I sometimes forget I’m in jail.

In the free world, we naturally and necessarily place trust in the people we work with. We study the character of each, and we trust one more over the other, as Time and discernment help to reveal the true selves of these relative strangers.

Corrections tells you to be wary of inmates. You sometimes hear that you can’t trust any of them. You sometimes hear that you can’t let your guard down. You sometimes hear that inmates are like children, and will get away with anything they can get away with.

And then corrections tells you: “Here’re the prison’s libraries, here’re the services we want you to provide, and here’re the inmates who are going to help you.”

“But you just told me I can’t trust them….”

“Well — let’s say that you shouldn’t. This is jail, not Yale.”

“But I’m the only professional you have supervising them — I can’t be everywhere at once. i HAVE to trust them.”

“Just do the best you can.”

What follows is an account of what can happen while you’re busy doing the best you can.

I rely on 19 paid library clerks to help run library services in a population law library, a population lending library, a segregation unit law library, and services to the Hospital Services Unit as well. I also have classroom assistants for a law clerk training program, a book discussion group, and a literature-based consequential thinking seminar. That’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of clerks to supervise. As you can imagine, I can’t be everywhere at once. Because of that, I have to place an extraordinary level of trust in the library clerks who work for me. At times, that extraordinary level of trust is betrayed. That happened recently, when I had to fire a clerk for using his clerk computer to write his legal work.

Well, he shouldn’t do that, you see. This is because the computer he’s been entrusted with is for library work only. Well, you gotta have SOME limits, and that statement certainly rings true in a prison. The morality of some men become warped and perverted to the point where they actually believe that if there is no written rule prohibiting a specific act, then they are free to do it! Strange and dangerous thinking for an adult to travel through life with. Why, that kind of thinking could land you in prison!

So one recent afternoon, I entered one of the offices just off the lending library floor and caught site of my computer programmer (he builds databases in Access) with paperwork spread out over his desk, and he’s typing on his computer. I say: “What are you doing, George?”

George looks up from the screen and says, “My legal work?”

Now understand — this is happening in the same month precisely one calendar year ago when all 19 of my clerks were fired after it was discovered that some of them were — among other things — using their clerk computers to make greeting cards and writing college papers. This fellow George here was in that number. He didn’t have his job returned to him until four months later. But now, one year later, he’s at it again.

I said to George, “For God’s sake, George, been there, done that, remember? You’re not allowed to do personal work on these machines. Stop what you’re doing.” Then I walked back to my law library office.

Notice I didn’t stand there until I made sure that he made a move. That’s because, even given the circumstances, I put trust in him that he’d do what I directed him to do. This is because of the character I know him to have. Yes, he’s just been pinched for breaking the rules. But he’s worked in the library for seven years, and in that time he’s succeeded in heeding the rules. That’s the character I’m drawing from.

I have a friend who is a recreation officer assigned to provide security in the library of the Walpole State Prison. He once admonished me thus: “Billy, you and a con can be golden for five years. But the first time you have to tell him ‘No,’ he’s a different person.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly the situation here, but it bears repeating. The situation here was born of selfishness. This clerk decided that his desire to use a word processor on his work computer to complete his legal writing outweighed his chances of getting caught, losing his job, and damaging his credibility with me. All this I found out only because I brought him into my office later that evening and asked him just what the hell he meant by throwing a good job away?

When this kind of thing happens, it’s hard not to take it as a personal betrayal. In his case, I had him working for me for seven (7) years. Seven years is a long time to hold a job in jail. What it tells the Administration is that you’re very well satisfied with the job performance of this individual. And this certainly was true. The man did much good for his library in that time, so much that, hours after this first happened, I had to sit still and imagine library services without him. I actually considered turning a blind eye so I could keep him. Because of his past work, peaceful demeanor, good sense of humor, and ability to forgive my many faults, this was one of the toughest decisions I’ve made in recent years.

But good sense outweighed sentimentality. If last year hadn’t happened, MAYBE the blind eye could’ve been justified. But not this time. He was suspended. I wrote an Incident report. The Administration read it & asked me to write a Disciplinary report, which I did. The man had his hearing, during which he pled guilty. And one of his sanctions is that he lost his library clerk job.

Trust had been betrayed. I made that clear to him in our talk. He actually felt shamed by what he’d done.  But his earlier choice was to take the chance that I wouldn’t catch him, and would never know that trust had been betrayed.

They say, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

When it comes to trust — do those words ring true?

11 thoughts on ““It’s all about me!” INMATE CLERKS AND THE BETRAYAL OF TRUST

  1. Wow, that must have been pretty tough to fire that worker after seven years.

    This probably one of the hardest areas of correctional librarianship for me right now. The trust you have in your library workers seems like a very slippery slope. I have this problem with some of my Law and Lending Library workers. Two guys in particular worked very very hard. They always showed up early to work, helped out on their days off, and typically did a much better job than any of the other workers. I almost never had to remind them of their job duties where the other workers performed marginally at best. I felt like I could on some level trust these two. They had never asked me for anything ‘out of bounds’ or gave me any trouble whatsoever.

    Then one day I found out why. To put it simply, it was a hustle. It was a manipulative technique to gain some level of trust where I wouldn’t watch over them as closely. Then the day came when I found out the one guy in the law library was running a business at work and the other guy was regularly giving away our magazines to his friend. I felt foolish and even a little betrayed.

    Like you said, sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re working in a prison. But, I’m glad I got to feel that bitter taste of betrayal in my mouth just to remind of the type of people I work with on a daily basis. It made me be more careful and question the possible motives for an inmates actions. I think a good philosophy is to incorporate the Reagan era tactic of “trust but verify.”

