Today I sat down with my classroom assistant to revise our course curriculum and match handouts, activities and PPT presentations to each Module.  The first thing we need to do is copy the two assessments for the first class.  One assessment, the COPE Inventory,  measures one’s stress-coping skills, the other defines one’s particular humor style.

teaching tattooWe’re also using a text book called HA! The Science of When We Laugh & Why by Scott Weems, a young man with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience.  The 12 participants have already picked up their program copies and (hopefully) will have them read by May 26.

Since the vast majority of course content (PPTs, handouts, etc.) has been created at home, the prison permits me to bring the program laptop with me so that I can load the files and return the computer to the library.  In the past, I’ve had to email files to work, and then figure out a way to get them from there to the program computer.  Or I’ve had to burn them to CD & then get permission to bring those in.  But then they started a policy of disabling ports and devices like CD drives, so that was not an option.  And–in the case of PPTs that are way too large to send as attachments–I’d have to get permission to bring files in on a thumb drive, a device that, until recently, they really didn’t want you bringing in.  The prison’s decided that it’s easier just to take out the machine, load your files, & return it.  Which makes sense..

We’re in pretty good shape now.  We’ve got the curriculum, the PPT lectures, handouts, assignments, program text, planned activities, assessments, equipment, and a roster of eager participants. Now, we wait for the 26th to roll around.

We teach two hours each Tuesday night (6:15PM-8:15PM) in the Lending Library.  The course is scheduled to go 10 weeks.  No earned good conduct credits will be awarded, so inmates attend because they actually want to.  Which is nice.

teacher7After organizing our papers and revising content, my assistant says to me with a smirk, “This is, like, WORK!”  He’s helped me prepare for course, so he knows what’s involved.  Every teacher knows the bulk of the work is preparation.  Yes, you need to have an engaging teaching style, or you lose them.  But you need to have something useful and intriguing to offer them, too, or all the engagement and charisma in the world will be for naught.

book_prisonSince this is the first time out, we have no idea if we’ll have enough time to administer both assessments (the COPE inventory has 60 questions; the Antioch Humor Inventory has 47).  If not, we’ll have to revise lesson plans for weeks 1 and 2 after First Night is over.

This is, like, work.

VIDEO:  My Experience Teaching in Prisons

New Stuff: Or, “I haven’t seen ‘Wizard of Oz’ in 25 years!”

Amazing, the little things we free men take for granted that tend to grab the attention of the incarcerated.

Today, we receive 24 humor-as-therapy books, most of them purchased through Advanced Educational Products, an excellent source with a consistently high fill rate. Included in the shipment are books on stress management, and one on why it’s important as a parent to help nurture your child’s sense of humor. Good stuff.

We also received DVDs, Blu-Rays, & a comedy CD set. These will be for the ‘active listening’ and ‘active viewing’ part of the humor-as-therapy program. During active listening, we’ll listen to a comedian or a comedy bit, and stop it at certain points to analyze the type of humor used and its effects on the receiver (e.g., was anyone hurt by the joke). We’ll do the same thing with the DVDs.

Since most of my clerks are lifers, this is the 1st time they’re seeing Blu-Ray disks. One of them says to me: “Y’know how I knew which were Blu-Rays?” I figure he’s going to tell me some esoteric piece of information about something that he’s learned about the format, so I bite.


“Because their cases are blue!”

And EYE’m the idiot who hired him.

All of the films were chosen for their humor content. some titles include Fiddler on the Roof, Scrooged, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Wizard of Oz.

When I remove Oz from the box, my inter library loan clerk smiles broadly & says “HEY!  You got the Wizard!  I haven’t seen that movie in 25 years!”  Here I must pause and apologize to the world-weary and cynical, because hearing this breaks my heart.  The Wizard of Oz will always be one of my guilty pleasures, and I manage to see it once a year.  One day, to my delight, I discovered that one of our now-retired Lieutenants could recite whole scenes from this film, such is his mania & affection for it.  His favorite is when the Wizard ‘gives’ the Tin Man his heart.


