A number of advocates say they fear federal inmates are losing access to books and libraries, making it harder to improve their literacy skills and prepare them for reintegration into Canadian society after they're released.

Those advocates say a number of federal prisons are cutting library hours and library staff, limiting access to books.

"Access to books is really important, and what we're seeing is an erosion in access to books," Correctional Investigator Howard​ Sapers told CBC News.

Prisons across Canada are cutting back access due to budget cuts.

Last year, the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, Sask., didn't extend a contract with the region's library service, shutting down access for inmates. The library was open five days per week in the afternoons and evenings and inmates would borrow, on average, about 50 items per day. The program cost about $70,000 a year.

Several other institutions in Ontario and Quebec have seen library access restricted or cut entirely.

Advocates say reading material is vital for people living behind prison walls. There's little to do to pass the time.

Plus, many inmates need to improve their literacy skills for when they're released. Libraries are one of the only ways to get books because inmates can't keep much in their cells, and there are security risks with accepting books donated by family members.

Already low literacy skills

Reading is "a huge part of our development as human beings," said Joan McEwen, a lawyer who has taught a creative writing class at the Matsqui Institution near Vancouver.

"It's a big part of how we become civilized and cultured, and what better thing to do in prison in your... downtime than read? It's stimulating and you can have conversations with people, you learn about the world, you become more pro-social."

Kingston Penitentiary library

A view of a library for inmates at Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario last October. The penitentiary closed last year. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

Pro-social is a term used often by those working with inmates. It refers to positive behaviours, and it's something the Correctional Service of Canada aims to cultivate in inmates before they're released.

Sapers said reading helps prisoners in their rehabilitation.

"The average level of educational attainment is Grade 8 or lower, but you need Grade 8 or higher literacy skills to successfully participate in most correctional programs," he said.

Carol Finlay, a former English teacher and an Anglican minister, started her first book club in the Collins Bay Institution in 2009. By the end of this month, she'll have 17 book clubs operating at 14 prisons across Canada.

"When we go into the prisons, we see fellows who are starved for stimulation because you can't take university [courses] unless you've got family to support you. Community college courses are very limited," Finlay said in an interview with CBC News.

"After you finish Grade 12, and if you're in there for a long term, there's nothing really to do except read a whole lot of really bad murder mysteries.... [A book club gives] something for these fellows to think and talk about besides crime. That's basically what they'll talk about, or TV. It's an extremely boring environment."

Applied social skills

Finlay said the book club also brings together inmates who might otherwise be associated with rival gangs and not get to know each other without some kind of social activity to bring them together and talk. She said she wants to give the inmates an opportunity to talk about "the big issues of life" and apply the social skills they're learning through the courses mandated by CSC.

Grand Valley Institution for Women 20130117

The Grand Valley Institution for Women near Kitchener, Ont., is one of the prisons where Carol Finlay runs a book club. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

"They really, really love that. They love that and they learn to do it in a respectful way. They listen and they speak to one another in a respectful way. We teach them how how to do that, how to have a civil conversation," Finlay said.

A spokeswoman for the Correctional Service of Canada said library services are still available in all federal institutions.

Asked specifically whether inmate trips are limited, hours and librarian staff jobs cut back or inmate library positions cut back, she responded that "the management and availability of library services are determined at an institutional level based on the security of the institution and operational requirements."

"The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) recognizes the benefits of education and literacy which provides offenders with greater opportunities to participate in other programs offered by CSC and to become law-abiding citizens," CSC spokeswoman Sara Parkes wrote in an email.

"The mandate of CSC is to contribute to public safety by actively encouraging and assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens, while exercising reasonable, safe, secure and humane control. CSC assists offenders in managing all aspects of daily life including activities that promote pro-social values and behaviour as part of the rehabilitation process." 

While inmates are provided an hour of exercise every day, Parkes said there is no stated minimum for hours of access to libraries.

'My roommate is going to read to me' 

But the need is there, according to a woman who has volunteered in federal and provincial institutions.

Kirsten Wurmann has been making sure people behind bars get books since 2007, first at a federal institution in Edmonton with the Greater Edmonton Library Prison Library and Reintegration committee, and then in Winnipeg at its provincial remand centre, through the Manitoba Library Association Prison Libraries committee.

Wurmann said the inmates appreciate having access to books and recalled one man who took his time carefully examining every book she'd brought in.

"I was asking, 'Do you need some help finding something? Is there a particular author you might be interested in?' and he said, 'Oh, I don't read, but my roommate is going to read to me,' " Wurmann said.

Corrections

  • This story have been edited from an earlier version that incorrectly stated some prison library facilities had been closed and that safety concerns were one of the reasons for the change in library access. In fact, while library hours or access have been limited, the physical facilities still exist, and budget issues, not safety, is the main reason for the cuts.
    Sep 05, 2014 5:12 PM ET