“You’re cleared to land” Or, Into the Breach

The West Coast student has been cleared to visit, which is an unexpected and welcome surprise. Usually, the Dept. requires & appreciates more than a weeks’ heads-up to get the CJIS check completed. But everyone involved was accommodating, especially my supervisor who is all about transparency and community involvement.

Please understand, and make no mistake–When I started, “transparency” meant Scotch tape; “community involvement” meant attending Town Meeting. The times, they are a’changin’.

OZ  if I were you

I plan to tell his fellow “Correctional Library Management” students that, since he had the gumption to travel 2,200 miles to visit me, he gets an automatic “A.” We plan to make a cell phone video & post it, to prove he was actually here.

The young man will be here tomorrow. The past two weeks we’ve kept in touch via email & phone. He seems like a nice, intelligent sort. He professes and confesses a genuine interest in becoming a correctional Librarian.

I only hope I can talk him out of it.

“A man must be swift to hear, slow to speak” Uplift from an unexpected source

This evening, an inmate came to visit me after having been out of the prison due to serious surgery which removed his larynx. He talked with some kind of voice pen, and his speech was understandable.

I’ve known his for many years. I’ve learned tonight that his resiliency in the face of personal, permanent debilitation is astonishing and inspiring. For a guy who just lost his voice box, he talked a lot. Mostly about his faith and how he doesn’t feel bitterness, hatred, or resentment. He told me he wants to be a beacon of hope to others. That reminded me of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, when Tim tells his father in church on Christmas Day that he hoped the other people noticed that he was a cripple, so he would be a reminder to them Who it was that made lame beggars walk and blind men see.

This man still has an easy smile. His physical healing is coming along well. And he is in as good a spiritual space as he can be. He tells me he sees life a new way, and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. I believe him. I hope when my time comes, I can be as courageous and resolved as he is.

God bless us –every one.

“Hey, mee-ster! You wanna rehabilitate my see-ster?” Or, CURBING THE NURTURING IMPULSE

Tonight, I receive a late email from A.D., the new librarian at BSCC, a minimum-security prison a literal stone’s throw from Norfolk. This is Tuesday, which means she’s just finished her ABLE MINDS consequential thinking class, a course which she began about a month ago.

Her email is entitled “Did you ever cry….” And continues:

“…when you received your first ABLE MINDS’ essay? The inmates just handed in their first THINK FIRST homework assignment. I fully admit my eyes may be teary just a bit. Is that wrong?”

My reply:

You are such a girl.


You want the truth? I cry at this stuff all the time.

I’ve never cried at a written assignment. But I have cried at testimony. Recently a guy admitted to the class that he cannot consider himself the ‘Dad’ of his son, only his biological father, because the step-father has been raising the son for the past 21 years, and has earned the ‘Dad’ title.

I cry in class when I recount how my rage torments the people who love me. I carry their pain and confusion with me always, and it’s hard, really hard, to admit this to others. But my approach is that you cannot expect inmates to open up if you don’t share some pain of your own. So, they see me cry, and they hear me choke up, and they see my anguish.

I cry when we’re watching LOTR and Frodo says, “I wish none of this had happened. I wish the Ring had never come to me!” and Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not theirs to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Just remember — we are not here to rescue prisoners. We’re here to offer an approach to problem-solving that they’ve never seen –THINK FIRST — and urge them to put it into practice. The balancing act is never to let your natural compassion soften your heart to feel sorry for them. You don’t need to go that extra mile; in fact, it is dangerous to do so.

And the reason you don’t need to do so is that you have to prove to anyone that you ‘care.’ The fact that you’re offering the program and giving of yourself proves that you care. That’s all you have to do. And you’re doing it.

Welcome to correctional Librarianship.”

A.D.’s response:

“It’s great to hear that I’m not in the minority when it comes to this.

I really love the opportunity we have as librarians…not to change the world, but the ability to provide something for someone that just may help them.

I respect librarianship, but sometimes when I see a reference librarian annoyed by general reference questions, I just think to myself: They just don’t get it.”

A.D.’s last remark reminds me of a comment made by my prison mentor Stephen Mallinger after I completed my internship in correctional library management through the University of Pittsburgh. Mallinger had been the correctional Librarian at SCI-Pittsburgh for 13 years. After I had secured the Librarian position at MCI-Walpole, I received a congratulatory letter from Stephen in which he admonished:

“Remember, when it comes to inmates, your job and prison reputation are at once more important than their needs. You must curb your natural compassion, and let pragmatism rule you. It took me two years, but I discovered what became my operating credo about inmates:

The first year, you can’t do enough for them. The second year, you can’t do enough TO them.