The inter library loan clerk has signed up for the first cycle of the program, which begins on May 26th.  He will definitely get to see his movie.

Or, at least see sections of it.  Remember, we’re running a stress-reduction program using humor as our therapeutic vehicle.  We’re not permitted to entertain in our libraries, only to instruct & educate.  But if any entertainment value is gleaned by the participants, well, it’s all in the name of rehabilitation and re-integration.

“And remember, my sentimental friend: a heart is not judged by how much YOU love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

OPEN SEZ-ME: Inventory For Dummies

Inventory.  You have stuff.  You make sure it’s still there.  If the item is encased in something–like, say, a DVD–you open the case to make sure the DVD is still there.  Logical, sensible, and necessary.

But not for everyone, as it turns out.  But at least they tell on themselves.

I’m doing DVD & CD inventory with one of my lending library clerks, ostensibly to help him but primarily to keep a quality check on the process, as last year things got muddled and the DVDs/CDs had to be re-counted.

Today I find out why.

We have several multi-disk books-on-CD.  As the clerk watched me open the case to one of these & count individual disks he says:

“Oh!  There’s what I didn’t do last year!”

DVD case“What’s that?”

“Open the case! I was just counting the cases.”

“Please tell me you’re joking.”

“No!  I’m not!  That’s what I did wrong.  I wasn’t thinking about what was inside them, I just counted the case and moved on.”

“Without checking to see if the CD was there?  In other words, without actually inventorying the case?”

“It just didn’t occur to me, until I saw you do it.”

“No wonder they had to be re-counted.”


You can’t even get mad at this stuff, and that’s hard for me, because it’s in my nature.  But we got a good count, solved the problem for posterity and, as the clerk observed, moved on.

BTW — We have 131 DVDs, 13 Blu-Ray, and 187 CDs.

VHSAnd over 650 VHS tapes.  Ugh.  But they are in constant use, because of the prison’s gargantuan video system.  Each month we feed about 22 of these into the gaping maw of a VCP, and it does its thing for 30 days.

long-johnsBecause many of these players have no repeat programming, the inmate responsible for keeping this system running has to insert the tape, push PLAY, then strap a piece of elastic–from an old pair of long-johns–around the tape slot.  When the tape plays to the end & tries to eject, it hits the elastic & returns to the machine, to be played again.  And again.  And again.  Or, as the Brits say– ah-GAIN.


Well, he gets an “A” for sheer inventiveness. He should also get a hearing aid. Either that, or he willfully with malice aforethought ignored my directive to put all books in correct order BEFORE matching the cards to them.

A certain clerk is inventorying the trade fiction wall. Or so I think.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that something’s wrong with the cards in the trade fiction drawer. But he’s gone for the day, so the rest of us have to solve the mystery.
My cataloger finally figures it out. “Look at the order the books are in,” he says, pointing to the shelves. We look. The books are NOT in order. The cataloger then says “NOW, look at the order these cards are in!”

Another clerk understands & says “Oh. My. God.”

What happened was, he started inventorying, noticed that the books were in a different order than the cards, believed that the cards were messed up, and matched the card order to the incorrect book order of the shelves.

Solomon the Wise claimed–insisted, actually–that there’s nothing new under the sun. I don’t agree. This beats all six ways to Sunday.

We wondered why he was stuck on that drawer for over an hour.  That kind of ingenious incompetence takes time.

STYMIED, STULTIFIED, & STUPEFIED: Or, “What’s ‘alpha-numerical’ mean?”

As a library scientist, occasionally you take for granted a bedrock library science principle. Usually, to your detriment. Well, it can’t be helped.

Today, during inventory, an otherwise bright young man asks me the best approach to our 700-plus collection of Self-help books. “Well, the shelf list drawer for this material’s already in order. All that’s left is to put all the shelves in correct alpha-numerical order, and then match up the cards to the books.”


