[In which we use Dickens to once again shirk our important rehabilitative teaching duties…..]

The film is Scrooge, the actor is Alastair Sim. The class is ABLE MINDS. The group is a bunch of convicted felons that just want to watch a holiday movie without all the rehabilitative razzmatazz.

surplus population

So, after discussing one of the inmate’s conflict resolution assignments, we go right into the film. I worry that the third of the class who speak Spanish won’t understand the British accents, but we muddle through.

This is the 2nd Christmas season that I’ve offered A Christmas Carol in the Lending Library. The week before the 25th, we offer it twice, on consecutive evenings. Prisoners always sign up, and they’re always grateful for having seen it.

On this particular night, when I hear The Ghost of Christmas Present rebuke Scrooge with his own words about the ‘surplus population,’ it occurs to me for the first time in my career that I am sitting in this Library watching this film with representatives of that population. This scene, the film, and what I do for my living, are all given a certain urgency and meaning by this realization.  I consider this new thought a kind of serendipitous Christmas present, and I’m not entirely sure whom (Whom) to thank.

I have noticed that prisoners respond in one of two ways to educational films: either they’re embarrassed or nonplussed by the emotionality of the plot, laugh at inappropriate times, and make snide comments to each other — OR they’re quiet, attentive, and have honest, healthful emotional reactions to what’s being shown. On this night, I have people from the first group. This I feel is unfortunate, because these people have just completed eight weeks of intensive consequential thinking training.

The following night, I have men who fall into the second group. These are folks who signed up just for the pure pleasure of watching the film. The difference in their responses from the group of the previous night is remarkable, and I mention it to one of my clerks, who says: “They’re more mature.” Some men are in tears at various points in the plot. I’m always grateful when that happens, and it happens more often than you may imagine. I stoke this notion that tears are cleansing, and that prisoners need to cry.

There is a very self-conscious moment for all when the same Ghost again rebukes Scrooge with his own words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” All of us sitting there know emphatically that, indeed, 150 years after Dickens wrote the thing, there are plenty of prisons.

Showing this film to these people at this festive time of the year in order to solicit some tearful contemplation is our attempt at reaching “the Surplus.”


“On with the show, this is it!” Or: ENABLING THE DISABLED MIND

[In which your Beleaguered Instructor says his prayers, lights himself on fire, and walks out on the rehabilitation wire once again….]

From my program notebook, some random thoughts on the Opening Night for ABLE MINDS I. This is our consequential thinking seminar in which we introduce the THINK FIRST mechanism.  For the next 10 Tuesday nights, we’ll be using Dickens’ A Christmas Carol….

Well, that’s out of the way. Ten of the 16 invited inmates attended. On Opening Night, everyone listens quietly and patiently, unless there’s a disruptive personality in the room. In this group there’re no behavior issues, although there’s a guy with a limp who likes to get the last word in. But I suspect anger issues because, well, he’s an incarcerated man with a limp. Knowing him as I do, the phrase “Chip on the shoulder” comes quickest to mind.

In a little under two hours, we:

  • Introduced the 10-step THINK FIRST consequential thinking mechanism
  • Collected character profiles (character analyses of six creatures in the story)
  • Distributed Pocket Saviors (the THINK FIRST mechanism on a small laminated card)
  • Introduced the Conflict Resolution concept
  • Presented 32 slides of our A Christmas Carol PowerPoint

One of the students, an Hispanic who’s self-conscious about his spotty, accented English, already had the THINK FIRST mechanism memorized, and rattled it off to my amazement and delight. He tells us that a friend told him that I would require that he memorize it, so for the past few weeks he kept the steps taped to the wall opposite his bunk so he could lie in bed and study them. I told the group that this is the first time in six years that this had happened. We gave him a round of well-deserved applause.

They have two assignments: The first is to memorize all 10 steps of the THINK FIRST mechanism. For their second assignment, they must review the THINK FIRST steps and select the one that they feel has given them the most trouble. They’re required to write it down, and then give a few anecdotes from their lives demonstrating when and how they had a problem with that step.

