for less serious crimes, this is unlikely to cause a dramatic decline in prisoners anytime soon. Meanwhile, each day, thousands return to their communities from some form of incarceration.
What is changing is a growing realization that more public, prison, and jail libraries can better identify and serve the often significant needs of inmates or those prisoners who are returning to their communities. Not only are some libraries providing books, they are providing innovative programs and services, helping inmates and returnees to learn about work and employment opportunities, the arts, and to develop job-seeking skills.