World Book Day 2020: Libraries opening up a world beyond prison bars

23 April 2020

On World Book Day 2020, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) launches the German translation of the publication Books beyond Bars. It argues that the human right to education is particularly important in prisons, as prisoners often come from disadvantaged socio-economic and educational backgrounds. The publication explores the extent to which prison authorities fulfil their societal mandate to rehabilitate and reintegrate inmates by enabling them to use prison libraries and access information to pursue their right to education.

On the occasion of the German launch, the Senator of Justice and Constitution of Bremen, Dr Claudia Schilling, who currently chairs the Assembly of Federal Ministers and Senators of Justice in Germany, said: ‘In the past, prisoners were severely restricted in their choice of literature. The goal then was to contribute to their “moral improvement” through “uplifting” books. Everything “enlightening and critical” was banned, including democratic writings. Today, Bremen prison library, for example, primarily bases  its collection development on the requests of the prisoners. For some, the media and literature offer is simply used for recreation and passing time, others use the library for individual, formal or vocational education.’

Like all public libraries in Bremen, the prison library is operated by Bremen City Library. This, as Dr Schilling argues, is the basis of its success. Bremen prison library is the focus of one of the case studies in Books beyond Bars.

Reading and using a prison library can open up a world beyond prison bars, allowing prisoners to forget for a time the harsh reality of prison life and empowering them to choose their own reading materials in an otherwise extremely restrictive and regulated environment. Providing access to relevant books and information in various languages, including easy reading materials, is crucial for prisoners’ personal development.

This is also underlined by Hermann Wenning, a former inmate in a German prison: ‘Books have helped me get through my 30 months’ prison time. They can have a very positive impact and encourage inmates to explore paths they have not walked before. Reading in prison inspired me to write so far three books following my prison time.’


Books beyond Bars takes a closer look at selected examples of prison library systems around the world, outlining best practice and possible challenges, thus demonstrating their transformative potential as informational, educational, cultural and recreational meeting and learning spaces.

The book was published in English in August 2019. A French translation will be available in May 2020 and a Spanish translation will follow. A policy brief on the same topic will be published in English, French and Spanish soon.

Download the publication Bücher hinter Gittern

Case studies

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