Good first class, even with the oppressive steam heat in the room. (For some exceedingly annoying reason, the State really cranks up the heat in their prisons during the fall/winter months). We had to keep the windows closed because they’re been re-tarring the roof of the adjacent Industries Building, and the only way to marginally escape its acrid odor is by punishing ourselves with closed library windows.


Even after completing 36 cycles of this course since 2005, it still takes about an hour to get all the Opening Night preparation out of the way (enrolling names, printing the roster, copying handouts, making manila folders for each student). Then, the physical class room has to be set up (luckily, we can teach in the Lending Library). We don’t have a laptop for our PowerPoint presentation, which means that our circulation desk top machine has to be untethered from its base, wheeled out on a cart, and hooked up in the library; then, the projector’s hooked up to that. We bring out the projector screen and install it in front of the hard cover Biography wall. Then everything gets plugged in and tested. The last thing is opening the PPT file from a CD to make sure it runs.

All this is done 2.5 hours before the first student arrives at 6PM, which is when the Lending Library re-opens.

Most Opening Nights go off without a hitch. There have been some, though, that made me wish I’d stayed in bed all day. These are the times when, after all your preparation, you’re told that the Lending Library must close because Security needs the room to interview inmates who were involved in some kind of incident (stabbing, fight, etc.) and you’ve got five minutes (or less) to put everything away before they get there.

Rehabilitation can be a pain in the ass.

“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.

“There’s no crying in bibliotherapy!” WANNA BET, MR. HANKS?

For years, Dragonheart has been a guilty pleasure. For many reasons, it’s one of my favorite films.

It’s no work of art. In fact, for most, it’s just a fantasy film. But for those queer ducks like Yours Truly who search cinematic moments for their redemptive potential, Dragonheart ranks way, way up there with other fantastic films like Lord of the Rings, It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooge (the Alistair Sim version), and even Galaxy Quest.

For two years, it’s been a hope of mine to present Dragonheart to one of my book discussion groups, and that hope bore fruit a few weeks ago. Although the novelization of the film is long out of print, I actually found quite a good paper bound copy of Charles Edward Pogue’s story in the children’s section of the Shire Book Shop, the greatest used book store ever devised by the minds of men (Don’t judge a book store by its web presence — their site sux).

I took that book, made ten 4-to-1 copies, and then pow-wowed with my course assistant for the next five weeks on the lesson plan for presenting the plot of this interesting work in the best possible light. We highlighted compelling plot points, interesting and instructive poetry, telling moments that revealed depth of character and, of course (if you know the story at all) the five tenets of valor that Bowen attempts to teach Einon, prince of the realm and son of the worst tyrant in long memory.

We also used the DVD in our preparation. The assistant sat down with our portable Sony 7″ screen, with the captions feature selected (he’s from Côte d’Ivoire, and says his French impedes the way he hears English, or something), scrutinized each scene, and took program notes on a steno pad.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Opening Night of the course — what we ended up with was not a book discussion presentation, as we’d set out to do, but another dad-blamed consequential thinking seminar. Crap.

Oh, well…When life hands you yet another dad-blamed consequential thinking seminar, the least you can do is teach it. So, we did.

Since there wasn’t supposed to be a therapeutic bent to this presentation, I already knew that no earned good conduct credits–what the inmates call ‘good time’–would attach. Students would need to be informed that they would be participating for the love of reading, for lively and incisive discussion, for the pure enjoyment of the story, and for safe, like-minded company.

Half of the students dropped after the 1st night. Well, many inmates don’t take disappointment well. It probably didn’t help that I characterized a few of the whiners as “good-time sluts.”  I was raised to call’em as I see’em.

The five men that remained were aghast that so much work was involved for a non – “good time” course. But they stuck it out and did everything asked of them:

  • Read the book before Opening Night
  • Write five character sketches
  • Participate in class discussions of plot points
  • Memorize the “Old Code”

old code1

But again, a funny thing happened along the way — the inmates fell into the process of transference, where they relate plot points to events in their past that gave them particular troubles. We were flabbergasted. This is the kind of thing that we hope for in the Wednesday night consequential thinking seminar. We never expected it to happen here. But there they were, talking about former criminal lives and behavior, the terrible way their parents treated them, the horrible treatment of women and children at their hands, the daily regret for their selfishness. It was the whole rehabilitative dynamic and, because they themselves were making it happen,  it was truly awe-some to behold.