Stephen had a good sense of humor. And–as usual–he was right.

At the end of that first year, after you’ve dealt with the 537th entitlement attitude of people who are in no position to dictate terms, your natural compassion begins to morph, slowly-but-surely, into callous indifference. And that’s the opposite end of the service spectrum that correctional employees must guard against.

What you hope to achieve is balance. You have to learn to let your head lead your heart.

In Corrections, you must stop thinking about caring and start thinking about doing your job. Your job is not to care; your job is to provide professional library services for the prison system. Once you realize that you work for the public and for Corrections, the rest naturally follows.

Library school teaches us that we work for the patron. But Corrections teaches us that we work to protect the public. And in our business, corrections trumps librarianship, just as it trumps psychology, case work, religion, drug treatment, and all other professions working in the prison. Security and the public must always come first.

So, as a correctional employee with expertise in librarianship, how do you best work to protect the public? You protect the public by providing prison program support and appropriate recreational reading material. You also offer rehabilitation programs and material and encourage inmates to use these to their best advantage.

“But what does rehabilitation SMELL like?”

Lord of the Rings is a blessing to the world.

I’ve never met anyone who, after reading the book, wasn’t positively affected and touched by its messages of friendship and hope. And I’ve met quite a few who, after reading this novel, were inspired to do something great, or simply inspired to do the right thing –which is a kind of greatness — which is all we ask of the prisoners in our ABLE MINDS program.

Peter Jackson’s movies are remarkable —  but the book is so much better. Jackson could spend the rest of his movie-directing life trying to illustrate all of the life-affirming messages in those 1,150 pages.

And you better believe the prisoners respond to it. There’s a rabid reading core of fantasy fanatics in prisons, they can’t get enough of it. And the strangest thing of all is most of this stuff is one gigantic MORALITY PLAY! It’s all about good vs. evil, how light vanquishes the darkness, how the sun will eventually come out and shine again. The hearts of these men thrive on the hope that spills out of these tales. It’s curious, and it’s fascinating, and how they relate to it is miraculous. Sometimes, the smallest successes can be most gratifying — I love it when you see that figurative light bulb flash on over an inmates’ head and they ‘get’ something they didn’t know before. What you’re witnessing is socialization before your very eyes.

And the way you teach these programs matters, not only to the participants but also to yourself. In this course, I encourage you to be a model of integrity for yourself, so that you may preserve your own humanity in a perverse place. Of course, God only knows if, by doing so, you actually influence people for the better. But it can’t hurt to try. And you keep your mind and heart open to any self-discovery moments along the way. Always remember — you’re not preaching, but instructing. And the person you may instruct most may be yourself.

  • If you want to experience what rehabilitation LOOKS like, peek into a classroom when a teacher’s proctoring the GED exam
  • If you want to experience what rehabilitation SOUNDS like, attend a prisoner Toastmaster’s meeting
  • If you want to experience what rehabilitation FEELS like, give a bibliotherapy session.


[In which we contemplate exactly what it takes to be a competent corrections employee, and how librarianship sometimes gets in the way….]


In his fascinating text Libraries in Prisons: a Blending of Institutions, author Bill Coyle rocked the prison library world with this simple truth:

Prisoners do not legitimize prison library services — the State does.

What Coyle means by this is simply that the inmate’s relationship to the prison, the prison’s library, and the prison’s librarians are different than those of free-world library users. The prisoner does not pay for library services like his free-world library-using counterparts. Nor is the inmate in a position to dictate library services, due to his temporary status as ward of the State.  Indeed, his presence in the prison is involuntary, he doesn’t give a plug nickle to the building or its contents, nor does he collaborate with the librarian or the prison or the State with any library programming efforts.

On the other hand, every free-world library user coming through the library doors is a bona fide patron of that library, because his taxes help to support the building, the grounds, the librarians, library staff, maintenance crew, the library collection, and every business meeting and program the community wants. Free-world library users are stakeholders in their community libraries, and therefore have a say as to what goes on in them. This cannot be said for the incarcerated and correctional library services.

