IT’S ‘THE CRAP WE CAN’T GET RID OF’ SALE! Or, When the Public Library says “Jump!” you ask “How high?”

[In which it is driven home for the umpteenth time how, even in our Noble Profession, beggars must never be choosers….]



Yesterday I retrieved a voice mail from my local public library essentially saying, ‘Come get the leftovers from the book sale we just had.’ As every correctional Librarian knows, that’s a good deal. You’re not gonna get many keepers, but you’ll get enough stuff for your segregation and hospital Units to keep those inmates quiet for a few weeks. Since it’s good to keep these inmates constructively occupied, these kinds of donations are worth the time and effort.

I visited the library, spoke with the Director and thanked her for remembering us, then took away (3) boxes of reference/textbooks and a slew of unwanted paperback novels — the flotsam and jetsam of every three-day Friends of the Library book sale.

Now these books will be dropped off in the Mail Room and there they will sit for at least a week, while I complete & submit the requisite Authorization To Enter, patiently wait for the Deputy’s signature, and finally for the Mail Truck to get them inside.





Remember too that these books are subject to the same Department scrutiny as purchased material for the Lending Library, based on the language of “Security of Library Material” which is the December 2011 addendum to the Norfolk Procedural Statement relative to 103 CMR 478 “Library Services.” Using this language, any Mail Officer can object to any book in this donation and bring it to the attention of Security, even though the donation will have prior approval to enter.


Why? Well, the prior approval from the Deputy is an OK in substance to accept Lending Library material. Since she has no personal knowledge of what’s in the donation, her approval represents an agreement to accept the donation from a reputable source. Her approval also represents a vote of confidence that her Librarian has reviewed the material and confirms that it is in concert with the procedural language of the addendum.

But what happens when the Librarian makes a mistake? Enter the Mail Officer. S/he’s there representing the security side of prison operations, and sometimes is aware of events or other policy language of which the Librarian is not privy. Sometimes the Librarian reviews donated material along with the Mail Officer, and learns first-hand from the Officer what can’t come in and why.




Even with this scrutiny, something eventually slips past the safety nets. This often happens because of consistency–in other words, it’s not always the same Mail officers making these decisions. Sometimes the regular officers are ‘pulled’ to different areas of the prison, and replaced by other officers temporarily assigned to the Mail Room, officers who may not know the mail regulations as well as they need to.

So what if, down the road, an Administrator tells the Librarian that there’s something in the

Library that shouldn’t be there? Does the Librarian then argue “But the Mail Officers let it in here”? No. The Librarian removes the item. Contraband is contraband, and doesn’t magically become acceptable because it was mistakenly allowed in. That’s the logic of scoundrels, and also of the immature mind. “They let it in here, so I should be allowed to keep it!” It’s tiring, and tiresome.


We should receive the (3) boxes of donated material probably by the end of next week.

Thank God for Friends of the Library Three-Day book sales.


Well, it’s here again, and I have to spend the majority of it up in the Segregation Unit library, moving about 2,000 law books off the shelves and back to our building to be picked up by State Surplus later on in the year. Wish me luck (did I really say that…?)

I have returned. I’m tired, my legs ache, I keep drinking glasses of water to hydrate me. This is the most exercise I’ve had in a year — understandable for a sedentary out-of-shape 48 year-old.

The moving of the segregation law collection couldn’t have gone any better than it did. All the books were moved, all the books were boxed, all the boxed books were moved to the 1st-floor balcony of the law library. And no one got hurt. The only thing we did was to break a wheel on a property cart. We reported it and then took it over to the Maintenance shop.

Between 8:30-4:30, I had the help of 15 hand-picked, muscle-bound strongmen. And people complain that inmates lift weights in jail! I’ll not hear a word against a prison weight room as long as I live.

The best part of the whole day was the communication. People in power actually worked together to see this thing done right. Unheard of! Incredible! Preposterous! If this sort of thing keeps up, the prison’s apt to give corrections a very bad name indeed. Never in my 23 years have I been part of such a well-organized, thoughtful plan of action. Moving 2,000 law books ain’t the easiest thing in the world to do. Compound that by the confinements, restraints and vagaries of a medium-security adult male prison, and you’ve got some real problems to overcome.


Is it necessary for an officer assigned to the library to care about rehabilitation or the library’s socialization mission in order for the library to thrive?

I’ve actually never thought of it that way.

Can you do your librarianship without the officer’s blessing? Yes. Can you be a competent prison employee? No.

You cannot waste your time running around a prison shouting to all and sundry “The work I do is important and necessary!” That’s a waste of time & energy.

You also shouldn’t squander your opportunities to remind your colleagues of your correctional function in the prison. In this respect, you’re not trying to ‘convert the heathen’; instead, you’re trying to educate the ignorant.

I’ve always seen a sweeping generalization from an officer — “Convicts never change” — as an opportunity to describe just what it is that I’m doing in that classroom when he goes home for the night. Most will listen if I start out by saying “I’m not trying to change your mind, but respect my experience, too,” then I blather on. When I finally shut up, if they don’t despise me, they usually respect me a little more. It’s a risk well worth taking. How else can they learn?

