Why we are prison Librarians

[…in which we begin what hopefully will become a regular series of vignettes serving to illustrate why we do what we do.  This 1st vignette is courtesy of the illustrious Velva Hampson, Senior Librarian, CSATF/SP Corcoran].

 

A ‘WHY’ FOR THE DAY

“I’m doing inmate book clubs, and they are a lot of work. Here’s one insight from level 2 GP that makes it all worth the effort.

When discussing Jeannette Walls’ father’s strengths and weaknesses as described in The Glass Castle, one inmate said: “He was there. Every time I talk to my kids on the phone, my son says: ‘You being here is more important than anything you thought you needed to do that got you incarcerated.’”

For the record, the fathers in the group were the ones who couldn’t be judgmental about the parents in that book, because they kept having to compare that to their example of being incarcerated for a large part of their children’s lives.”

*

Which puts me in mind of part of a much earlier post on Bill Cosby’s book Come On, People! On the Path From Victims to Victors:

“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 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?”

Come On, Convicts: On the Cosby Path From Prisoners to Citizens

 

Curses in Captivity #3 — “Have a nice weekend!”

(In which we are tiresomely reminded that, in this culture, Tuesdays have a peculiar, trans-etymological meaning to a certain mindset….)

“The name ‘Tuesday’ derives from the Old English ‘Tiwesdæg’ and literally means ‘Tiw’s Day.’ Tiw is the Old English form of the Proto-Germanc yaic god Tîwaz, or Týr in Norse, a god of war and law.”      

~ from Wikipedia, “The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit!”

This past week, the segregation case worker calls & asks for more typewriter ribbons for the three machines in the segregation law library.  Before the conversation is over, she informs me that she’s leaving early on Friday, has Monday as vacation, and won’t return until the following day.

Like a putz, I say: 

“OK then, I’ll see yoc ya Tuesdayu next Tuesday.”

Laughs aplenty on the other end.

“What?”

“See you next Tuesday.”

“Right.  Isn’t that when you’re coming ba—oh.   OH.  Waitaminute–you’re laughing ’cause you think I called you a c–“

“NO!  I know you didn’t.  You said that in complete innocence, which is why it’s funny!”

“I have never liked that phrase.  This appeals to the same people who, when you say “It’s Wednesday, right?” reply ‘All day long!’ with a big smile on their face, like they just channeled Oscar Wilde.”

“Well, I gotta go.”

“See you next Tuesday!  I just called you a c–“

<CLICK>

The mindset of the average female prison employee.  Why don’t academics do constant studies on us?  Isn’t corrections a psychological mother lode?  They should be crawling all over the place, like cockroaches.  Don’t researchers strike sociological gold when corrections is their topic?  What gives?

Someone oughta have a TWHS page.  Click the comic for full effect.

he said

 

 

“Hope eternal, in the strangest of places”

(In which we are reminded that, in the face of tragedy and disaster, attitude is everything….)

An inmate with throat cancer lives in the same block as one of my class assistants.

The other day, the assistant tells me: “We hide his speech pen all the time.  He larynges penknows to check with me first, because I’m the one who usually has it.”

When the clerk sees that I’m horrified at this, he laughs and explains: “He knows we mean no harm.  It’s the opposite.  We want him to feel normal.  We prank each other all the time.

We’re not gonna let something like cancer or any disease get in the way of life.  What good does it do to weep, or say ‘I’m sorry’?  So we tease.

bitch cancer

 

 

It’s our way of saying “It’s not so serious that we can’t be normal.  You’re gonna make it.”

 

 

Curses in Captivity #2 : “Live FOREVER!”

My ILL clerk is perpetually bugged by my cataloger, because they share space in my Lending Library office and the cataloger’s wit is quick & nasty. 

Whenever the cataloger slings one his way, the ILL clerk says “Keep talking, I hope you live to be 100!  Live forever!” 

eternityThey’re both lifers.  So the one is wishing immortality on the other.  He’s saying, “I hope you suffer in prison for eternity!” 