And I think not in spite of but because of this “extra work” put in by these five special men, the groundwork was laid for the course finale, which was the viewing of the DVD.

Now, if you’re a student in one of my socialization courses, you learn quickly that you are prohibited from calling films “movies.” We do not watch “movies” in my socialization courses. No ma’am — “movies” denotes entertainment, and we have not assembled to be entertained, but socialized. We call them “educational films for therapeutic purposes,” or EFTPs for short. And I am here to tell you that this particular EFTP caught our intrepid book discussion participants completely unawares. From an emotional standpoint, they never saw it coming.

Or — probably more accurately — EYE never saw it coming. What the students had done in the previous 16 hours was permit themselves to be vulnerable to such things as friendship, duty, honesty, loyalty, and love. It was all there, between the pages. And now it was written in their hearts.

At the film’s end, when Draco sacrifices himself by allowing his good friend Bowen to take his life, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. It was more than I had bargained for.

And it was glorious. When the lights came on, we were all of us wiping away tears and laughing at each other, like men must when displaying open naked emotion to fellow men. And these were convicted felons in a medium-security prison. They tell each other not to cry, because real men don’t cry. Real men don’t let themselves feel. “Crying’s for chicks and children.”

Except when, in an inhuman place, grown men are allowed to be human beings, allowed to feel safe, allowed to feel. When you can create a safe environment in the library, then men will allow themselves to open up to their own feelings. Even if their stimulus happens to be a silly fantasy film featuring Double-Oh-7 as the voice of a dragon.

Connery as Draco:


COME ON, CONVICTS: On the Cosby path from prisoners to citizens

“Can we all get along?”

Tuesday night at the MCI-Norfolk lending library, and my book discussion group has just set back the cause of brotherly love and acceptance at least 60 years.

This summer, at the behest of the Correctional Education Association, prison librarians and educators around the country have been invited to offer a discussion group on Bill Cosby’s book called Come On, People: On the Path  From Victims to Victors. This invitation, our Department librarians are told, comes from William Henry Cosby, Jr. himself.

Having read the book, and having been Norfolk’s librarian for the past 18 years, I know several inmates champing at the proverbial bit to kick in their two cents. I decide to hand-pick the participants, a technique I’ve used unflinchingly for other DOC library courses, because it’s guaranteed to set the fur flying.

But walking into the library from a back office to start the class, I feel like I’m suddenly the focus of a Punk’d episode. All people of color are seated on one side of the room. All whites are seated on the other. It’s as if a racist Moses has tapped his staff onto the freshly-buffed linoleum and parted the group along color lines. Straight down the middle.

I work in an adult male medium-security prison. I have heard the vulgar and obscene language of convicted felons all the livelong day for months, years, and decades. I, myself, am a vulgar man, choosing the vernacular and worse more often than not to express my innermost feelings. Having said that, I still won’t spell out what I said to the group, but will edit the offensive part of the sentence and leave it to the reader’s own imagination to sort out. I said:

“You gotta be sh***ing me.”

In my feeble defense, I was so stunned, that’s all I could think of to say.

After about 5 mind-reeling seconds, my tongue un-sticks itself from the roof of my mouth. “Racial segregation’s alive and well in 2009! Didn’t the Civil War take care of all this? Remember hundreds of marchers scuffing up thousands of pairs of shoes so that this would become a shameful, distant memory? This is a joke, right? This is a set-up?”

Now, this class of men—and by now it’s evident that they have no idea what they’ve done—begin to look around the room at themselves. Some begin to chuckle.

One participant—a black man in his late 50’s whom we’ll call Ben—laughs and says, “Man, I didn’t even notice we did this until you called us out.”

A 50-something white man we’ll call Adam then jokes, “I guess Abraham, Martin, and John are looking down on us with scorn and condemnation.”

