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A prison librarian is responsible for providing all the services of a civilian library within specific security restrictions and regulations. Managing the different aspects of a prison library is the main responsibility of this librarian. The librarians primary functions are dictated by the surrounding security environment. Maintaining the proper level of security is one of the most important aspects of a prison librarian's job.
Prison librarians do their best to provide as much information to inmate populations as they are allowed by the prison or prison system within which they function. Due to limited civilian staff, space, and funding, no prison librarian is able to provide all the services that are available in a typical library. As a consequence, prison librarians must limit the available services to those which will serve the largest number of patrons or have the most impact on an inmate population. The majority of prison librarians limit the services of the prison library to providing popular materials like magazines and access to legal information.
While civilian libraries may have many amenities like popular reading material centers, personal retreat areas, adequate staffing and even learning centers, prison libraries are limited to providing services that fit within security protocols and that have the greatest impact on the largest number of inmates. Prison librarians must continually sort through materials to make them suitable before making them available to offenders and may spend a lot of time searching for or intercepting "kites" – illicit handwritten notes left inside of books for other inmates to find. A prison librarian must understand the security regulations of the particular prison. For example, in a minimum security environment, personal retreat centers where library visitors can have some privacy and read quietly may be allowed while, in higher security environments, such privileges are never allowed.
A prison librarian is also committed to the library profession's code of ethics which espouses the concept of free access to information. The prison library does not function separately but as a library within the overall prison environment, and this relationship between prison and librarian may challenge this concept of free access. The prison librarian provides access to various levels of material based on the demographics of the inmate population, availability of inmate employees, and the types of inmates incarcerated. A prison librarian needs a staff to manage a large library but must also be assured of his or her own security while working alongside inmate employees or trusties.
Even though free access to information is paramount for a prison librarian, safety and security are the most important consideration. Hardcover books, CD's, and publications with staples are prohibited in prison libraries because they can be sharpened, used as body armor, or fashioned into a weapon. Perfume and fragrance samples in some magazines are highly prized by male and female inmates and must be removed so that they are not used as currency to obtain illegal items. These "smellgoods" may be used as currency for any sort of unauthorized activities engaged in by the prison population, so they must be removed.