It’s the only place on the Earth where you can wish someone long life and have it be a curse. 

Curses in Captivity #1 — “If he only had a brain!”

Friday afternoon, I’m in the process of locking up a reference cabinet.  At the same time, rather than wait for me to finish and move out of the way, my 6’5″ ILL clerk hook-shots a discarded hard cover into the cardboard box marked ‘Hospital’ which rests directly above where I’m standing about eight feet high on top of this same cabinet.  Luckily, the book sails directly into the box. 

One clerk sees this & says “That would’ve been nice: You miss, it hits Bill, he’s out for a month.” 

My cataloger chimes in “Yeah, but now we’re talking brain damage.  You gotta have a brain to begin with!”

He’s calling his boss brainless, and in his presence.  That’s political suicide.  Which is why they do it.  That’s why it’s funny.  What’s he got to lose?  A dollar-a-day prison job?

About 10 minutes later, the cataloger’s there (doing nothing, BTW) when I again walk into this office for something.  “How you doing?” I ask.  But I’m almost out of the room before it dawns on me to add  “And thanks for calling me an idiot 10 minutes ago, appreciate it.”  We laugh. 

My point is, I was going to just come in, do my thing, and go back to my law library office without comment.  His previous ‘insult’ never phased me.

I say to my bookbinder in passing:

Amazing, how many times we slag each other off without taking offense.  It’s just taken in stride.” 

The bookbinder, who is a very polite, quiet man, smiles as he continues his binding and says, “Sometimes we could do with a little less slagging.”
being slagged off

“Think so?  You’re probably right….Nah.  Just bind your books.”

The bookbinder laughs.  For a polite and quiet man, he has a decidedly boisterous, explosive laugh.  Which I proceed to tell him.  But not in those words.

“Hey, nice laugh.  Keep it to yourself, please.” 

More boisterous laughter.  “I guess there’s no hope of the slagging lessening off!”

“Amen.” 

Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here.

 

“Auntie Em! Auntie Em! It’s Twister™!”

“Sheep are very dim; once they get an idea in their heads, there’s no shiftin’ it.”   — Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Flying Sheep” skit.

 

My poor interlibrary loan clerk.  This was the man who, one solar day before the humor-as-therapy program begins, comes to my office:

HE:   “Sign me up for that thing you’re doin.’  Whaddaya call it?  ‘Happy Time’?”

“‘Happy Time’?  It’s ‘Skill-Building Techniques for Stress Reduction.’  How’d you get ‘Happy Time’ out of that?”

“I couldn’t remember all that.  All I know is we’re supposed to laugh a lot.”

So I sign him up for ‘Happy Time,’ so he can laugh a lot.

A few weeks into our program, I ask this same ILL clerk if he’s completed his ‘Observing Your Personal Humor Style’ assignment for the week.  This assignment asks inmates to be aware of countervailing humor types (constructive & destructive) while watching TV, listening to the radio, hearing funny comments or observing practical jokes in the Unit or the Yard, as well as funny things they say, do, or think.  They are to keep a tally of each time they witness or participate in either constructive or destructive humor.

“I’m still doing it.  I hear a lot of negative humor all around me is what I’m learning.  There’s so much, I’ll have to use another page!”

“Just write in the space, ‘Too many to list.'”

“Oh!  We can do that?”

“That’s what I’M doing.  Especially with my thought life.  Lots of destructive humor swirling around in there.”

“OK, good, thank you.  That makes it a lot easier.”

“So, how’re you enjoying the course so far?”

“I like it!  I like when you showed the cartoons.  I laughed at almost every one of those.”

“Happy Time.”

“You’re not gonna let me forget that, thanks!  I like that you can laugh and learn new stuff at the same time.  Just don’t expect me to do Twister™.  I was talkin’ with some of the guys.  They’re gonna push back on that one.”

