He’s a Very Good Joe

(In which we pause for a reverent tip o’ the DOC cap to a recent retiree from the Connecticut Department of Correction, Mr. Joseph Lea, one of the most active & beloved prison Librarians ever to grace York Correctional Institute….)

It’s afternoon on Wednesday, May 27th, and after checking into the Mystic Marroitt, I report to the lobby where I see a smiling gentleman who looks like he’s part of the welcoming committee.  I ask him if he knows where the York prison tour group is meeting.  Smiling even more broadly, he tells me that he’s the tour guide, and introduces himself as Jean-Claude Ambroise.  While chatting, Mr. Ambroise learns that I’m a prison Librarian, and quickly mentions Joe Lea, the soon-to-be-retiring York Librarian, in attendance at the same Correctional Educational Association Region I conference.  I find out that “soon-to-be-retiring”  actually means Friday, a scant two days hence. 

Joe Lea_York

Mr. Joseph Lea, talking up prison libraries and their potential to change, enlighten, entertain, and educate.

At 4PM, give-or-take, the 2.5-hour tour commences at York Correctional Institution, Connecticut’s women’s prison, with Instructor Jean-Claude Ambroise leading about 10 inquisitive conference attendees.  I’d like to say Jean-Claude showed us around the whole place, but this would be hyperbole as the prison and its buildings sit on 850 acres.  But we saw what we wanted to see, and all of our questions were answered by the enthusiastic, accommodating Mr. Ambroise.

After about 1.5 hours of segregation, housing units, hospital, psych services unit, visitor’s room, and vocational classrooms, we were (finally) ushered into the library that Joe Lea spent the last 20 years of his professional life creating, thinking about, planning for, and teaching in.  I got to see law library computers on well-lit, organized tables.  I got to see rows of low, double-faced freestanding metal shelves housing well-chosen, nearly-new paperbacks and graphic novels.  I saw the well-planned, wooden circulation counter replete with circulation computers, and even a small cubby housing a very prominent aquarium.  I saw lots of ALA posters & signage. Not surprisingly, there was a fairly large section of books & material on parenting,  child-rearing, and women’s health.

At one point, I notice tall metal locking cabinets taking up the better part of a wall which were marked “Staff and Clerks Only.”  (Jean-Claude wasn’t sure what Joe kept in these, and no one had the key).  

I saw lots of windows welcoming the bright sunshine streaming in to warm the plants which were scattered about the place.  Even though inmates were not using the library, you get the feeling that inmates DO use the library, use it often, and are happy to be there when they come.  It is an inviting, colorful, useful, and friendly place.

Joe Lea work at York for 20 years.  After what I’ve learned, the place will never be the same without him.  Joe is a lawyer, and a teacher, but for women young and old, Joe was–first & foremost–their Librarian.  Joe advocated for and started many of the volunteer programs like AVODAH, theater with Judy Dworin, book clubs, the “Mommy and Me” program, and “Mother and Child.” 

Joe kept busy.  Mr. Ambroise assured the tour group that the women responded to and were grateful to him.  Joe brought more than library science skills to his work.  He shared his passions.  That’s the greatest gift from any correctional Librarian.


Wally Lamb: He just couldn’t keep it to himself.


Funny — you can see a book 100 times and it means little or nothing to you.  While in this particular library, I gravitate to the nonfiction, and notice a cover that I’ve seen 100 times and, until now, has meant little or nothing to me.  Shocked and startled, I stand in this library in this prison, holding Wally Lamb’s book which suddenly has a profound meaning for me.  Gazing at the cover, I suddenly wish the library were open so I could quiz the women to discover how many read the book, how many enjoyed it, and how many lived it (i.e., participated in Lamb’s writing workshops).

At the Thursday luncheon I was taken to Joe’s table, where we were introduced and, during our brief chat, I learned that Joe would soon be off to England.

Here’s to your retirement, Joe.  From what I’ve seen, you won’t stay still for long.