When you hear of prisoners working in law libraries trying to get out of jail, does that rankle you?

When you hear of prisoners overturning their convictions on a ‘technicality,’ does that anger you?

When you hear of prisoners costing your state millions of dollars in court costs, does that confuse you?

Many people react with negative emotion when they hear of such things. Many people think it absurd that prisoners retain certain rights even after incarceration. Many people think it’s a crime that prisoners have free access to the courts when law-abiding citizens have to pay hefty attorney fees and court costs. Many people find it disgusting that inmates manipulate the law after they have broken it. Many people hear about ‘cold scrambled eggs’ civil suits filed by disgruntled inmates and wonder why the system allows this abuse in the first place.

Here’s the thing —

When contemplating the rights of the incarcerated, don’t think of the folks in jail. Rather — think of yourself.

If you were unconstitutionally detained, illegally searched, wrongfully accused, or unjustly convicted, what would happen? Would anyone care? Could you help yourself? Would you be able to get the attention of the system who wronged you? Would you be able to regain your freedom? Would you  be able to clear your good name?

The American system of criminal justice says:

“As citizens, we all of us have post-conviction remedies that can correct these egregious mistakes.”

“Citizens will retain the right of unimpeded access to the courts.”

“Citizens may be represented by state-appointed counsel.”

“Post-conviction remedies exist that citizens may take advantage of, including ineffective assistance of our trial counsel.”

“Citizens may submit civil suits describing a problem with conditions of confinement.”

“And we will make this access free, so that all who find themselves ill-used by the justice system may have their day in court to obtain justice.”

Law libraries and the concept of access to the courts do not exist to give the idle and the cunning a way of cluttering up the court system or a way of manipulating the law to their own sordid ends. They exist for you and for me, the free, law-abiding citizen. Why? Because the criminal justice system is imperfect and occasionally unjust. Without these remedies and procedures, you’d rot in jail, or stay there until they let you go.

For most of us, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to imagine how you could be going about your business in the world, and then suddenly become mixed up in a tragedy of circumstances that ultimately leads to your imprisonment. But you must understand that this scenario happens. And it happens more often than we realize. What if it happened to you? I know if I was on the wrong end of the law, I’d want legal remedies and procedures in place that gave me the chance to regain my freedom.

Thankfully for us, we have such a system. The wrongfully accused and unjustly convicted have the right of unimpeded access to the state and federal courts for appealing problems pertaining to their criminal convictions,. and for filing civil suits addressing some problem pertaining to their incarcerated lives.

Folks who don’t have this enlightenment of why the justice system works as it does are prone to say with exasperation, “Only in America!”

Ad thank God, or your lucky stars, that this is true. Because America gives you the chance to get out of jail, clear your name, and come home again.

The court vigilantly screens all submissions, and when it discovers a charlatan, it uses language like “Without merit,” “Failure to state a claim,” “Malicious,” “Harassing,” “Frivolous,” or “Abusive of the judicial system.” The courts know the games some inmates try to play. Do not, therefore, think of the jailhouse manipulator of the law who just wants to get out of jail — he’s the one who gives the post-conviction system the bad reputation that it has. His ilk and their machinations are the price we pay for post-conviction remedies.

Rather, think of a loved one, and the remedies they would need in order to convince the system that they were wronged and must be let go.

Prison law libraries are not about law-breakers. They’re about us — the law-abiding citizens who occasionally find ourselves on the wrong side of the prison walls.


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.

“Stop it, you’re killing me!” THE IMPORTANCE OF JAILHOUSE HUMOR

One truism about humor in the jailhouse workplace: it’s not so much the funny situations as it is the funny comments; imagine a room of stand-up gunslingers trying to outdraw their opponents–forgive the trite analogy, but it’s that kind of thing.

It’s boring, being in prison. Things don’t change. The routine is horrifyingly routine. One of the few things that can change is how the sameness is perceived. That’s where prisoner’s humor is important. The incarcerated seek to combat the Mundane through their funny observations of the day and of the people in it. It’s a way of marking one day from the next, and it’s a way of getting through one day to the next.

One changing Constant that prisoners can rely upon to make the day bearable is the mistakes that people make. And when you make one–boy, do you hear about it. Mistakes are entertainment; they also give prisoners something new to think and talk about. Because the prison’s regimen requires them to behave perfectly, they take delight in pointing out the human frailties of others, especially those of their keepers, the very ones imposing the high standards of prisoner conduct.