It is here that we must pause our narrative, and interject some much-needed-or-the-rest-of-this-won’t-stand-a-chance-of-making-the-slightest-bit-of-sense back story. 

In the previous class I mention that, when we finally do a Laughter Yoga session, we’ll need to remove the tables & chairs to make space for laughter exercises.  I also mention that, when I participated in a laughter yoga session at Walpole Pubic Library, at the end of it all we lay on mats and practice deep, relaxing breaths as a cool-down from all the belly laughter.  But In this man’s twisted mind, upon hearing the word mats and then the word exercises his thoughts twist to Twister™.

1966 Twister GameME:   “Twister™?  What the hell are you talking about?”

HE:   “You said we had to play Twister™.”

“Never.  Mother of God!”

“You told us last class.”

“Look, I created this program.  Like I’m gonna have adult male prisoners playing Twister™ with each other.”

“Everyone else think so, too.  They think you’re gonna make us play Twister™.”

“If they think that, it’s because of you!”

This past Friday, I mention to my course assistant that the ILL clerk refuses to understand that I never referred to, joked about, or even thought of Twister,™ “The Game That Ties You Up In Knots,” by Milton Bradley.

ME:   “He’ll go to his grave believing that!”

ASSISTANT:   “He’s a bug.”  (Usage note:  In New England, “He’s a bug” means “He is certifiably and dangerously insane”).

“He’s also the one who keeps advocating for us to screen The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Hey, at least that has a twister in it.”oz twister<laughs>  “THAT’S what he’s up to!  He’s talking about twisters to make you show the film!  Whadda they call that?  Subliminal! He’s manipulating you!”

 

Nah.  He’s just a bug. 

BTW — Here in New England, they call it ‘Twist-ah.’  Of course they do. 

They also raise children, some of whom end up in jail believing that their rnG3Y6Librarian could even conceive of seeking written approval to supervise games of Twist-ah™ in an adult-male prison.

Humor-as-Therapy, indeed.

 

 

The Wonderful Home Brew of Oz

(in which it is driven home that word choice matters, even when discussing American cultural archetypes….)

 

WWOO2

Today with my course assistant, talk turns to our next humor-as-therapy class.  Last class meeting, our group decides in a future class to watch The Wizard of Oz as an object lesson for identifying instances of destructive & constructive humor.  I mention that, from a selection of 30 DVDs purchased for the program, their choice of this particular film surprises me.

“Bill, you can only see it on cable.  THAT’S why they wanna see it.”

“Yeah, but it was weird.  That was the first film I mentioned, and I suggested it as a joke, really.  But then every hand went up.”

“They miss it.”

 

 

Talk then turns to the performance of Judy Garland.  My assistant mentions that MGM originally wanted Shirley Temple for the role of Dorothy Gale.  I said that, as an old man, I now respond to her character from the point-of-view of a protective father.

“FYI — I won’t be able to see this film without tearing up.”

“Bill, I tear up at almost everything now.  TV, books, movies, don’t matter.  I’m a big lush.”

<pause> “So, you’re a drunkard now?  Since when?”

“What?”

“That’s what ‘lush’ means.  You’re a drunk.”lush

<laughs> ” Oh!  I thought it meant you cry easily!”

“What you mean to say is ‘I’m a wuss.’ ”

“OK–”

“–who likes drinking to excess.”

<laughs>   “Yeah!  I’m just a big lush!”

“I’m telling!”

“You probably will!”

 

hooch

Pruno.  Hooch. Home Brew.  And the score of other jailhouse nicknames for sugared fruit left out on the window sill to ferment into alcohol.  I doubt anyone’ll be drunk while OZ is playing.  Not even the ‘big lush,” who’ll be too busy crying.

 

 

darkoz1But I’m waiting for someone to suggest we synch the film to Dark Side of the Moon

How would you write the Authorization to Enter form?

