Books Behind Bars: A Volunteer-run Prison Library Service in Winnipeg, Manitoba

committee photo

Manitoba Library Association Prison Library Committee

In Brief: Beginning the summer of 2012, a group Canadian librarians in Winnipeg came together to discuss the lack of library services in the prison system in the province of Manitoba. The newly formed Prison Library Committee started a weekly drop-in library service at the Winnipeg Remand Centre (WRC) located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This article will explore the importance of prison library services in the current context of prisons in Canada through our grassroots voluntary prison library service.



As I sit down to write this article my mind floats back to a conference I recently attended on the topic of literacy and incarcerated youth. The focus was on increasing awareness of low literacy levels among “at-risk youth” in Canada and what changes would support these youth in developing literacy skills. A panel of people in executive positions in justice and non-profit organizations lamented the lack of communication between organizations, the lack of funding, the startling numbers of Aboriginal and new immigrant youth being incarcerated in Canada, and the enormous costs. While I left that panel without any solutions, it did provide me with insight into the types of discussions that are happening at high levels.

What is being talked about by many people is the need for change in the Canadian justice system.  The prison library project explained in this article is not an answer to these big questions.  It is simply a response to the fact that there was no library service in a prison located in downtown Winnipeg. This article will explore our grassroots prison library project and touch on some of the complex issues surrounding working with people who are serving time.

Prison Libraries in Canada

I would like to provide some context around the prison system in Canada and who is being incarcerated in our society. Statistics from the Office of the Correctional Investigator state that a third of inmates have a need for mental health treatment and three out of four have substance abuse issues. According to the report by Sapers, Aboriginal people make up 22% of the federal prison population but make up only about 4% of the general population. Aboriginal women make up 33.6% of federally sentenced women (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2013). In addition, the number of Aboriginal people in Canadian federal prisons has gone up by more than 40% over the last 10 years, are over-represented in solitary confinement, and are kept behind bars for longer periods than non-Aboriginal inmates (2013). An inquiry into this unjust situation was conducted in 1999 (led by Justice Murray Sinclair) but 15 years later the number of Aboriginal people in prison has continued to increase, suggesting that the structural racism of the system has not changed.

In 2001, a national survey of libraries in federal prisons was undertaken by Ann Curry of University of British Columbia and colleagues Kris Wolf, Sandra Boutilier, and Helen Chan. The survey found that overall, prison libraries were meeting the needs of people in prison, however there was a great deal of variation among the sample and all of the libraries could use more resources and funding (2003). Since this survey, funding for libraries and for the staff to run them has been slashed. Despite the common perception that prisons have fully functioning libraries, many in Canada do not.

Many prisons do have a room with books in it or a small collection of books but do not have an information professional working there. This is often due to budget cuts or assigning the library work to a teacher who is already working in the institution. There is a directive by Correctional Services of Canada for the institution to provide library services which reflect the services provided in the community including computer resources (2007). In the news we hear of prison libraries closing and anecdotes from other librarians that demonstrate that this directive is not being adhered to.

When our committee first approached the Remand Centre in Winnipeg, there was no library in the building and just a few copies of books floating around brought in by prison staff members and from outside prisoner support organizations such as John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry Society.

Winnipeg Remand Centre Open Library Project

Every day on my way to work in a downtown public library I walk by the Winnipeg Remand Centre. Every day thousands of downtown workers pass by the Remand. It is a tall building with dark windows which reflect the sky. Many of us don’t think about the hundreds of people inside.

The Remand Centre is a maximum security prison built in 1992 to hold approximately 290 people. The Remand has been consistently over-capacity for year and the average number of people serving time there has risen from 329 in 2005 to 406 in 2012 (CBC, 2012). This increase in numbers is disturbing. Overcrowding is a real issue for those who are incarcerated. Effective library services within this institution would provide some distractions from the very difficult situation people are being forced to live in. A small but eager group of librarians and library technicians (public, academic and special) decided not to ignore those people in the Remand.

For two hours every Saturday evening we turn the room usually reserved for people to meet with their lawyers into an ‘open library.’ We open up two cupboards full of books organized by genre and bring in a large cupboard on wheels which is also stocked with books. We pull out a sign that says “Welcome to the WRC Library,” tape it up on the wall, and rearrange tables and chairs. We use the tables to create book displays depending on what books are in stock.

