Then there’s the apocryphal statement, invented in the 1960’s by war correspondent Peter Arnett, of a fictional US soldier explaining to his commander about the flattening of Vietnam’s Ben Tre : “Sir, it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”  Arnett must have read Joe Heller’s Catch-22 one too many times. Although this statement was a product of Arnett’s shell-shocked imagination, absurdist language like this allowed folks like comedian George Carlin to carve out a top-grossing social satirist career for over five decades.

Approximately 35 years after the fall of Saigon, something akin to Arnett’s dubious attribution happened in my library. Prison security discovered that certain of my lending library clerks had been writing personal letters and completing homework assignments using word processors on their work computers. They’re not authorized to do this, and an investigation ensued.

While the investigation was in progress, a decision had to be made: how do we suspend these workers and get new clerks for the librarian to train? It was decided that the clerks would be fired pending investigation, and new temporary clerks would then be hired. The caveat would be that, if any of the original clerks were vindicated, they’d be returned to their former positions and the temps would have to hit the bricks.

Putting a new spin on his old fabrication, Arnett could write of this situation: “Sir, we had to fire everyone to keep them on the payroll.”

Administratively, it was the sensible solution, because:

* The original clerks were suspended pending investigation

* The library can’t provide services without clerks

* Temporary clerks won’t work without pay

When you run a one-person library, you’re only as good as the people you have. Between the lending library, law library, and segregation library, I have 24 clerk positions to fill:

Legal research – 5  *  Janitors – 2

Regulations/legal forms – 1   *  Accounts/Receiving – 1

Book binder – 1   *  Typewriter loaner program – 1

Interlibrary loan – 1   *  Cataloger/ classifier – 1

Circulation – 3   *  Spanish-language – 2

Legal copiers – 3   *  Segregation janitor/shelving – 1

Classroom assistants – 3

What are the real-world job pool logistics of a medium-security adult male prison? Most inmates have never:

*  Owned a library card

*   Walked inside a library

*   Checked out a book

*   Developed a ‘read-for-pleasure’ habit

*  Finished high school

*   Used computers

*   Served the public

So what kind of library staff can you realistically expect to end up with? I will now pass on a prison employee secret of how to find good correctional library clerks who care about doing a competent job — Hire lifers. Lifers make the best library clerks, because lifers make the best prison clerks, period. Their maturity level is higher, in general they’re more intelligent, sensible, and creative, and they’ve had more time to make peace with the prison routine. They’re invested in their work, and self-motivated. Personally, I’d put these men up against any library staff anywhere in the world.

Another aspect of inmate library clerk hiring that cannot be ignored is staff chemistry. Everyone has to get along with each other. It doesn’t have to be overt displays of brotherly love, but cooperation, reliability, and a good healthy dose of self-effacement goes a long way.

Here’re some things to find out about a potential hire:

1    Does the inmate get along with the librarian?

2   How long has the librarian known the inmate?

3   How well does the inmate know the other library clerks?

4   Will there be any racial tension?

5   What kind of prison work history does the inmate have?

6   What is the inmate’s disciplinary history like?

7   Will the inmate’s criminal history be a problem?

8   Does the inmate have a sense of humor?

9   Is the inmate a thief?

When it comes to correctional libraries, staff chemistry might be more important in jail then in the free world. Prisoners have a social pecking order based on a person’s conviction. Depending on what the guy’s doing time for, he can be ostracized or even hurt. Race can be a polarizing issue. Whether the inmate is seen as a standup con or an informer is important. If you know that the inmate hates corrections staff or talks bad about the department, you probably don’t want him around. And if the guy doesn’t play well with others, let him be somebody else’s headache.

So the only way to temporarily replace lifers was to — hire more lifers. Which is what I did. A bunch of inexperienced men who never worked in a prison library before. And then I truly had a problem, because two of them eventually worked out so well, I dreaded the thought of losing them!

Ah, well. Feast or felons. I mean famine.

2 thoughts on “A CATCH-22 IN THE HOOSEGOW

  1. You talk about hiring lifers … would you consider them good employee material after they’d served a couple of years (or longer)? What are people in a medium security prison serving life sentences for?

    I’m probably being naive, but I thought that you had to murder someone to get a life sentence (or the death penalty) …

    • Lifers ‘stabilize’ after the 1st five years or so. By then, the reality of their imprisonment sinks in, and they become law library regulars in a search for a word/ phrase/ legal doctrine that will tip their case and regain for them their freedom. Because of this, the men I hire are almost always 35 or older.

      The incarcerated in medium-security prison serve time for the gamut of statutory crimes. You name it, we’ve got it. Don’t forget — these are men whose institutional adjustment has earned them the opportunity to come to lower security. If you’re classified to higher security, you have to toe the line to move down in custody status. It’s considered a privilege, for example, to do time at Norfolk. They are many more programming opportunities (including taking Boston University courses), there are many more inmate groups and committees, visiting privileges are better, and on and on.

      As far as sentencing structure, it’s all in how the statute is written. In other words, it depends on the jurisdiction. It also depends on the age of the offender. I’ve seen three-time losers who’ve used a weapon each time in the commission of their crimes get 20 or more years, and they’re already in their 40’s. That’s tantamount to a life sentence, n’est-ce pas (pardon my French)?

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