We say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The step into corrections for Yours Truly began with an undergraduate class on magazine publishing called — oddly enough — “Publishing the Magazine.” The professor (my creative writing mentor) wanted some poetry in this magazine we were learning to publish. He told us of a prisoner he knew at Pittsburgh’s (now-defunct) Western Penitentiary whom he considered to be a decent poet, and then said “Who wants the assignment to solicit some poetry from him?” I raised my hand.
It took me three letters to gain the guy’s confidence, but he finally submitted a bunch of (mediocre) poems. I asked him all kinds of questions about being incarcerated, which he thought were fairly incisive, and condescended to answer.
A few years later when I found myself in library school and realizing I would soon be another in a long sorry line of out-of-work graduate students, I added two-and-two together and got a prison library management internship out at Western Pen, under the tutelage of a talented Pitt alumnus named Stephen Mallinger. I got to meet the inmate poet (we ended up hating each other), Stephen & I became friends —
— and 23 years later, I teach an online course in correctional library management….The teaching gig, like another academic achievement in my life, was courtesy of that most rare of human beings, a compassionate, caring person who, in my case, took on the fetching form of a certain Blanche Woolls, PhD, a supremely talented and able young lady who enjoys nothing more than hooking up a free spirit whenever possible. She says it makes the world a better place. I’m in no position to argue.
I started at Walpole State Prison about a month after being graduated. I had to move my life 630 miles up the road in order to do this.
People often ask, “Was it scary, your first day in?” My first day at Walpole was nowhere near as scary as my first day at Western Pen. In preparation for that day, I had managed quite inadvertently not to sleep a wink. The early-morning Spring sun rose unusually rudely & hot, and as the dirty-grey bus wended its way through the busy Pittsburgh streets I’m thinking “I could be in a nice cozy bed, dreaming of Venus; instead, I’m walking into a stinking dangerous 130 year-old jail. No wonder I have no friends.”
But a funny thing happened on my walk down the east wall to the gatehouse: I noticed a fleet of cable TV trucks. The prison was being wired for cable! “F**k a duck!” I blurted aloud, “They let cable TV in a prison? Maybe those Jimmy Cagney movies were all bulls**t! How bad can it be?” I felt a little bit of the weight lift off my shoulders.
During my six months out there, I received threats in the yard, an inmate cut a counselor’s face with a knife forcing him to retire, and they managed to burn down the Auditorium where they held music concerts, watched movies, and what-not. And I was glad that these things happened while I was there; it showed me what convicts are capable of.
But I saw the librarian having fun with his inmates. I saw the respect they gave him. And I got to know a bunch of the clerks and realized that you could have a fun time with them. They made jokes about their homosexuality, they made jokes about being in prison the rest of their lives, they made jokes about the administration, they made jokes about being incompetent to make homemade weapons, they made jokes about things you weren’t supposed to joke about. That appealed to me, that through the power of humor the successful inmates managed to cope through the daily grind of incarceration.
I also remember one of the library clerks asking me to bring in some contraband information. The information related to his health, or so he said. I’d been warned beforehand that inmates may ask me to bring in things for them, and to just say no. I said ‘no.’ The next evening, he asked for another inappropriate item. I warned him that the next time this happened, I would report all three attempts to the proper authorities. He stopped asking.
Knowing what I now do about how prisons work, the inmate was probably asked to test me, just to see what I would say and do. Prisons do that, you know. They test you when you’re new, to see if you’ve got what it takes to do the right thing. And I think it’s good that prisons do that. They may as well find out now what you’re made of, rather than have to clean up a very messy or even costly mistake of your creation later on.
My internship in Correctional Library Management lasted six months. I was out at the prison each Friday, from 8:15AM – 8:15PM, a 240-hour baptism into what would become my livelihood, my (sometimes) bane, and one of the true loves of my life.