Federal Prisoners in Canada Have Limited Access to Libraries Due To Funding Cuts

By Chris Zoukis

A number of federal prisons in Canada are cutting library hours and library staff, limiting access to books, making it harder to improve literary skills to prepare for reintegration to society.

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers told CBC News, “Access to books is really important, and what we are seeing is an erosion in access to books.”  Last year, the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, did not extend a contract with the region’s library service.  The library was open five days per week, with prisoners borrowing an average of 50 items per day.  The program cost $70,000 per year.

Many prisoners need to improve their literacy skills for when they are released, making reading materials vital for people behind prison walls.  Libraries are one of the only ways for prisoners to get books.

Reading is “a huge part of our development as human beings,” said Joan McEwen, a lawyer who has taught a creative writing class at the Matsqui Institution near Vancouver.  She went on to say, “It’s a big part of how we become civilized and cultured, and what better thing to do in prison in your . . . downtime than to read?  It’s stimulating and you can have conversations with people, you learn about the world, you become more pro-social.”  Pro-social refers to positive behaviors, and it is something the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) aims to cultivate in prisoners before they’re released.  Reading helps prisoners rehabilitate.

Carol Finlay, a former English teacher and American minister, started her first book club in Collins Bay Institution in 2009, with as many as 17 book clubs operating at 14 prisons across Canada today.  “A [book club] gives something for these fellows to think and talk about besides crime.”  Finlay also stated that book clubs bring together prisoners, giving them the opportunity to talk about “the big issues of life” and apply the social skills they are learning through the courses mandated by the CSC.

While libraries are closing, the need is still there.  Kirsten Wurmann, a volunteer in federal and provincial institutions, has been making sure prisoners get books since 2007.  One man told Wurmann, when she asked what the man was looking for, “Oh, I don’t read, but my roommate is going to read to me.”

Sources: CBC News

This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News in August 2016.