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?”
“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.”
“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.