Last year, I brought in eight boxes of books from a book buy that took me three separate trips to finalize at a local store called the Shire Bookshop. I had $2,500 to spend, which goes a very long way at this wonderful store.


So, two of my clerks are receiving books and checking off titles from the packing list I generated on my laptop while working at the store. When they’re through, they report that 80 titles are missing. I check the titles against the packing list; sure enough, they ain’t lyin’. Now I know that I packed these books and put them aside, yet they’re not here. I only recall packing eight boxes of books, and eight boxes of books is what we’ve received. Now the clerks start ragging me:

“Someone managed to lose 80 books all by himself!”

“Would he lose his head if it wasn’t attached?”

“I may be a scumbag convict, but at least I can f**king COUNT…” And on and on and on and on and on and on and on.

I called the store. I tell my tale. They say “Hold, please.” They take a look. They find an additional four (4) boxes of books that I’d packed and set aside on some wooden pallets at the back of the store. In my defense, these boxes had been covered with a plastic tarpaulin and therefore were hidden from view.

I won’t live this down. Ever. Each time that I announce a future book buy, it’ll be:

“Do you remember how to get there?”

“After you box the books, remember you have to pay for them.”

“Maybe we should pin the prison address to his coat so he can find his way back?”

“Take me with you–I’ll make sure those books get here!” Helpful stuff like that.


In the free world, humor is seen as a delightful diversion; in jail, it’s a vital coping mechanism. By encouraging healthful, nondestructive humor, the Librarian can help the incarcerated in their unstructured socialization efforts. It’s certainly socially acceptable to share a laugh, particularly when the level of intimacy is high and the comments take on the form of good-natured teasing.

Some correctional employees object to allowing themselves to be the butt of inmate jokes; they believe it’s beneath their dignity as a member of staff to permit their inmate workers to make sport of them. Well, I don’t agree. Even if I did, it would matter not one jot, because I make lots of mistakes. Noticeable ones. Public ones. To pretend that I didn’t and then attempt to carry on a facade of false dignity and stature would be funnier and more entertaining than the brief comments made at my expense. I think, if you’re lucky, prison teaches you that most things aren’t as serious as they appear. Someone (probably a Greek Stoic) said, “Laugh at yourself: you’ll have a constant source of amusement.” That’s I’m talkin’ ’bout: humility — and mental health — through humor.

Studies the world over are discovering the physiological as well as emotional benefits to good, solid belly laughter. Take advantage of each chance you have of sharing humor with your inmate staff, the library users, your boss, and fellow employees. Why? It’s for your own good, as well as theirs.


Into my 3rd decade of this curious call to correctional librarianship, I’ve noticed an inexplicable, personal immunity to whatever real or imagined powers that Friday the 13th holds over the collective cultural psyche of we mortal men. Perhaps it can be explained by the general negativity and social perversion of the place but, during my work shift, each Friday the 13th always seems to turn out well. I am self-consciously aware when the strange and terrible day/date arrives, but thus far no calamity has befallen to compel me to lament at shift’s end, “What did you expect–it’s Friday the 13th!” In a place where violence, tension, squalor, uncertainty, and boredom are the norms, Friday the 13th hasn’t got a chance.

A constant in the lives of the incarcerated is that one day is indistinguishable from the next. That’s not to say that nothing different or diverting ever happens, but when the prison-wide movie system plays Groundhog Day, most can relate to the sufferings of Bill Murray’s tortured character Phil Connors. The spiritual & emotional purgatory of the prison routine begins at morning’s first light when prisoners are awakened at a specified time by housing unit officers needing to account for their presence. Prisoners then dress in the same clothes they wore yesterday, and break their fast with food that they’ve had dozens of times before. The stuff of the new day between wake-up and lights-out is just marking time. Even the nightly respite, coming after the final evening count, is terrifyingly familiar: slumping exhausted in the familiar arms of Morpheus, then tossing and turning through a fitful night’s sleep in which the same memories haunt and taunt them, only to be awakened 8 hours later by the same housing unit officers performing the same morning count, dressing in the same clothes and then partaking of the same breakfast. “I got you, Babe.” Indeed.