  2. Reading this was a good exercise in remembering that the rules are there for a reason, even if you don’t really understand them. I personally don’t see the harm of letting an inmate employee do his legal work on his work computer. But I don’t know all the facts, obviously, and you have that rule in place for a reason (perhaps a slippery-slope argument — today legal briefs, tomorrow who-knows-what), so if this is a fire-able offense, that’s good enough for me.

    I do understand how hard it was to have to fire him, and how disappointed you must have been after the previous year’s incident. I actually feel badly for you and him. I am an optimist, and like to believe the best in everyone, so this would have been pretty devastating for me personally to have dealt with. But that’s what you sign up for in this job, so you do what needs to be done.

    -Jennifer Allison

    • Imagine for a few minutes what inmates have been discovered using their work computers for. One that comes quickest to mind is escape plans. Another is betting slips an other illegal gambling games. One guy got caught with a “hit list” of people he wanted to kill once he was released, which he was stupid enough (thankfully) to type up on his work computer. Another guy was learning about networks so he could try cracking a Department intranet.

      Typing legal work and the like is often a cover for what an inmate’s actually up to. When the clerk was fired, Tech Services came and checked out all clerk computers to see if there was anything else they were up to (they didn’t find anything).

  3. This sad story raised a bunch of questions for me. You hired him back 4 mos. after the first infraction. Do you think you might hire him again after another long period of time (a year?), or was this incident the proverbial straw?

    If, prior to the first infraction, he’d asked you for permission to work on a non-library project, would you have let him?

    This situation struck a chord with me because once when I was working a second job, I asked permission to do that work on my first job’s computer, after hours. It was just a matter of convenience — I had a long commute and knew that I probably wouldn’t be in the mood to work when I got home. But if I could get a snack around 6 and then go straight back to work, I could easily knock out a few more hours. Luckily, my boss okayed using the computer for this purpose. But I don’t know what I would’ve done if they hadn’t. Would I have been tempted to do other work on the sly sometimes? I think it’s very likely, because it seemed like a victimless crime to me. The computer was just going to sit there, otherwise! I can’t say for sure what I would’ve done.

    I suppose what makes the situation most difficult is that it was the second time around. Like a cheating spouse, one time might be forgiveable — two times is the beginning of a pattern.

    • ONE
      It’ll never happen while this current Administration is in place. They were here for both incidents.

      Before the 1st incident, clerks knew my policy: “If you don’t ask and I catch you, you’re gone. And if I have to tell you ‘No,’ I mean ‘No.'”

      What you describe in your supposition is no ‘victimless crime.’ You’re stealing equipment use and work time from an employer who is your main source of income. You’re also running the risk of a write-up or suspension. Once that happens, your credibility’s weakened, and you’ll have to work to re-establish your good name.

  4. I didn’t mean to imply that I would steal work time, only that I would’ve wanted to use the computer after normal business hours. But when you put it in terms of being written up or suspended, I realize that I would never have jeopardized my job like that. So I guess I do know what I would’ve done.

    My thinking earlier was colored by my knowledge that it *wasn’t* considered a big deal. The policy was not clear, so I asked, and they were fine with it. That’s a different situation than your very clear policy.

    I think your employee lost sight of the long-range value of his library job vs. the short-range value of using the computer. I’m sure if he could’ve held them both in his mind (like I just did when contemplating being suspended), he would’ve chosen better. I still empathize a bit, because we’ve all made poor choices at one time or another. I think he will regret this choice for a long time.

  5. This is an interesting story, and it makes me think of my visit to prison this past weekend. I learned a lot about the prison environment and the duties of the librarian by just observing. I was lucky enough to visit when the inmates were in the library. There were clerks working (who were all very polite and engaged in their work), and there were inmate patrons reading, researching, using typewriters and computers, etc. (several asked me if I was the new librarian!) Anyhow, one thing I noticed was that policies and rules were posted all around the library for all to see, and the librarian was very strict (except for when she showed me how humor helps to ease the tension by aiming a rubber band at one of her clerks. He made a mad-dash behind one of the stacks!! That was the best part of the day!) I witnessed the librarian approve several stacks of copy jobs, and she was very thorough. Blank pages were removed, for example. One incident that made her particularly upset was that an inmate had taped some pieces of paper onto another page. This furiated her, literally. She called the inmate up to the desk and explained to him that this was not the way it should be done, that the taped pages needed to be on top of the stack because they needed ‘special handling’ while copying. I didn’t understand why she was so upset.

    But I understand now that inmates will try to get away with whatever they can. Even though I am relating this statement to a relatively small incident like a copy job, I think it still applies. “If there is no written law prohibiting a specific act then they are free to do it!” And they will. Trust is a tricky thing in prison. The librarian seemed to have great trust in her clerks. She was not concerned about what they were doing while we were engaged in conversation, and she did not hover over them (and perhaps it was that way because I was there). But I have to say that she is a librarian who probably never forgets she is in prison, at least that’s the image she portrayed to me.

    I understand the inmate you fired crossed a boundry of trust, and whether or not you found out doesn’t change that fact.

  6. I think that what you don’t know often becomes what you do know. Small things may often go unnoticed, but I think that most people will eventually do something large that brings to light those smaller actions, or the smaller actions add up until they are impossible to ignore. I think we often think we are cleverer or sneakier than we really are, and what we try to hide about our behavior is more often found out than not.

    In this situation, I likewise feel sad for both you and George. It was an unwise decision on his part, and I am glad to hear that he admitted that he took responsibility for his actions. I hope that it will be a learning experience for him. As for the trust broken, trust is very hard to rebuild. I hope that he will still use the library and its resources.

  7. Honestly, I find it hard to be able to establish any type or form of trust in the prison environment. But with George i can see how the trust was built over time. I can only imagine how hard it was to let such good worker go, but as you said he was ready to throw your trust and the job away to break the rules.

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