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The information behaviours of maximum security prisoners: Insights into self-protective behaviours and unmet needs

Cheryl Canning (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)
Steven Buchanan (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 29 November 2018

Issue publication date: 19 February 2019




The purpose of this paper is to advance the understanding of the information behaviours of prisoners, providing insight into their information needs and information-seeking preferences, and the factors influencing their behaviours; to inform education and rehabilitation programmes.


The paper is an in-depth qualitative study. The theoretical framework was provided via Chatman’s (1996) concepts of information poverty. Participants were adult male prisoners in a Scottish maximum security prison, and prison staff. Data collection method was semi-structured interviews.


Prisoners have a broad range of information needs, many sensitive and many unmet. Interpersonal information sources are predominantly used due to a combination of natural preference and restricted access to other information sources. Issues of stigma and trust influence information behaviours. Further issues include restrictive social norms, and disinformation to incite violence. A significant degree of risk is therefore inherent within interpersonal information interactions, fostering self-protective acts of secrecy and deception amongst prisoners. Unmet emotional needs appear particularly problematic.

Research limitations/implications

The paper highlights the need for further research exploring issues of unmet emotional needs in prisoners; in particular, assistive methods of need recognition and support in the problematic context.

Practical implications

The paper identifies significant unmet information needs in prisoners that impact upon their ability to cope with incarceration, and prepare for successful release and reintegration.


The paper addresses an understudied group of significant societal concern and advances the understanding of information need in context, providing insight into unmet needs and issues of affect in the incarcerated small world context.



Canning, C. and Buchanan, S. (2019), "The information behaviours of maximum security prisoners: Insights into self-protective behaviours and unmet needs", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 75 No. 2, pp. 417-434.



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