Prisoners don’t mark Friday the 13th except in idle chit-chat. To quote Paul McCartney: It’s Just Another Day. In 23 years with the Kept and their Keepers, I have suffered an unbroken string of disturbingly pleasant Fridays-the-13th. Put it down to the perverted social nature of prison. Or chock it up to unpardonable coincidence. Or maybe it’s because Friday the 13th just doesn’t matter.

I type these words in the morning, as I prepare myself in both body and mind to provide library services to convicted felons. I am also prepared to attribute every negative occurrence to the date of this day. We shall now let Life have its contrary way with us, and observe how events unfold. Upon returning from work–if, indeed, I return at all–I’ll chronicle what took place to determine if the dread power and majesty of the ages-old superstition has finally caught up with me….


*     I made it home (“‘Well, I’m back,’ said Sam”).

*     It didn’t start out so great. One of the law library clerks felt his on-the-job training was being ignored. This was my fault for not letting him know that I’d made arrangements for him to be tutored by a former clerk. The fact that we’re both hotheads and tend to nurture notions that aren’t quite on a par with the truth meant that it took a while before tempers and nostrils ceased flaring, voices were lowered, and the world was made right again. But it was, much to our mutual delight and satisfaction. “All’s well that ends well” the Bard reminds & reassures us and, as you know, he is rarely wrong.

*     I then hosted a cross-training visit from another Department librarian, who needed practice on the law library electronic research system that the person’s law library will soon have in place. I got to teach, they got to learn, and we had fun doing it.

*     I ended the day participating in a meeting that was actually necessary and productive.

*     And in between, we aided inmates in their further education, rehabilitation, and unstructured socialization.

*     Oh yes, and the lady selling lunch tickets gave me my visitor’s meal for free.

All in all, it seems that bad karma was thwarted again. It occurs to me that the 13th falls on a Friday in another four weeks. I look forward to it, filled as it should be with pleasantries and accomplishments.

As a child, certain of us recall saying indignantly to our mothers, “There’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but what about Kid’s Day?” Mom’s answer was one despised by children the world over: “EVERY day is ‘Kid’s Day.”

In jail, may each day be Friday the 13th.


When people have their apartments or houses broken into, they tell us that they feel ‘violated.’ They explain that it’s as if someone has stolen something of great value from them.  And that is, of course, what has happened. The sanctity of their home has been betrayed by a stranger with utter contempt for that sanctity. No one but you and your family has any business in your home, unless you welcome him in; anyone who cannot conform their behavior to this sacred societal trust is rightly accused, tried, convicted, and punished as a criminal. “A man’s home is his castle,” as one English legal precept has been insisting for 300 years.

But when you’re working for corrections and your internal peace officers come to shake down the libraries, it’s not the same. That’s when you discover that your libraries, your office, your work desk, and the contents of your libraries/ office/work desk have nothing whatever to do with you.

In corrections, you own nothing. That desk you’ve worked at for 20 years? Property of the state. That office? Belongs to the prison. That substantial collection of library material in those shelves/ rooms/cabinets? Taxpayers paid for that. The chair in which you sit? Not yours. Never was. Librarians are even fond of saying “my patrons” or “my clerks” or “my students.” Sorry. They were someone else’s clerks/ patrons/ students before you, and they’ll be someone else’s clerks/ patrons/ students when you’re gone.

Quite naturally, when adult human beings take a vested interest in their work, they become territorial. It’s human nature. But nothing reminds you of just how limited your actual territory is until your libraries are shaken down.

When you sign on with corrections, you must lose the personal concept of ‘mine.’  This is because the only thing you own is something you had before they hired you and something you take home with you each day — your reputation. Everything else you make use of or consume has been bought with state money and is, literally and logically, the property of the state.

The last week of January, our institution conducted a shakedown of the law and lending libraries. The great news is that no drugs or weapons were found. The bad logistical news is that, in every shakedown, the place is left a mess. Not the libraries: the officers were careful to keep the shelves orderly, even though each book had to be searched for contraband. The libraries were fine. But the offices in which work the librarian and inmate library clerks — different story. It will probably take two days before everything is organized and back to normal.

As it should be. When those officers are searching for contraband, that is their main focus and concern – nothing else matters. They come in unannounced, take their time doing what they need to do, and leave unannounced. And by the way: while they’re searching the libraries, you are nowhere near the area. The institution asks you to work temporarily in another office. The librarian is not security staff, and is therefore not a part of this operation. You must allow yourself to be moved out of the way.

