Information Needs in Prisons and Jails: A Discourse Analytic Approach

Debbie Rabina 1 , Emily Drabinski 2  and Laurin Paradise 1
  • 1 School of Information, Pratt Institute, 144 West 14th St, 6th fl., New York, NY 10011, USA
  • 2 Long Island University, Brooklyn, NY, USA
Debbie Rabina, Emily Drabinski and Laurin Paradise


According to the most recent statistics by the US Department of Justice (“Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014,” accessed September 25, 2016 at, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. Without access to fully stocked and staffed libraries or a connection to the Internet, a broad swath of this population faces significant barriers to accessing a broad range of information sources. This study analyzes the problem of information access for incarcerated people. The dataset was drawn from five semesters of classroom engagement with the New York Public Library (NYPL) letter service, with 290 reference letters having been answered between September 2013 and May 2015. The method of discourse analysis was used to analyze the information needs of people in prisons and jails in the context of information worlds. Geographic distribution and user satisfaction are also analyzed. The research discussion produced the following insights into “life in the round” (Elfreda A. Chatman, “A Theory of Life in the Round,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50 (3):207–17) of people in prisons and jails that emerged from the analysis of the data: the continuing relevance of reference sources; the fact that prison produces anxiety about employment/re-entry; and the development of a mode of discourse through the letter service. The study concludes that information needs of the users often are created by the prison itself. The analysis tells us more about how information works in prisons and jails. Understanding the information needs of incarcerated people offers insight for librarians and libraries seeking to better serve incarcerated populations. Future research should address the information that incarcerated users have, not what those of us on the outside imagine they do not.

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Libri investigates the functions of libraries and information services from both a historical and present-day perspective and analyses the role of information in cultural, organizational, national and international developments.