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The Federal Prison Library

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jul 31, 2023

All Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities have leisure and law libraries, but the scope and quality typically vary. Both are generally within the Education Department at each facility and accessible to all incarcerated general population inmates. There is no cost to use the libraries except for printing.

Library Services for inmates provides free access to Bibles, a variety of books (both fiction and nonfiction), magazines, and newspapers. They can be read inside the library or checked out and returned later.

The Federal Prison Library
The federal prison library offers inmates free access to Bibles, books, magazines, newspapers, etc.

While the material inside each federal prison library will vary, most Education Departments have a subscription to the New York Times, USA Today, and local newspapers. Ordinary magazine subscriptions include Time, People, National Geographic, and Sports Weekly Magazines. Many federal prisons offer a DVD or VHS viewing program.

Further, 28 CFR § 540.70 Purpose and Scope says, “Except when precluded by statute (see 540.72), the Bureau of Prisons permits an inmate to subscribe to or to receive publications without prior approval and has established procedures to determine if an incoming publication is detrimental to the security, discipline, or good order of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity. The term publication, as used in this subpart, means a book, booklet, pamphlet, or similar document, or a single issue of a magazine, periodical, newsletter, newspaper, plus such other materials addressed to a specific inmate such as advertising brochures, flyers, and catalogs.”

28 CFR § 540.72 is the statutory restriction requiring the return of commercially published information or material which is sexually explicit or features nudity.

Federal prison facility libraries typically have more resources than state prison facilities and will offer inmates legal research, such as reviewing federal laws and regulations.

When one thinks of prison, images of bars, guards, and isolation often come to mind. However, an often-overlooked aspect of the prison environment offers a glimmer of hope and a path to rehabilitation: the prison library. This library is a crucial resource for those incarcerated, providing opportunities for personal growth, education, and reintegration into society. Let's review further below.

What Are the Advantages of the Federal Prison Library?

Access to a library offers a variety of benefits to inmates, including the following below.


The library offers the chance to engage in self-directed learning. Inmates can choose what they want to read or learn about, fostering a sense of autonomy and personal growth. This freedom of choice can be therapeutic, offering a sense of control in an environment where others dictate many aspects of life.

Leisure libraries in the federal prison system are often locations of inmate congregations because they have tables and chairs for inmates from different housing units to socialize.

Education and Career Training

A well-stocked prison library typically provides educational and vocational training materials. These resources can help inmates learn new skills or trades, providing a pathway to employment upon release. In this way, the library can reduce re-offending risk by enhancing inmates' employability.


Additionally, the library serves as a tool for rehabilitation. Reading can foster empathy, understanding, and perspective-taking, crucial for personal growth and development.

For some, a book may provide the first step towards acknowledging past mistakes and fostering a desire to make amends. For others, it might offer a new way of thinking about their actions and future. Research has shown that education is a powerful tool in reducing recidivism – the likelihood of a person returning to criminal behavior after being released.

Legal Help

Legal resources are another vital aspect of the prison library. Legal literacy is crucial for those navigating the complex realities of the criminal justice system.

By offering access to legal texts, case law, and other relevant materials, the prison library allows inmates to understand better their rights, their cases, and the broader legal context in which they operate.

What Is Available in Federal Prison Libraries?

Imagine a space within the confines of the prison walls where individuals can explore new ideas, learn new skills, and have a momentary escape from their current reality.

This is what a prison library provides. It's where inmates can access books, periodicals, educational materials, and legal resources.

The prison library is contained within the Educational Department of the prison facility. Every federal prison now offers two sections within their library facilities for inmates: the leisure library and the law library.

Leisure Library

While specific materials vary between facilities, the types of materials typically available in the prison library include:

  • Books (including literary fiction, nonfiction, self-help, educational, etc.).
  • Magazines and newspapers (e.g., The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek).
  • Movies and educational programs. Inmates can reserve time slots to watch educational programming and even popular movies.

In addition, many federal prison libraries offer an interlibrary loan program where inmates can request a specific title from another library and have it brought to them.

Law Library

The Federal Bureau of Prisons makes legal publications available to inmates through the prison law library. While reference materials have historically been difficult to procure in prison libraries due to their cost and scarcity, the digital age has now made many resources available to inmates without needing vast shelves of thick books.

While the law library may have a selection of printed titles, perhaps the most valuable resource here is the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Communication System (TRULINCS), an electronic law library providing a wealth of access to legal resources through a computer terminal.

Law libraries are available to federal inmates both for self-education purposes (some inmates have gone on to earn law degrees) and for research to help with their cases.

Why is the Prison Library a Valuable Resource?

Within the federal prison environment, where the living situation is less than ideal, the prison library is perhaps the inmate's most valuable resource. It provides much more than just books – it offers hope, growth, and a path toward a better future.

Why is the Prison Library a Valuable Resource?
Prison libraries offers inmates a valuable resource to give them growth and a better future.

While the path to rehabilitation and reintegration is complex and multifaceted, the prison library can be critical to this journey.  While it's not a structured educational program for inmates, library resources often provide excellent recreation and personal development sources.

Suppose an inmate is interested in books not offered in their prison's library.  In that case, they might be able to get it through an interlibrary loan program, but this is not offered in all prisons. 

Suppose you are preparing for your federal prison sentence and need to resolve some issues or determine whether you might qualify for an early release. In that case, we may be able to help you. Contact us for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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