Ten years ago, I taught a class at our Training Academy called “Prison Law Libraries: Why They Are.” When I told her the course title, a friend of mine — who used to be a correctional librarian — said: “Oh, I get it: “Get Off the Law Librarian’s Back.” Ten years later that still makes me laugh, because instantly she understood that I got fed up with having to explain my reason-for-being so often, I created a program and made them come to me!

It most certainly IS important to show officers the respect they most certainly deserve.

It’s my experience that bad officers are also bad people. I’ve never yet seen a bad human being make an honest, caring, respectful, competent correctional officer. But s/he is there, and has to be dealt with. If you cannot avoid these people, learn something about them to like or admire. The only way to do this is to talk with them. Don’t avoid them, or see them as your enemy. Or, if you must: “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.” If they truly want nothing to do with you, at least you know you’ve tried. It’s important that you make the attempt.

It’s also my experience that good officers are good people. Even the good officers may not see eye-to-eye with us but, because they’re good people, they will show us the respect we deserve.

A library officer who also believes in human redemption is the best of both worlds. I say that type of attitude makes a true ‘correctional’ officer, and mirrors my definition of a ‘correctional’ librarian.

The overwhelming majority of correctional officers are good people. I love the officers I work with. I owe them my living, I owe them my life, and I owe them my allegiance.


A fairly recent self-help title admonishes all to “don’t sweat the small stuff.” I’ve often imagined the author of this advice working in a correctional library. My edge-you-muh-cated guess is that after a few years dealing with the sociopathic personality, his book might’ve had a very different title and focus, more along the lines of, say, Hunter Thompson’s summation of Sonny Barger’s crew at the end of his Hell’s Angels: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Rules abound in the correctional library. There are library (internal) rules, and prison (external) rules. Often the external rules of the prison compel the Librarian to make a new library rule–or at least modifications of an existing rule.

One of these prison rules is a concept called “accountability.” For obvious reasons, the administration must know at all times where each inmate is. To fulfill this mandate, it is incumbent on the inmate at all times be where he says he will be. When the inmate fails to reach his stated destination, he is said to be ‘out of place,’ and he is in a world of trouble.

A few months ago while working a late shift in the law library, I was at the photocopy counter reviewing inmate legal copy requests. It was a little after 6PM, which marks the 1st evening movement. A law library ‘regular,’ a Mr. Joseph Shmoe,  came in, wished me good evening, and took a copy request form from me. Since we average 15 requests per shift, I continued reviewing requests.

Several minutes later, I came to the place on the counter where Joe Shmoe left his legal copy request. Upon reviewing his request, I had some questions about a few papers. I called Mr. Shmoe to the counter. No response. I called again, a little more insistently. Still no response. I then asked the men in the room if anyone had been designated the drop-ff person for Mr. Shmoe’s copy work. It looked like 15 deer in the headlights.

Now, Mr. Shmoe has a problem. He’s no longer in the library, which is where he should be. The rule of the building is that if you come in at 6PM, you must stay until the next scheduled movement, unless you are called out on legitimate prison business. So Mr. Shmoe is now ‘out of place.” It falls to me to notify the officer’s station that this inmate is no longer accountable at the law library, his stated destination before leaving his housing unit.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the officer’s station — a Twilight Zone moment, if you’ll indulge me. Because between the copy counter and the officer’s station, I  step into a criminal justice alternate universe, where the known laws of corrections as I’ve come to know them no longer apply.

To wit: I reach the officer’s station, and there is a lieutenant whom I’ve known for years talking with a relatively new sergeant who’s still learning the ropes of the place. I tell my story. The Lieutenant listens. He then recommends that I call the inmate back up to the library and ask him about his disappearance. Now, it’s here that library responsibility and security concerns begin to clash, and I point this out by saying, “Since he left the building, doesn’t that fall to you?” When these words leave my lips, they are seized by some apparently bored-but-enthusiastic wind sprite, who gives each one a fierce twist, and coats them with holier-than-Thou attitude before hurling them into the ear canal of my colleague, who apparently receives the message, “Do I have to tell you how to do your job?”

We all can agree that there are much better ways to start your evening.

The officer balks. “I’ve got more important things to do than chase down an inmate for his copies. This is petty.”

The Librarian balks. “Since when is inmate accountability ‘petty’? He left the building, which he’s not permitted to do.”

“Who says that? Inmates can come up here and leave. They just have to do it before the end of movement.”

Now I am convinced that I am a marionette and Rod Serling’s hiding somewhere up in that drop-ceiling manipulating and giggling away. “Then there’s no consistency here. Because the other officers who run this place at night run it that way.”

“The guy is not out of place. Do what you gotta do. I’ve got other things to take care of.”

When I left the library three minutes ago, I was a confident Librarian, sure of myself and of my duty. I now turn and walk back to my post, dazed and confused…

…and this ain’t the first time. Consistency in applying the rules is a problem that corrections seems powerless to solve. I suppose all workplaces suffer from this to a greater or lesser extent.

At the second movement an hour-and-a-half later, Mr. Joseph Shmoe returns for his legal copies. I interview Mr. Shmoe, who tells me that he entrusted his copy work to a man we’ll call ‘Freddy.’ Well, “Freddy,’ he no speaks the English so good. Mystery solved.

You’re only as good as the information you have. In prison, that’s doubly important. And you don’t always have the information you need in prison.

¡Ay, caramba!

YOUR CORRECTIONAL MANTRA: “Security comes first!”