Once we are all set up, we let the guard know they can bring groups down. The Remand divides people into men’s and women’s units and then into units based on gang affiliation to keep tensions lower. The unit the guards refer to as ‘trustees’ are those who get the privileges of doing work such as helping prepare meals, do laundry, and clean. We never see those who are in solitary but sometimes are asked to send a book or two up to them. The different groups cycle down based on a schedule. Sometimes the guards will come back and tell us no one feels like coming or there are family visits happening at the same time. Sometimes we will get up to 4 groups of 10 people in a row-half an hour per group.

When the patrons come into our open library they browse the displays, sit around and chat with us or each other, and choose three or four books each. We don’t track anything being taken—people can simply take the books with them. Even if they end up leaving or moving to a different institution, we tell them they can take the book if they aren’t finished with it. Otherwise, they can send it back to the library. It is a very basic service and has the primary goal of connecting readers with books they will enjoy. Within the grind of prison life this has the possibility to be a powerful connection.


Our collection is made up of items that were weeded from the public library’s collection, brand new or used books bought with donations from individuals and a small grant from the Manitoba Library Association, and books donated by supportive community members. Led by a dedicated collection development volunteer who is an experienced public librarian, we come together to sort by genre and label the books with a series of coloured dots to represent popular fiction categories such as mystery, science fiction, and romance. We base our collection development on the requests of our patrons tempered with the restrictions placed on us by the Remand. We scour used book sales to find copies of In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, our most requested book. Biographies, mysteries, and thrillers are very popular with patrons, as are works relating to self-help and addiction. As librarians, we work to get these books into our patron’s hands and constantly bring in new books in good condition.

One of the barriers prison librarians face is censorship. Longtime prison librarian and author Brenda Vogel terms collection development in prison libraries as a “collision with the absurd” (p. 42). There are many items which are not allowed into prisons and these restrictions are often based on antiquated ideas of what books those serving time “should” be reading. We have never been shown a guide to which books aren’t allowed past the Remand doors, but staff go through the books as they arrive in their weekly delivery. We base the collection on what we have been told during our orientation: there are no magazines allowed at Remand and no hardcovers. As a rule, books that fall into the true crime genre are not allowed, despite the fact that these books are often told from the perspective of victims of crime and may actually be insightful. Generally, our collection development volunteers follow a user-driven collection model. We take suggestions from our patrons at every open library and build off of these to create a collection that is appealing to them within this structured environment.

Many of our patrons have a love for reading, some are looking to learn new skills, and some are just bored. Many of the members of the committee have a love for reading and have had that magical experience of the right book at the right time—that book that you can identify with and takes you away or allows you to more fully investigate your own life. This is what we seek to provide for inmates through our collection.

Creating Space

The purpose of this article is to describe the library service I and other volunteers have worked on. This project, however, cannot be taken out of the context of historical and contemporary colonial trauma collectively experienced by Aboriginal people in Canada and systemic racism and the myriad forms of resistance. The justice system, as was shown in the Aboriginal Justice Report and by many other prison activists, is working against Aboriginal and racialized people in Canada. This can be seen on a global level as well—justice is not blind.

In the past year, we have started to use our two hour time slots for author talks and writing workshops, the first of which involved Niigaanwewidam Sinclair – a local Anishinaabe (Ojibway) academic and activist. For this event, Sinclair chose to read an excerpt from the book “Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water,” a collection of writings from Indigenous people across Manitoba. Over the course of an evening, the book was discussed with two groups of patrons, many of whom knew some of the contributors within the book, creating a personal connection within the context of the session. Sinclair made known to those in attendance that these stories were their stories—a potentially life changing thing to hear while incarcerated. For our patrons at the Remand, this brought a new and exciting dynamic to the open library experience, and because of the success of this session, we are looking to continue to host writers and speakers as we develop this project.