“ITEM TO BE BROUGHT IN:  Pink Floyd CD to use as soundtrack to Wizard of Oz.”  They’d call a Code 99 & truck me away. 

 

 

WWOO

Unless they’re fans of the Trailer Park Boys.

Dark Side of Oz | “In Popular Culture”

 

 

You Get What You Need

Today, I receive a PDF file in my work email containing a letter to an inmate in response to his complaint that more typewriters should be placed in the population law library.  No this may come as a shock, but I do not believe that this is a very professional way of communicating a change in service with your professional librarian.  Because I believe this, I am furious.  Dismissing the letter-writing impulse to the Superintendent, I feel that the direct way is best, and decide on the day following to call his secretary to make an appointment to meet & discuss this.

micromanagers

Next afternoon, while walking through our staff parking lot toward the front door–a walk of about 100 yards–it occurs to me that my input was in fact solicited by my boss.  Not only was it solicited, it had been mentioned more than once over the past two months.  It took a while for this to surface, because of the casual way in which these conversations were held, almost as an afterthought.  So it isn’t that the Librarian’s input was not sought; it was that a decision was made that did not jibe with the Librarian’s input.

So I have that to stew over.

But that’s much easier to deal with than having not been asked in the first place.  In this case, Administration does the professional thing and asks the front-line employee for input before weighing the alternatives.

Do I think that their decision caves in to the demands of a few loud-mouths?  Of course I do.  But you can’t always get what you want.  You can’t always get what you want.  You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometime, you just might find — you get what you need.

I need some sleep.

cant-always-get-what

Courage to Change the Things I Can

(In which a question which I’ve been asked many times is again posed: “How do you move from the prison-librarian demeanor to the Normal-Joe-living-life demeanor?”)

For those who aren’t yet aware, prison employees have a higher rate of (fill in the blank with any social tragedy imaginable)__________________  than nearly any other helping profession.    Newsweek – “Prison Officers Need Help”

Thankfully, I go home to a loving family who really do understand what love is and, to prove it, they doggedly choose to put up with both the bad and the good in me.  I’ll never know why, but for this fact of my life I am blessed and grateful.  

I’ve found that the way you are inside is the way you are outside.  There’s no magic switch for this stuff.  So you try to treat inmates & employees the way you want to treat your family.  funny-feelings-on-off-switch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This very day, a fascinating thing happened between myself and an inmate who is uber-stressed about getting a reply brief submitted by his court deadline.  Because he was being verbally aggressive to people in the law library, I took him in my office, closed doors, and talked with him.  Within 60 seconds of explaining why he felt the entire world was conspiring against him, he started tearing up. 

I saw the tears & said “See that?  That’s exactly what you need.  Don’ be afraid to cry in here.  For your own sake, relax and let it come.”

He did.  He broke down & cried.  Through the tears, he talked about the pressures he’s under, and how he’s innocent of the crime he’s convicted of, and how he needs to get out.  Crying was exactly what he needed. 

(Researchers believe that crying may have a biochemical purpose.  Tears release stress hormones or toxins from the body, says Lauren Bylsma, a PhD student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who has focused on crying in her research).   “Why We Cry: The Truth About Tearing Up”

We also discussed his notion that everyone was out to get him, as a way of pointing out to him that this kind of thinking only adds to the tension he feels. 

After our talk, I pointed toward the law library & said, “And don’t feel self-conscious about leaving this office with red eyes.”  He said something instructive: “Oh, I won’t.  I’m not proud.”  

That took guts, to let down in front of a staff member, and fearlessly show emotion in front of people who, in general, see crying as a weakness.

We shook hands.  He left feeling better and, hopefully, thinking a lot clearer.   I kid you not when I say:  it’s for moments like this that I do what I do.  

But to return to the original question.  The implication is:  if I can help an inmate through his stressful times, that means I still have enough humanity left to go home and be there when the people I love and who love me need me.serenity-prayer

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.

lamb_york

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.