For many librarians, this is at least a sea-change in service philosophy, if not outright professional blasphemy. Each library science program proclaims that it is the library patron who legitimizes library services. Without the user there’d be no libraries, library services, librarians, or library staff. So the idea is — Give the people what they want. Why? So they keep coming back. If you have patrons, you have a reason  for being.

Well, you can’t do that in jail. You cannot give the inmates what they want, the same way you cannot give an alcoholic or a gambler or an arsonist or a junkie or a rapist or a cat burglar or child molester what he wants. When it comes to people with problems, common sense dictates certain limits. If your best friend who is an alcoholic and has been on the wagon for 13 weeks tonight begs you for a drink, you will not give her one. And you do not give her one because you have a vested interest in her well-being, that vested interest being that you love her and want to see her get well.

In corrections, you are paid to serve the inmate community. But that ‘service’ is not defined to mean “Anything goes, as long as they’re quiet.” ‘Service’ in the correctional sense means Helping people overcome problems that brought them to prison. In order to be successful at this, you have to have a vested interest in the incarcerated. You have to care.

The correctional librarian needs to construct a service philosophy based on the therapeutic and programmatic needs of the incarcerated human being. Why? Because the State expects corrections to correct. The State does not require its public libraries to correct its patrons, therefore the materials and services there can be more recreational in scope. This is folly in the correctional library. Your ‘patrons’ are not patrons — they are wounded, down-and-out women and men who’ve hit rock-bottom, and wouldn’t mind a helping hand up out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. If as the Librarian you can help lend a hand, you must.

How? Offer consequential thinking seminars. Offer bibliotherapy programs. Offer every kind of self-help and recovery book, tape, and DVD that there is. Offer career information and materials. Offer book discussion programs. Offer re-entry and reintegration material specifically written with the ex-con in mind. Instead of just the typical and often destructive (as opposed to constructive) reading material from the popular best seller lists, offer positive-recreational novels and classic literature — go out of your way to find uplifting fiction and nonfiction for these folks to try.  Offer program support for as many rehabilitative and socialization programs in your prison as you can. And let every department head in that prison know that you’re there to support them, from the education staff on down to the contract vendors.

In the public sector, you can afford to be passive and let the patron guide what you do for them. Below is a concise illustration of the typical patron-librarian dynamic:

PATRON: “Gimme.”


In correctional librarianship, we focus on what are the programming needs of the incarcerated, and not so much on what they want out of the library. And when an inmate indignantly tells you “It’s my library!” you say “Let me disabuse you of that notion. This library belongs to the State — it’s not yours, and it’s not mine.”

You cannot be passive in correctional librarianship. The State–in the form of taxpayers and politicians, crime victims and the long-suffering families of criminals–says to you “These people need help. That’s why they’re here. Your role here is socialization and program support. You’ve also been trained to find information. Go find information that can help these people turn their lives around.”

You cannot wait until an inmate decides to try this text or watch this video or see what this program is like. You have to take it to the streets, and hit them where they live. You have to advertise and make them know what’s going on in the library for them to take full advantage. You gather therapeutic and socialization material, make it available, advertise, and develop programs around this material to see who bites. Also, many inmates will open up to you and confide exactly what brought them to prison. Those moments are golden opportunities to recommend a book, to encourage program attendance, to talk about the seminar you’re teaching. You get them involved. And you get yourself involved.

There is a legitimate penological objective at stake in the correctional libraries of the nation. That objective is to rehabilitate and socialize. This effort includes the incarcerated women and men who frequent the libraries. You owe it to them. You owe it to their families. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones. And you damn sure owe it to the State, your employer. The State has hired you to to simultaneously fill the roles of Authoritarian, Disciplinarian, Humanitarian, and Librarian. And all of these roles are compatible with one another; in fact, it’s the first two that make the last two possible. You establish authority and consistency so that socialization has a fighting chance to happen. You cannot have rehabilitation without good reliable security. Security and good order are paramount to the socialization efforts of the correctional librarian.

In prison, daily routine negativity is a palpable part of the air you breathe. Your efforts at socialization through the library and its services help to cut down on that negativity so that all may breathe a little easier. Any time you do something to offer the incarcerated some hope, you participate in a human miracle called redemption.  And only then is the State getting their money’s worth out of you.