“How shameful is this?” I continue, “We’ve gathered as concerned Americans to discuss Cosby’s suggestions on helping our young Black males, and you guys can’t set aside your jailhouse racism for two hours?” No one here can give a plausible reason for why these 13 intelligent, educated men have arranged themselves thus. It was unconsciously done, they assure me.

“Now that the unconscious problem’s identified, will you please consciously mingle?” Nervous laughter. Nobody moves. “I’ll put it this way,” I said, folding my arms. “I won’t teach a class that looks like passengers in a 1964 Selma, Alabama bus.”

One of the participants on the ‘black’ side laughs, gets up, and takes a seat on the ‘white’ side of the room. “There!” he smiles. “Happy now?”

I am unimpressed. “Is this it? One measly concession to the cause of racial harmony?” I said, sitting down to my table in front of the room and picking up my Instructor’s copy. “No wonder Cosby has to keep writing these books.”

Black Rage at a Black Man

Each prisoner has been given a copy of the book to read ahead of time. It’s quickly evident that everyone has done their homework, because once these men start voicing their opinions, the criticisms come fast and furious. Everyone in the room has an opinion about the book, and most of what they feel is negative rather than constructive. I’m actually flummoxed when the arguments against Cosby’s ideas morph into attacks on his motives for writing the book, and even on his good character. These attacks take varied and creative forms:

  • “Cosby’s a billionaire and out of touch with American blacks.”
  • “Universities send their graduates into the world with an institutionalized point-of-view. Cosby is a product of that system.”
  • “There’s a generation gap with Cosby.”
  • “Cosby’s a comedian. He’s not a sociologist. “
  • For a guy who writes about family and fatherhood while he’s cheating on his wife – who’s he to be telling me how to live?”
  • “He’s well-intentioned, but he doesn’t get why kids act like they do.”
  • “He’s back-pedaling from some inflammatory statements he caught hell for. This book is his attempt to clean some of that up.”

The arguments are familiar—clichéd, actually. The themes boil down to:

  • The man’s educated, which disqualifies him from talking about the ‘hood
  • The man doesn’t have the right education
  • The man’s a hypocrite
  • The man’s too old
  • The man’s too rich
  • The man’s a sell-out/ an Oreo/ not Black enough
  • He’s only Bill Cosby

It’s very tempting to write off the negative diatribes of this group as just so much incarcerated sour grapes. Keep in mind that many of the men in this room have contributed to the problems with which Cosby is concerned.  Because of their imprisonment, this discussion with these men of a book identifying problems with Black America and offering solutions feels, at times, like nothing more than criminals belittling and shouting down any honest, earnest attempt to identify their criminality and refocus their lives. As the discussion continues, I begin to notice with some alarm that some folks in this room are not simply in disagreement with Cosby—they are angry with him.

Since I don’t see the need or justification for this anger, I call them on it.

Ben raises his hand.

“When I lived at home, I used to bring my friends in the house, and some of them were hoodlums. My mother would walk in the door, see me with these hoods in the living room, and go off on us: “Why are these SOBs in my house? Get these people out of here, now! And don’t bring them back!” My father used a different approach. He’d open the living room door, beckon me with his finger, and say “Lemme see you a minute?” When I got to him he’d say, “Get those hoodlums outta my living room.” Different approaches, same results. But with my father, my friends had a chance to leave with dignity. And I didn’t have to be embarrassed in front of the people I rolled with.

He takes a breath.

“Cosby makes the same mistake my mother made. He’s airing our dirty laundry in public. He should’ve taken a page out of Farrakhan’s game plan and kept this stuff behind closed doors. Instead, he writes a book for the whole world to read that tells me “You’re effing up, it’s all your fault, and now I have to straighten your mess out ‘cause you’re too dumb to figure it out yourselves.” That’s not only embarrassing for us, but degrading. He should know better than that.”

“Perhaps, like me,” I say, “He knows you’re adults, and that you can take it. You’re not children anymore, when Mommy and Daddy had to couch things a certain way in order to cut through your teenage belligerence. Cosby actually respects you, and wants you to respect yourselves and each other. He treats you like the men that you are, instead of the boys that you used to be. And by the way, when innocent people of all colors are being anonymously murdered by stray bullets being shot from moving cars, the problem becomes greater than the ‘It’s our house’ mentality.”

