Experiencing the use of Australian prison libraries: A phenomenological study

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Access to a library and to educational, legal and recreational reading in prison can have a positive effect on the lives of prisoners. Access to these resources via prison libraries can improve quality of life during incarceration, and reduce the chances of re-offending after leaving prison, creating a benefit for the individual, their family and the community. Despite the importance of libraries in prisons, the existing previous research has focused on only library management and collection development issues. These studies have not addressed the user perspective of the role prison libraries play in the lives of prisoners.

The focus of this study is to understand Australian prisoners’ lived experiences of their libraries and to ascertain the role the libraries are playing in their lives. Using a phenomenological theoretical framework, 36 semi-structured interviews with both correctional facility staff and prisoners, across three states and territories, were undertaken to explore the experience of Australian prisoners who make use of their prison library. Data was also gathered through observation of the libraries and their collections. The prisons included in the study were the Alexander Maconochie Centre in the Australian Capital Territory, the Adelaide Women’s Prison, Mobilong Prison and Port Augusta Prison in South Australia, and Marngoneet Correctional Centre, Port Phillip Prison and Tarrengower Prison in Victoria.

The data gathered has been analysed with the use of NVivo software which has enabled an understanding of the role the libraries play in prisoners’ lives, how the libraries are being used, and an identification of five core themes that represent the experience of using the libraries. These themes indicate that prisoners are experiencing their libraries as a means of escape, a means of passing time constructively, a means of staying connected with community, both inside and outside prison, an opportunity to experience autonomy and self-responsibility and, finally, as an inadequate support for their formal and informal education and literacy development.

Five implications for practice were identified that may be of interest to prison administrators, both in Australia and overseas. These implications illustrate the importance of ensuring prisoners have physical access to their library, the potential for library programs to contribute to reducing the separation from communities experienced by prisoners, the importance of prison administrators perceiving prison libraries as an educational resource, and an acknowledgement of this in prison operational guidelines. Further implications relate to the development of library collections that reflect the unique needs of prisoners as a user group, and the requirement for all prison libraries to be adequately funded to enable them to better contribute to the successful management, rehabilitation and futures of prisoners.

Findings from the research contribute to our understanding of the experience of using a prison library. This understanding may be of interest and use to administrators of other closed or restricted communities and institutions, such as juvenile detention and immigration centres, aged care facilities, military facilities, hospitals, boarding schools and religious communities
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • RMIT University
  • Reynolds, Sue, Principal Supervisor, External person
  • Harvey, Ross, Co-Supervisor, External person
Award date18 Dec 2017
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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