Figures for the first six months of 2017 show over 3,100 prisoner visits to the library at Christchurch Men’s Prison in that time, and the same number of prisoners getting ‘mail orders’ to their unit. Between them, these library users have borrowed more than 16,600 items, including books, magazines and jigsaws.

Canterbury librarians Susan Smith and Judith Wenborn have more than 30 years library experience between them and say they are confident they are meeting prisoner needs.

“Across the region we have 70%-80% of prisoners using our libraries, and our borrowing statistics continue to increase."

In general prisoners reading tastes are similar to those of people outside prisons, changing as popular trends vary. Currently books with a supernatural theme are in demand, getting readers hooked.

Prisoners unable to attend in person can receive ‘mail orders’, with catalogues available in every unit, and staff are welcome to email, telephone or visit the library on behalf of prisoners.

“Prisoners have a hunger for literacy and really look forward to library visits and receiving their books, magazines or puzzles,” says Susan.

The library also has a small collection of CD talking books for offenders who have poor eyesight or find it hard to concentrate on reading.

“With no access to the internet or Kindles or computers, reading hard copy, for most, is the only way to go. This makes the library critical to our community in keeping the men constructively occupied,” says Susan.

“The librarians develop their collections to support learning happening in prison industries across the three Canterbury prisons, and to support education literacy and numeracy courses,” she says. “Reading supplements the learning taking place on prison sites, helping the prisoners towards qualifications in hospitality, building, art, cooking, literacy and numeracy.”

For many prisoners, visiting a library or reading weren’t things they did a lot of before they came to prison. Librarians are able to help prisoners identify books which will interest them and help them develop their reading skills.

“We get to know the prisoners quite well and can help them find books we think they will enjoy and which will encourage them to be readers," says Susan. "Our role as librarians is to ‘deliver, develop and engage.’

“There are prisoners who arrive with a limited reading ability and we see them growing in confidence and ability, tackling increasingly difficult books and concepts. It is one of the joys of the job to see an individual develop a love of reading.”

Canterbury prison libraries have more than 30,000 items between them. The collection is enhanced by a relationship with the Christchurch City Library which sends the prison libraries 40-50 items a month.

This service, and books donated by the community, extends the number and range of books available through the libraries.

“Reading is such an important activity. It is a relaxing and constructive activity, helping with the development of knowledge and vocabulary. There is also research which suggests that reading fiction is important for developing understanding and empathy.

“Most importantly, we develop readers and we help prisoners to see themselves as life-long learners. Once someone starts to really engage with ideas and information, we can take them on a journey of discovery.”

The librarians also produce a regular newsletter “New Book List”. It is sent out to prisoners and includes reviews written by the men.