“Aw man, you sound just like Cosby,” someone says.

“How does Cosby sound?” I ask.

“White!” someone else says. Some of the class laughs in agreement. Racism is a natural jailhouse inclination.

“Really? And why should showing care and concern for black Americans sound “white” to your ears and minds?”

Ben sits up straight in his chair.

“If we as black America decide to get together, to organize our communities, to create another Panthers, the Powers That Be shout “No, no, no!” and won’t allow it. But responsibility for what’s gone wrong in our neighborhoods has also to be accepted by the whole of America, the power structure as well as the black community. Cosby’s part of the power structure. If Cosby was sitting with the brothers on this side of the room when we decided to organize, he’d be the first to break ranks with us, because his education and life experiences would send him to the other side of this room.”

You Did It, But It’s My Fault Too!

What about the ‘white’ side of this room? I ask Tim, a fellow who’s participated well in several of my other courses to share his impressions of the book. Tim says:

“I couldn’t relate to any of it. It was written for someone other than me. Reading this was like listening to a couple in the next room arguing over something in a foreign language.”

This statement was then examined by the group.  When I say “examined,” I don’t mean to imply that people took these comments to task directly, or that anyone else commented immediately after the speaker was finished. Rather, a strange, slow metamorphosis occurred between the time these words were spoken and the discussion’s end two hours later. The progression followed along these lines:

“Aren’t these problems kind of like what we go through growing up, no matter what your color or race?”

“Except for the racism, I think all men in this prison can relate to many of the same problems of poor black young men.”

“ Anyone who grew up poor in America can relate to unsafe neighborhoods, crime in the street, bad education, bad home life. We’re all Americans, and this is an American problem.”

“These problems ultimately affect us all. We’re all responsible for what’s wrong, not just the young poor American black man.”

Freddie says, “We need to get black America back on its feet and be self-sustaining. And c’mon, Cosby ain’t the first to deliver this message, there’s Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates and W.E.B. Dubois and Cynthia Dolores Tucker and all the others. In this book, Cosby uses our past on purpose, starting with the 1950’s, to illustrate the progression of this social tragedy, our American tragedy.”

Although we began the evening with the view that only poor young African-American men could begin to relate to the book’s message of urgency and hope, we ended the night on the most clichéd of all imaginable liberal creeds: ‘We are all responsible.’

Not everyone in this group left the room with that opinion, of course. Some men attempted to keep the focus on the very real problems of the street, and on some of Cosby’s solutions.  Glenn says, “But we must admit that a lot of what he says hits home – we have opportunities today that he didn’t have back in his day.”

“What has Bill ever done for us?”

“Well, it’s about time!” I interject. “Here’s a question for you – what did Bill Cosby do in the 60’s and 70’s to help the Civil Rights movement?”

Only two of the black gentlemen in this group of thirteen are older than 50. These men have very different responses.

Ben says “Yeah, I was in my teen in the 60’s. Other than him making comedy records, I don’t recall him marching or going to jail for any of us. Martin did more for us than he ever did. While Malcolm and Martin and Elijah Muhammad were standing up, Bill was busy making money.”

The other man, whom we’ll call Abdul, patiently listened then said, “I myself was a teen in the 60’s. I do remember Cosby coming out and doing things. I remember Cosby saying things. I remember, too, that standup comedy was a Jewish male or a white male profession, and I remember when you never saw one of us on TV. You know who changed all that? Bill Cosby. Cosby came on TV, Cosby went onstage. And not as some Steppin Fetchit caricature, but as an intelligent secret agent, and as an intelligent funny black man who was just standing up there being himself. That’s the first time I ever saw that. Cosby broke that ground.”

Because I have a comedy album collection at home numbering in the thousands, it occurs to me to interject this notion: “When Bill Cosby worked onstage, his audiences were predominantly white. And Bill made these white people laugh, which meant they enjoyed themselves. So these white people would come back, slap their money down, maybe even bring a white friend along.

“But it’s the way he got these white folks to laugh that elevated his work above mere entertainment. Recall that this wasn’t a guy who, like Dick Gregory, was talking specifically about the race problem. Cosby tried something different. Cosby talked about wives and husbands trying to live together in something approaching peace and harmony, he talked about parents and the monumental task of trying to raise their children without giving into the impulse to kill them, he talked about the human creature’s uncertain and comical relationship with his unseen Creator, and the tribulations of just being a kid growing up. No one in the civil rights movement had thought to do this before. Cosby did.

“I agree,” says Abdul, “Bill showed white and black America what they had in common. Night after night, his message to each white person in those seats was “We’re the same, and your laughter proves it. You couldn’t laugh at this if you couldn’t relate to it.” With Cosby up onstage it was a little victory for civil rights, because each time a white person laughed, it brought a few of them closer to the idea that black people are OK and should be accepted. And when you consider the turbulent time in which he worked, you gotta admit–the man had guts.”

Silence. Somebody dropped a pin. We all heard it hit the floor.

A young man named Glenn says to Abdul, “You sayin’ a comedian doing a stage routine is the same thing as protesters getting bitten by dogs and squirted with hoses?”

“I’m saying that their sacrifices would have had less of an impact on the conscience of white America if they weren’t also hearing Cosby’s message in nightclubs, listening to his records in their living rooms, and choosing to watch him on their TVs.”

Sympathy for Uncle Tom

Next to speak is a man whom we’ll call Teddy. Teddy helps me facilitate these discussions, he’s a recent graduate of Boston University’s outreach to prisoners program, and is a human being who feels so acutely for his fellowmen that we have to take a Brillo pad to the linoleum to scour out the crimson stains from his perpetually-bleeding heart. After raising his hand, Teddy opens a new line of inquiry:

“I had conversation with a black man in my housing Unit, a man who has very strong opinions about what society has done to American blacks. After I was finished with Cosby’s book he asked to read it. When he was finished, I asked him his impressions. He says he feels in some respects that Cosby is an ‘Uncle Tom.’ Does anyone have any feelings on that perspective?”

Abdul does.

“Don’t use the term ‘Uncle Tom’ until you have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this book, Uncle Tom gets whipped face-first because he refuses to tell the slave master where two slaves have fled. Simon Lagree whips him to death. Uncle Tom was a great hero of that novel, and the novel was important for its time. ‘Uncle Tom’ as it’s used in our popular culture is a perversion of the original meaning. I would advise your friend in the Unit to be careful to use words and phrases correctly. Words represent you.”

Teddy smiles.

Abdul continues. “I have a question for this group, because I’ve heard a lot of negativity tonight about this,” he says, holding up his copy of the book. “My question to you is: Is Cosby right?”

There is a general murmur of assent throughout the room that he is.

“OK. Now – Is Cosby’s book a blueprint for solving these problems?”

There is a general howl of disagreement that it isn’t.

“OK, so it’s not the problems he’s identified, it’s the solutions he’s presented that you can’t agree with. OK. But here’s something that we must agree on—if we as black men don’t understand that we’re in trouble, if we don’t get that our neighborhoods are crumbling, if we don’t lead the way and do something to stop it—what will be the outcome?”


“As long as fathers keep going to jail, kids will turn to the streets,” Abdul concludes. “Why? Because the father’s not there to watch TV with his kids, the father’s not there to listen to rap music with his kids, the father’s not there to teach the kids why the ‘N’ word is degrading and hateful and hurtful. Kids miss that male guidance. Nothing can replace that.”

And a Child Shall Lead Them

Now a latino named Miguel sits up and raises his hand. All of 23 years old, Miguel grew up in Boston’s south end knowing poverty, racism, crime, a one-parent family, and street life. Since coming to prison, Miguel has turned himself around, parlaying his thug existence for a Boston University degree.  But right now, Abdul has lit a fire under him and he cannot sit still.

“I’ve been listening to people here, especially the OG’s, and I gotta say something to them. Here you sit, your second and third prison terms, a lot of you. Exactly who is raising your children? You talk about how important it is to be there for them, but you’re talking about it while you sit in jail.”

Gregg says, “Hold up, young brother. You don’t know all the facts. Don’t go judging what you don’t know.”

Miguel continues. “You’re here, not there– right or wrong?”

“That’s not the whole story,” Gregg shouts back.

“Right or wrong?”

Gregg sighs and turns his head.

“Kids need that male guidance, “Miguel continues. “They need limits, discipline. They need you at their bedside for that hug and good-night kiss, they need you for answers when life gets too hard, they need you to keep them from running to the streets. They don’t need your jailhouse letters, or copies of your program certificates, or promises over the phone. They need a father, and they need him there, not here. I never knew my father. I know what I’m talking about. I ran to the street because there was no man in my way to say ‘No.’ Now ‘cause my father wasn’t there, here I am sittin’ in jail with you.”

“You were the one who chose the street over your mother and family,” Gregg says. “Nobody shoved you out the door; you went willingly. Shoulder some of that blame, little man. You didn’t suddenly just wake up in a cell not knowing how you got here. You chose this.”

“Definitely. All my friends were doin’ it, so I wanted it, too. But if Pops had been around, maybe I wouldn’t have followed the crowd so easily. You only know what you see. When everyone’s doing it, how can you know it’s wrong?”

A man whose jailhouse nickname is ‘New York’ says, “Peer pressure has a lot to do with why these things happen to us. I had to throw away good grades and an education because my parents had an accent which I got teased for, and my friends thought that school was dumb. My dad always told me that I was destined for great things and I could be whatever I wanted to be. The street took away all that.”

“Learned behavior is at the root of these problems,” interjects Tim. “Kids imitate what they see, even if what they see is wrong. Learned behavior is a trap, because you can’t see the choices, the alternatives.” He pauses, and then adds:  “A man falls back on what he knows.”

Freddie says, “Many young minorities have been disconnected from the struggle. They’ve simply lost their way. Cosby is saying, ‘The fledgling needs someone to guide him.’ He’s saying that you should be raised to be functional in society. There’s a place for Ebonics, for example, but it’s when you’re with your posse, not when you’re sitting in the classroom trying to learn.”

Big Poppa

Adam smiles.

“Raising kids to be functional is how I saw the whole tone of the book, in light of the age of the author and the young men he’s targeted. The book is a conversation between a grandfather and his grandson. He’s giving the grandson life instruction—how to speak, how to dress, how to choose what to listen to and what to watch, how to act around your elders, even hygiene advice. And this advice is given so that the grandson can avoid all the evil social traps that the culture lays for young black men who may not understand what they’re up against. It’s good advice, given in love, and he certainly meant well.”

On hearing the words “meant well,” Ben rankles. “Yeah, well, you know, ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ Do y’all remember the Cosby episode about him meeting his daughter’s fiancée for the first time, and he don’t like the guy?” Cosby tries explaining to the man that it’s not him per se that he doesn’t like, it’s the way he’s being presented to him by the daughter. To illustrate to the young man the way he feels, Cosby asks the young man to imagine his favorite meal with all the trimmings, and then asks him to imagine that wonderful tasty meal being handed to him on the dirty lid of a garbage can.”

Many people in the room begin to smile, and comments like “I remember that show!” and “That’s my favorite episode!” are heard.

“Well, Cosby’s point is that if his daughter had introduced the fiancée in a more palatable manner, then the parents could’ve more easily accepted him. It’s all in the presentation. That’s how I feel about this book. If Cosby had kept it between us and him, and if he wasn’t preaching to these young bangers like he’s some almighty savior on a soapbox, the message would have a chance of getting through to them.”

“All grandfathers come at you from a superior vantage,” Adam says. “It’s the natural scheme of things: they have wisdom that you don’t have, but that you need. We’re taught to respect our elders, and we respect them by listening to their advice. If we love them, we honor them by applying what they know to our own lives.”

Like a Motherless Child

Right about now I’m reminded of the adage, ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’

I stand up. “This is how I see it. Out of concern for their future, William Henry Cosby, Jr. has stuck his neck out for the thousandth time for his troubled people. He’s not only trying to wake them up, he’s also giving them solutions. I’d say the book is an act of love, and of hope. Anyone agree?”

General murmurs.

“So now you’re gonna buy Bill a ‘Thinking of You’ card in the canteen, sign it and send it to his agent?”

General laughter.

Ben says, “For two years he organized all those Call-Outs. What I’d like to see is Cosby willing to come into these joints and debate those of us who have problems with his style of communication.”

Maybe someday he will.

Then again, maybe he knows already what he’ll hear.

“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.

“If I had only known how to think first” or THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO CYNTHIA BLINN

Altering Behaviors through Literary Exploration and Moderated INquiry-based Discussion Sessions. That’s what the acronym ABLE MINDS stands for.


ABLE MINDS is a consequential thinking seminar using literature as its therapeutic base. The seminar was created in 1994 for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. We have been offering ABLE MINDS through the Norfolk Lending Library since 2004. In that time, 328 inmates have successfully completed the program.

Here’s a link to Cindy’s Journal of Correctional Education article about her initial concept:



[In which we discuss the relative merits of murder mysteries for murderers, porno for pyros, and Parent Magazine for child molesters….]

When a patron walks into any other kind of library in the world, the mental, emotional, and physical problems she brings with her are her own. Unless her actions compel us to call the security guard or police, we’re not concerned if she’s got anger issues, or drinks too much, or reacts before thinking a problem through.

But in corrections, they pay you to be concerned about your service community’s problems. It’s because of their problems that the incarcerated are now part of your service community.

Which always gets gets me to thinking about the type of fiction prisoners often find on the prison library shelves of the United States of America. Can certain kinds of fiction be considered therapeutic as well as entertaining? There are certainly gratuitous fiction that your common sense would compel you to stay away from — you could name some, and so could I. But let’s shine a brighter spotlight on our correctional lending library collection to see what’s actually ‘tween them pages….

Take, for example, science fiction, of which there are various sub-genres, and certainly there are morality tales from certain authors who believe that the good guys must triumph over some particular evil. Same with fantasy, although with fantasy the themes seem to be more obvious, and here I’m thinking particularly of Tolkien and the gargantuan sweep of good versus evil in much of his work for public consumption. Since the 50s Tolkien has certainly had his imitators, dozens of writers the world over who have created their own worlds and peopled them with creatures falling heavily to one side of the good/evil dichotomy.

Westerns! Who’da thunk that Louis L’Amour was out there in the American southwest crafting dozens upon dozens of morality plays? But that’s what he was up to. I never read one of his books until I used his Daybreakers in ABLE MINDS, and discovered that there is true substance to the man’s work, a do-the-right-thing philosophy coupled with careful studies in good human character, therapeutic elements that rarely get preserved for the big or small screens.

Last year I had a conversation with a prisoner who said he read murder mysteries because they’re morality plays where the good guys & gals pursue the baddie until he’s brought to justice. That certainly gave me food for thought.

It could creditably be argued that Crichton’s Jurassic Park — at least in the hands of Spielberg — was a re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankensein.

What about the plays of Camus? Satre? Tennessee Williams? Eugene O’Neil? The poetry of Donne? The novels of Dickens, or the short stories of Shirley Jackson? I’ve made a study of the Twilight Zone stories of Rod Serling, which are collected in at least four paperback anthologies, and much of his stuff centered on human frailty/ immorality and the sometimes terrible consequences of such behavior. These stories are in the fantasy section of the Norfolk library.

There are some who’d argue that the smut ‘n’ fluff of romance novels qualify not only as good, dumb fun but also as therapy, because you’ve got the pursued & the pursuer in a healthy social setting and usually the characters you want to see ending up together end up together and live happily ever after. Is Pride & Prejudice therapeutic? What would Jane herself say? Perhaps she’d agree, at least to see her work in the context of a correctional lending library.

All I’m asking you to do is to be thoughtful in your choice of reading material for the people you serve, where those that you serve have problems to overcome that might not be helped and even hindered by the type of material you provide. To me, that’s worth giving thought to.

To me, that’s part of the responsibility of a caring correctional librarian.

To me, that’s a professional way of serving your employer.

To me, it’s a good way of being accountable to the public.

To me, it makes the librarianship meaningful, challenging, even fun.

And you certainly will never look at your collection in the same way again.


[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.