Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Kazakh Prison Libraries: A REPORT

Almost Siberia, Books Find Home in Prison on Central Asian Steppe

This piece is long in coming. Just about a year ago, my good friend Soren Johnson traveled to Kazakhstan on a prison visitation trip with his organization, Prison Fellowship International, where he is Senior Vice President. He travels around the world investigating prison conditions and how prison ministry works (or not) under various systems of penal incarceration. He'd once told me how when entering into a Polish prison a year or so before he traveled to Kazakhstan, he'd found an enormous library, with countless volumes. But each volume had no title or name on its cover or spine; rather each had distinct numbers, like nameless prisoners from the Gulag! It was both stark and surreal. Such activity makes one wonder how closely we often associate books with people, in this case almost like prisoners with numbers!

When Soren told me of his upcoming travels to Kazakhstan, especially to a prison, I seized on the opportunity to see if there were any libraries involved or attached to the institution he was visiting. When he informed me there was, I was excited and told him to take some photos if possible and report back to me what exactly he'd seen. Books in prison have been widely seen as the prisoner's great companions, yet some (perhaps many) prisons in less hospitable climes and cultures are likely to be without such amenities or "luxuries." To have a library in prison is really even more remarkable. In this country, there are programs like the Prison Library Project, which was started in 1973, for example. The history of the actual "prison library" in the U.S. goes back to the early 19th century. In a masterful paper by Rhea Joyce Rubin, titled "U.S. Prison Library Services and Their Theoretical Bases" one can find a rich history of books and libraries in American prisons. As Rubin writes: "In 1790, the Philadelphia Prison Society began furnishing books to the inmates in the Walnut Street Jail and book service to prisoners began," (3). The first prison library, apparently, was constructed about a dozen years later: "1802 marks the first library in a state prison. The Kentucky State Reformatory established a small library, primarily of religious books, which was administered by the chaplain," (3).

Now, because of the punitive nature of many prisons and legal systems around the world, the idea of a library could be considered luxuriant. I'd had different conversations with individuals who'd spent time, for example, in Jamaica. And the reports about the state of prisons in that island nation, especially in the early 1990s, were devastating and atrocious. But in an exchange I had with an official working in prisons in and around Kingston, Jamaica last year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear reports to the very opposite. According to one gentlemen, who'd been into help with prison chaplaincy, some of Jamaica's most high- or maximum security prisons had the best prison libraries and computer centers he'd ever seen! And this may be something to consider when looking here at these photos of the Kazakh prison, in the city of Astana--the second largest city in Kazakhstan, with a population of about 700,000, and located in the northern province of Akmola.

In these photos, you will find a number of resources for the prisoners at the prison, including periodicals, newspapers, and a whole array of reading materials.
Going back to the first photo, you may notice the Cyrillic characters spell out the Kazakh word for "Library," which interestingly reads something like "Kitab'-," clearly from the Arabic root for the word for "book." The fluid and confluent nature of language travel and exchange over geographic locations is quite evident in a word like this. There are other signs in Russian or Kazakh scattered around the library, as you will see below. In the accompanying photo here, you will see informational, catalog, or borrower cards. At this point, I will turn over to some of the reporting that my friend Soren did, and provide some raw data on the institution and the library itself. Here are some notes from Soren:

"Kazakh prisons are numbered. (For further detailed information on this, see the following link: (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/law/research/icps/worldbrief/wpb_country.php?country=98). This visit was to prison 166/10 in Astana, built in 1971, and which currently holds 764 inmates. I toured this in the course of my work with Prison Fellowship International. It's located in a separate out-building within the general prison "yard"--a multi-acre space which includes gardens, a mosque, a chapel, etc. The sign above the door [see above] says 'library' in Kazakh. When I walked in I found a reading room, with periodicals available. Then you walk through it and enter a second room which is where all the books are located. 8,000 books total. 300 ordered last year. If a prisoner wants a book and the library doesn't have it, the prisoner can arrange to pay for it through his account (if he's saved up money--some 25% of prisoners have the equivalent of FT jobs on the prison grounds, paying about $100 a month).

Inmates are on rotation, basically staffing the library. I took a picture of a box of their library cards--which are pieces of paper just folded in half, with the inmate's name, and what books they've checked out. If you check out a book, you record the info on your card and leave it on the desk and they file it by last name. There's no numbering system on the spines...it's all pretty much alphabetical, by last name of author. I asked if they had Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and they said they did, but couldn't locate it (that would have been a great photo!). I asked what was most popular: the inmate/librarian said crime-fiction ("detecktivy"), novels, romance, books on law, English language how-to, collections of correspondences, poetry. They seemed to have a pretty big Russian Literature section. Books were primarily in Russian with some Kazakh as well. As prisoners have free time during the day between and after studies and work, they can and do come to the library. The inmate/librarians said that there are about 150-200 regular users (which is up to about 25% of the inmate population), with 10-20 visitors per day.

Other than the above factoids, I was generally impressed by the order of the library, the librarian's interest, the fresh looking periodicals and newspapers. One prison officer told me that a few years back, all the guards got together and each brought five books that they weren't using at home, and they were able to boost the number of books at the library. Besides the main library there are also 'mini-libraries' around the prison comprised of just one or two shelves. Examples of these could be seen in the Protestant chapel, the Catholic chapel, the Orthodox chapel, and the mosque.

By the way it was 40 BELOW zero Celcius during my visit to the prison! ...[it is fascinating] how prisons are microcosms of society. Each prison I saw had miniature approximations of what we find on the outside. If Dostoevsky or Mandela each basically said that a prison reveals the 'soul' of a country, we could narrow this down in some way and make some educated generalizations about the nation's culture in light of its prison libraries, no?"

I don't think I could have said it better! I really want to thank Soren for his contribution here today. There's a lot that I think we can continue to learn and take away from such little nuggets of information (often hidden information). The other interesting item here is that there is a fairly sizable amount of fluid information here: the idea of what freedom is or may be can be examined by even the freedom of information provided to prisoners. Freedom of space is one thing, while freedom of knowledge and information is another.

Soren had a good trip and was able to connect with an old Kazakh friend of mine, whom I went to college with, and who now lives back in his home country. Now Soren is back home in the U.S., doing the great job he always does. There may be some future collaborations between us, and we're looking forward to exploring the nature and extent of the international prison library phenomenon further. We hope this has been insightful and useful. Please let us know if you have any questions, and we'll try to answer them as we can. For now, back to reading...and back to those companions we call books!


  1. Hello Anthony - fascinating look at a Kazakh prison library. Thanks for posting.

  2. Nathaniel from Burke library here. This is such an important topic, libraries in prisons. They can help change lives (Malcolm X is a famous example). Yet they can be woefully inadequate if altogether non-existent in the U.S. Here are three groups I know of that help send books to prisoners:

  3. AND:
    Your post about your American Hymnody exhibit at Burke is up on our blog: