Contributing Editor

Listen In: Discussions from the field

In this post, our Listen In Contributing Editor Charlotte Brun discusses recent literature on the information needs of maximum security prisoners in Scotland.

The role of the “Listen in: Discussions from/in the field” column is to highlight interesting, exceptional, or provocative research published in LIS literature. This year we hope to emphasize a variety of research methods and the experiences of those often ignored in LIS literature.

Accessing information in high security prisons in Scotland – needs, access, & barriers


Information access for prisoners has been in the news recently, with Seattle first banning prisoners’ access to books in the mail, then quickly reversing their decision after the outcry this decision generated. In fact, conversations surrounding information coming in and out of prison is not new – the ALA’s Prisoners’ Right to Read was first published in 2010, and recently updated in January 2019. In their article “The information behaviours of maximum security prisoners”, Cheryl Canning and Steven Buchanan (2018) explain that education and thus access to information is central to rehabilitation of prisoners into society.  Unfortunately, use of prisoner learning centers is limited in Scotland, and the literature showed a gap in understanding the needs and habits of prisoners surrounding information access. A better comprehension of prisoners’ needs and the barriers they face is the first step to providing successful programs, and this article aims to provide a piece missing from the conversation.


Though the literature on prisoners’ information needs and habits is seldom user-focused, Canning and Buchanan (2018) found that previous studies showed that information access in prison is shaped by social context. Prisoners’ willingness to seek information, and how they decide to do it, is determined by their trust or lack thereof in the personnel and the infrastructures of the prison. Prisoners’ needs were varied: prison operation, family, sex, health, vocational information, legal support, religious, educational, human rights, release information, and more. Sources of information included other prisoners, prison staff, family, television and books. Obstacles were also mentioned in the literature: time restrictions, censorship, lack of staff and/or untrained staff, as well as complex access and internalized barriers.

The literature showed clear signs of unmet informational needs, yet Canning and Buchanan (2018) lamented the lack of empirical data, which their study aims to rectify. To this end, they created three research questions (Canning & Buchanan, 2018, p.3):

“ What are the information needs of prisoners? 

What information sources do prisoners use and why?

What issues influence prisoners’ information behaviour? ”


For their methodology, Canning and Buchanan (2018) used the theoretical framework of Chatman’s (1996) impoverished information state. An impoverished information world is one in which people are wary of outside help since information may be withheld by outsiders,  are influenced by local norms to be mistrustful of information, and may not decide to seek information as a means of self protection. The four concepts at the core of Chatman’s theories are: deception, risk-taking, secrecy, and situational relevance.

Canning and Buchanan (2018) used this theory as a basis for understanding their findings. To collect data, they conducted semi-structured interviews around everyday information needs. Both prisoners and staff were interviewed. They used natural language to ensure that prisoners were able to discuss what they found important to their information needs, while recognizing that factors of emotional and mental health needs could be the main trigger for the information need.

They interviewed 12 male prisoners from a maximum security prison, aged from 18 to 54, with 10 identifying as White, one as Black, and one as Asian. The prisoners were serving various sentences, and two had served previous sentences. All were attending the prison learning center. They also interviewed 6 staff members from the learning center as well as prison officers.

To analyze the data they collected, Canning and Buchanan used Braun and Clarke’s (2006) thematic analysis, a method to code qualitative data by generating codes and later translating them into themes. Canning and Buchanan (2018) first reviewed their transcripts, then generated codes based on Chatman’s core concepts (1996) and applied the codes to their transcripts to create meaningful categories. They then merged codes into themes, and finally reviewed and refined themes. Themes were checked independently by each team member to ensure coherent code structures.


Canning and Buchanan found that prisoners had information needs related to education, health, prison routines, legal, finance, housing, and employment. Many of those information needs are related to each other: legal, housing, & employment are all related to their release and access or barriers to this information can drastically impact their experience in and as they leave the prison. Many needs were unfortunately left unmet, particularly related to health and especially mental health. Canning and Buchanan offer that unmet needs may be due to incorrect assumptions of prison staff regarding prisoners’ information needs – prisoners expressed a desire to plan ahead for release far earlier than prison staff anticipated.

“Prison staff were seen as helpful according to their role and relationships they had built with prisoners: teachers, librarians, and chaplains were considered helpful, while prison officers, health care providers, and social workers were regarded with more skepticism.”

Sources of information were mainly interpersonal: prison staff, other prisoners, and family members. Prison staff were seen as helpful according to their role and relationships they had built with prisoners: teachers, librarians, and chaplains were considered helpful, while prison officers, health care providers, and social workers were regarded with more skepticism. This might be due to the inconsistency of healthcare providers and social workers. Prison staff were used as information sources based on approachability, an issue that was recognized by staff. Another problem with staff as information source was the stigma surrounding interaction with staff – prisoners expressed fear of being considered an informant if they spoke to staff too often. Fellow prisoners and family members were regarded as strong sources of information, and fellow prisoners were especially cited as understanding and relatable sources for information. Television and radio were used to obtain information about the outside world. Prisoners expressed mixed feelings about the learning center, citing outdated sources, though their book request service was efficient.

Participants discussed a variety of issues surrounding their access to information. Self-esteem played a role in deciding whether to ask a question, not wanting to sound ignorant. The fear of judgment of prison staff sometimes prevented participants from asking questions. Many also cited the fear of being seen as an informant by fellow prisoners, as well as not trusting whether they could actually confide in prison officers. Participants also cited misinformation as a problem, especially among fellow prisoners. Overall, Canning and Buchanan’s findings confirmed previous literature that risk was involved in pursuing interpersonal sources of information, which may contribute to a climate of information poverty.

Lack of internet access was a big problem for some, to keep up with technologies and interact with their family members who use it on a regular basis, as well as for those pursuing university degrees. Some participants were cognizant of the risks associated with internet access in prison, but were in favor of heavy filters to still allow for internet use. The lack of digital skills of prisoners however is a problem for rehabilitation into society, as most job prospects post release require a familiarity that many cannot cultivate in the prison. Finally, lack of privacy was a concern for prisoners who reported self-censoring on the phone when talking to their family for fear of being overheard or misinterpreted.

Take away

“Unfortunately, structural and cultural factors make it difficult for them to access that information, and contributes to a lack of positive reinsertion in society.”

Prisoners in maximum security prisons in Scotland have a large variety of information needs. Many of those needs are fundamental to provide them with tools to be successful upon release – legal information, financial, vocational, medical. Unfortunately, structural and cultural factors make it difficult for them to access that information, and contributes to a lack of positive reinsertion in society. Providing prisoners with adequate information access is fundamental to improve their quality of life after prison. Studying the actual information needs of prisoners instead of their perceived needs is a first step in providing them with the accurate and complete information they need.

Access to certain kinds of information is as much about the product as it is about the medium. For example,  it is essential that prisoners learn how to use new technologies for their future outside of prison, as well as for their continued relationships with family outside. Not encouraging it puts the burden of teaching them on community resources once they are released (e.g. public libraries), which they may not seek, or may not have access to.

Keep the conversation going

More than their information needs being unmet, the authors saw a clear need for participants’ emotional and mental health needs to be addressed. What research or services can address these needs?

If you have worked in prison settings as an information professional, what challenges have you encountered, and what solutions were considered?

Featured article

Canning, Cheryl, and Steven Buchanan. “The Information Behaviours of Maximum Security Prisoners.” Journal of Documentation 75, no. 2 (2019): 417-34. doi:10.1108/jd-06-2018-0085.

About the author

Charlotte Brun is a Public Services Assistant at the King County Library System in Washington State. She is passionate about information access, critical information literacy in academic and public settings, feminism in the library, and social justice. Currently transitioning into the public sector from academia, Charlotte is interested in exploring the dynamics that surround research in these different environments. She loves cozy knitted sweaters, singing loudly in the car, and petting all animals. Find her on twitter: @cha_cjb

Featured image by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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