After the shakedown, one of my ABLE MINDS assistants heard me mutter something about the contents of an office drawer being in disarray. This was his cue. “They don’t have to do that,” he said.

“I’ll admit I was upset at first. ‘Righteous indignation,’ I think they call it. But let me ask you– who did I choose to work for?”

“The DOC, but–”

“–then I know that occasionally my office will be left a wreck.”

“I can understand them treating us that way. But you’re staff, you’re not doing time!”

“They’re trying to run a prison. Everyone has to be treated the same. They have to shake me down, they cannot assume because I’m an employee that I’m above reproach. Look at the things employees bring into prisons! Everyone is subject to search and no one can be above suspicion.”

“But we’re human beings!”

“Look about you, in this room you and I call the librarian’s office. Nothing in this room is mine. It all belongs to the Governor. Now, if they took my coat or damaged it — something I’ve worked for, something I’ve paid for — that’s a different story.”

“I’ll concede that. But what about your dignity?”

“My office needs straightening, but my dignity’s intact. What do you think?”

“I think you’re taking this a lot easier than I would if I were you.”

“Everyone has their burdens. If you must, be glad you’re not me.”

“Be glad you’re not me,” he said, smiling.

With that he reminded me of something esle that’s mine — my correctional mantra, which is  ‘There–but for the grace of God–go I.’

Kinda keeps me humble.


MOLLYCODDLING MISCREANTS: Or, “Palm trees? In prison?”

If your own foibles strike you with bemused embarrassment, then the instant you realize that the current one you’ve been nurturing is particularly asinine, you face two rather similar choices:

1     Take your own life; or

2     Batter your bespattered self-esteem further by posting it on your blog

F’rinstance:  The first time I walked inside the courtyard of the California Institute for Men, I saw something I couldn’t believe–palm trees. They had palm trees in the prison. Everywhere you looked, there was another one. I thought (& nearly said out loud, thank God for small favors): “Palm trees? In a prison? I know California’s a permissive, libertarian land, but this is absurd! They really do mollycoddle criminals out here!”

In my cryptic defense, this was 2001, and it was my first time in CA. I’d only been there a week when these thoughts occurred to me. In that week leading up to that moment, I’d spent all my time in a Cal State-Fullerton computer lab learning PowerPoint and constructing a 63-slide presentation that I intended to use in my first-ever correctional library management course. Except for the morning walk to the school, I never saw the light of day–only the inside of that lab. Yes, of a morning I walked from the hotel & across the beautifully-landscaped eastern side of the campus. Yes, there were palm trees there! But these were the grounds of a major California university, and you’d expect to see palm trees in a place like that.

After the 6-day course was over, I had three days to myself before my return flight home. So I drove places. I walked places. And I saw my first palm trees outside of a prison. I began to see them in people’s yards, which I considered a tad extravagant. Until I realized what everyone else with commonsense already knew — they were in everyone’s yard. They were on the grounds of the In-N-Out burger chain. In the parking lots of used bookstores. Framing the front entrances of churches. They were so commonplace it became an odd site not to see them as part of the landscape. Finally, the light went on.

I’d realized that all my life I’d equated palm trees with luxury and leisure. It never occurred to me that palm trees were as ubiquitous here as evergreens & pines were back home. I thought you had to be stinking rich to own a palm tree. Myself, I blame Robin Leach.

That same day, we spent the afternoon at the CA Institute for Women. They had palm trees in their courtyard, too. The Lieutenant giving the tour told us of the time an inmate hid in one of these trees for nearly three full days, and no one but the inmates periodically sneaking food out to her knew where she was. I very much wanted to ask the good Lieutenant why for pity’s sake didn’t they cut the tree down, but dare not embarrass a fellow corrections employee who also happened to outrank me. But soon after the story I saw something that compelled comment — a palm tree right next to their outer-perimeter cyclone fence, a tree which had grown tall enough potentially to tempt some enterprising lady to shimmy up & leap over the razor wire and into freedom. When I took the Lieutenant aside & mentioned this, he sighed. “We’ve all told them again and again about that, but nothing gets done.” He then looked at me and repeated the same observation I’ve heard offered too many times in my career to count: “It’s corrections.’

Understood. “Palm trees in a prison! The very idea!”