Regarding the American workplace, many people seem to exercise two separate levels of trust — one for friends & family (folks they care about) and one for their coworkers (folks they don’t care so much about). This dichotomy seems to exist for the purpose of keeping private lives separate from professional lives. Time and human nature have taught that blending the two causes many emotional quagmires that we can all do without — and these quagmires are easily enough avoided if we all just behave ‘professionally.’

Fair enough. Now — What happens when you care about your coworkers? Specifically — what  happens when your ‘coworkers’ are convicted felons, people you have a sworn duty to try and help?

We’ve all noticed that crime is an emotional topic. Prison is an emotional topic. Punishment is an emotional topic.

Getting out of jail is an emotional topic for inmate law library users. Trying to stop drinking and drugging is an emotional topic for lending library users reading self-help texts. The very fact of incarceration is emotional for the Keepers as well as for the Kept.

Where we come into the correctional picture — “we” meaning the librarians and educators  — then socialization itself becomes an emotional topic. Why should that be? Because we’re hired and paid and trained and vested to care. Our job then is, by this definition, an emotional one.

Some prison librarians say, “Trust the inmates to perform their job responsibilities….” Let’s look at that. How does one trust the inmate clerks? How far does one trust inmate clerks? Are inmate clerks worth trusting? Remember, these are people who, on the whole, you’re going to end up spending more time with on a given day then your fellow correctional coworkers. And these are the same people you’ve sworn to correct and socialize. A very bizarre emotional mix for the workplace, not a mix you commonly see. And yet you own it, here in your correctional library. Some of these people also participate in your socialization programs, and these classes as we’ve discussed are fraught with emotional resistance and revelation. Some of the inmates you hire have certain emotional problems that they’re taking positive steps to try to resolve (maybe they’re in group therapy, or trying out a new drug regimen). What happens when they have a bad day? Or a bad moment?

The same librarians then say, “Trust the COs to care for and correct the inmates….” We hope and pray that this can be done daily, consistently, and fairly. We’ve already discussed the important responsibilities of the CO who takes ‘care’ as seriously as he does ‘custody.’ But something always gets in the way of this duty, something called human nature. Officers have bad days. Inmates manipulate. And there are sadistic people, on both sides of the fence. Some officers are just incompetent. And sometimes these incompetents are assigned to your area. There’re few things worse than having to work with a bad officer. It’s embarrassing, humiliating, frustrating…all negative emotions. When inmates feel they’ve been wronged by such a person, they’ll search you out & ask you to lend a sympathetic ear. If you’re willing, there’s more emotion in your day.

The librarians also say, “Trust administration to put security above all other needs,” which is probably the least emotional of the three. Although I can tell you that ‘Security comes first’ doesn’t always happen; it doesn’t always happen consistently; and it doesn’t always happen to the same degree between one Administration and the next, between one shift and the next, between one officer and his replacement. Sometimes this inconsistency can cause its own level of frustration.

The job of providing library services to convicted felons is an emotional one. You take rational and reasonable steps to sustain your professional distance, and still emotion elbows its way in. And I say that it’s not necessarily bad. You need to care about your work. And, in the case of correctional librarianship, your ‘work’ is people — prisoners and their social reclamation.

If each day you went inside as cold as ice, or as an automaton, that would be cause for concern. That path leads to indifference; perhaps not necessarily, but you’re on the right road.

When I tell you it’s a balancing act, I tell you truly. You have to be artful, and vigilant. The sorry consequence of letting your guard down is a level of inappropriate familiarity and bonding that may become injurious to your career and may even compromise your safety.