Still, I am not tragic

Not even in my addicted moments

A needle hanging from the vein of my creased arm

I was not tragic

Even as I jump from a boat in a vain attempt to join my ancestors

I am not tragic

Even in my disconnection from song, from dance,

I am not tragic

Even in seeing you as privileged,

As an occupier of my homeland in my homeless state

Even as men abduct as I hitchhike along these new highways

To disappear along this lonely colonial road

I refuse to be tragic

I have included an excerpt of Indigenous writer Lee Maracle’s Poem Blind Justice. I strongly encourage you to click through for the full piece. Maracle’s words point to the difficult relationship we can encounter as a volunteer in the prison system.  On a basic level, our committee opens a couple of cupboards filled with books and we wait for people to take them out and talk about the books with them. Prison librarian Brenda Vogel writes about the possibility to make a difference: “You are guaranteed to make a difference in the life of anyone who lives in a prison or jail by opening the door to a room filled with books or by distributing free reading material to someone sitting in a cell or lying on a bunk in a housing dorm” (Vogel, 175).  Niigaanwewidam Sinclair referred to our committee as a group of “brave librarians” who provide this library service in the prison. I appreciate this, as I think he meant it in the sense that we brave the often complicated and bureaucratic system in order to provide books to people who are seeking a connection, whether it is to a story or a conversation, or both.

Being involved in the prison library project has provided many insights for volunteers and we have received many gifts from working with people serving time. For those of us who are white and able bodied, we experience being inside of the prison in particular ways. Many of us are identifiable as “helpers” coming in and we would never be mistaken for inmates. It is easy to get stuck on thinking only about our successes and see our project as something that is “better than nothing.” We are offering a very limited service using volunteers for something that prison librarians should be funded to do. This is the nature of the system we are working in. The underlying power dynamic is always present but sometimes we can fool ourselves into thinking we are all equal. But we aren’t, some of us in the room aren’t able to leave. However, as Maracle so beautifully says “Still, I am not tragic” and to see the people we are working with as tragic is to accept the dominant narratives around those in prison. It has also been an incredible gift to work with some of the people who are inside who are so resilient and are survivors of things many of us can’t even imagine.

Looking Ahead

Currently the Prison Library Committee is working on building a library service at the Women’s Correctional Institution in Headingley, Manitoba which is about a half hour drive from downtown Winnipeg. This facility will require a different model to get the books to the women. There is a library space, however, we are not allowed to have the women come up to the space to check books out due to some internal issues within the prison. Instead, we will have bi-weekly book talks, with volunteers bringing books to classrooms for women to choose from. We also plan to offer author talks in this institution. In addition to our volunteer projects in the prisons, a number of librarians from across Canada are part of a newly formed network under the Canadian Library Association. We will be communicating and sharing information about our challenges and successes through an email list-serve.

In a time of “tough on crime” legislation, increasingly harsh sentences for property crimes and drug offenses, and the stripping down of services to the incarcerated, librarians such as ourselves need to be speaking out about these realities. Our volunteer run open library is something, but it is not enough.

For more information on the Winnipeg-based Prison Library Committee: http://www.mla.mb.ca/content/prison-library-committee

Disclaimer: Not everyone on the Prison Library Committee may share the same views expressed in this article.

Many thanks to Sarah Clark whose work this article is based on. Thanks to Ellie Collier as my In the Library with the Lead Pipe editor for her dedication and expert editing to help me create this article and to Kathleen Houlihan for her thought provoking and insightful comments as an external editor. Thanks to the Prison Library Committee for enabling me to explore this project through writing and to Syrus Ware for inspiration.


CBC News (2012, Feb 7). Winnipeg Remand Centre well over capacity. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipeg-remand-centre-well-over-capacity-1.1224048

Correctional Service Canada (2007). Education programs and services for offenders. Retrieved from: http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/plcy/cdshtm/720-cde-eng.shtml

Curry, A., Wolf, K., Boutilier, S., & Chan, H. (2003). Canadian federal prison libraries: a national survey.  Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 35(3), 141-152.

Maracle, L. (2013). Blind Justice. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 2(1), 134-136.

Office of the Correctional Investigator (2013). Annual report of the office of the correctional investigator: 2012-2013. Retrieved from: http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/rpt/pdf/annrpt/annrpt20122013-eng.pdf

Vogel, B. (2009).The prison library primer: A program for the twenty-first century. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.

10 Responses

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  3. I am an author, and I would like to donate copies of one of my books to prison library across America and Canada. Can you help me accomplish this, and how do I go about it?

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