“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.


I sometimes forget I’m in jail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just do the best you can.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[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.