You also need to encourage what we in this course refer to as unstructured socialization. This is when inmates, for reasons known only to themselves, refuse to attend any structured programming taught by prison staff, contract vendors, university professors, or volunteers. Instead, they seek self-help information on their own, and prefer reading,  watching DVDs, or writing in workbooks to participating in a classroom. Unstructured socialization is a frequent occurrence in correctional libraries. There are more of these inmates that you might think, and you must provide material for them to use. Otherwise, the State wastes many helping opportunities.

As a correctional librarian, the patrons of the library are not the people who come through its doors – it’s the people you never see. And these are the very people you must forever keep in mind, if the time that the incarcerated spend in the library is to have meaning, value, and purpose for the State — that is, for the much greater free-world community, the real patrons.


Into my 3rd decade of this curious call to correctional librarianship, I’ve noticed an inexplicable, personal immunity to whatever real or imagined powers that Friday the 13th holds over the collective cultural psyche of we mortal men. Perhaps it can be explained by the general negativity and social perversion of the place but, during my work shift, each Friday the 13th always seems to turn out well. I am self-consciously aware when the strange and terrible day/date arrives, but thus far no calamity has befallen to compel me to lament at shift’s end, “What did you expect–it’s Friday the 13th!” In a place where violence, tension, squalor, uncertainty, and boredom are the norms, Friday the 13th hasn’t got a chance.

A constant in the lives of the incarcerated is that one day is indistinguishable from the next. That’s not to say that nothing different or diverting ever happens, but when the prison-wide movie system plays Groundhog Day, most can relate to the sufferings of Bill Murray’s tortured character Phil Connors. The spiritual & emotional purgatory of the prison routine begins at morning’s first light when prisoners are awakened at a specified time by housing unit officers needing to account for their presence. Prisoners then dress in the same clothes they wore yesterday, and break their fast with food that they’ve had dozens of times before. The stuff of the new day between wake-up and lights-out is just marking time. Even the nightly respite, coming after the final evening count, is terrifyingly familiar: slumping exhausted in the familiar arms of Morpheus, then tossing and turning through a fitful night’s sleep in which the same memories haunt and taunt them, only to be awakened 8 hours later by the same housing unit officers performing the same morning count, dressing in the same clothes and then partaking of the same breakfast. “I got you, Babe.” Indeed.

Prisoners don’t mark Friday the 13th except in idle chit-chat. To quote Paul McCartney: It’s Just Another Day. In 23 years with the Kept and their Keepers, I have suffered an unbroken string of disturbingly pleasant Fridays-the-13th. Put it down to the perverted social nature of prison. Or chock it up to unpardonable coincidence. Or maybe it’s because Friday the 13th just doesn’t matter.

I type these words in the morning, as I prepare myself in both body and mind to provide library services to convicted felons. I am also prepared to attribute every negative occurrence to the date of this day. We shall now let Life have its contrary way with us, and observe how events unfold. Upon returning from work–if, indeed, I return at all–I’ll chronicle what took place to determine if the dread power and majesty of the ages-old superstition has finally caught up with me….


*     I made it home (“‘Well, I’m back,’ said Sam”).

*     It didn’t start out so great. One of the law library clerks felt his on-the-job training was being ignored. This was my fault for not letting him know that I’d made arrangements for him to be tutored by a former clerk. The fact that we’re both hotheads and tend to nurture notions that aren’t quite on a par with the truth meant that it took a while before tempers and nostrils ceased flaring, voices were lowered, and the world was made right again. But it was, much to our mutual delight and satisfaction. “All’s well that ends well” the Bard reminds & reassures us and, as you know, he is rarely wrong.

*     I then hosted a cross-training visit from another Department librarian, who needed practice on the law library electronic research system that the person’s law library will soon have in place. I got to teach, they got to learn, and we had fun doing it.

*     I ended the day participating in a meeting that was actually necessary and productive.

*     And in between, we aided inmates in their further education, rehabilitation, and unstructured socialization.

*     Oh yes, and the lady selling lunch tickets gave me my visitor’s meal for free.

All in all, it seems that bad karma was thwarted again. It occurs to me that the 13th falls on a Friday in another four weeks. I look forward to it, filled as it should be with pleasantries and accomplishments.

As a child, certain of us recall saying indignantly to our mothers, “There’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but what about Kid’s Day?” Mom’s answer was one despised by children the world over: “EVERY day is ‘Kid’s Day.”

In jail, may each day be Friday the 13th.