And the bright young man–who’s currently pursuing an undergraduate degree–asks: “And ‘alpha-numerical order would be–what, exactly?”

My fault. Of course it is! Assuming & presuming gets you results like this. It’s no way to run a railroad. I apologize to the youngster & define the term, to which he says “Oh! Of course! That was stupid!” I let him know that it was my stupidity of failing to cover basic terminology before inventory began that caused his confusion.

As we can see, even in correctional library management, ASS-U-ME applies.

Sometimes you CAN tell a book by it’s cover

Our resident bookbinder–or, as he prefers to be called, “bibliopegist”–decides during this years’ inventory to venture forth from the comfort zone and try his hand at matching shelf list cards to book collections. Wearied of me belittling his lack of knowledge of what a spine label is for, especially after he covers a dust jacket with Mylar & doesn’t know how to tell where in the Library it goes, he’s determined to find out how the other half lives.


Today he’s partnered with a clerk who’s handled the Dewey Wall for years, so he’s in very good hands. They’re doing Literature which, in our collection, is assigned a generic “800” followed by the first three letters of the author’s last name. It’s a bookstore arrangement, but it’s appreciated by the inmates who are actually trying to find a book by, say, Shakespeare but may not know that his country of origin was England. Speaking of Shakespeare, our resident bibliopegist reaches the “S”s on the wall, and cannot seem to locate any of the cards for the Bard.

So all the paperbacks are pulled from the shelf & placed on the No Card table.

A little while later, I pass by, see these books, and say “What the hell? We’ve had these books for a decade. No way these cards are missing.” Further investigation turns up the answer: the bibliopegist, instead of looking for Othello or The Taming of the Shrew instead was looking for “Shakespeare,” in other words, for the Author Card. Since there were no Author Cards reading ‘Shakespeare.’ the bibliopegist naturally presumed that the cards for his books were missing.


Before coming to prison, the bibliopegist was a mechanic. That explains some of it. My cataloger, in addition, made truck deliveries for his living. He can’t spell his way out of a paper bag.

I find it difficult locating ‘book people’ to work in the Library. Come to think of it, it’s hard to find ‘book people’ working in many book stores.

OUT OF THE MOUTH OF CONS: Or, “That’s what Chi said”

First inventories can be rough.

We have a clerk whose unenviable job it is to keep the Vietnamese- & Chinese-language books in perfect sequence. A tall order, since he is Cambodian. They call him Chi, as in Tai-chi. This is Chi’s first inventory, may God have mercy upon his soul.

One of the stats we keep is book format–hardcover, trade paper, and mass market. Now, some of the paperbacks can be confusing, having either a reinforced cover c/o Brodart, or a Permabound cover. If it’s your first inventory, stuff like this can be tricky.  Not to mention funny.

Soon after Chi diligently begins separating his assigned collection, he discovers one of the reinforced paperbacks, and confusion sets in. So, like any good library clerk, he turns to a fellow clerk and asks a question for clarification. Had this moment had a rewind button attached, he would have pressed it & hastily re-worded the question. As it was, he could do naught but suffer the ensuing slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Holding aloft the puzzling tome, he asks:

“How do you tell when it’s hard?”

Poor Chi. He will never be on the earth long enough to come CLOSE to living this down.  First inventories can be rough.

APRIL FOOLS: OR, “Whaddaya mean I can’t check out a book in your display case?”

Yesterday we finally removed the Saint Patrick’s Day books from the six display cabinets and replaced them with stuff on comedians and humor, which is our traditional display theme for April. We have about 280 humor books of all kinds, and it’s good to bring them to the attention of the population. It’s my considered opinion that inmates need to engage in healthful, constructive laughter as a coping mechanism against the vagaries of the prison environment.

Since our Department contracts with an outside vendor for the provision of entertainment DVDs, the Library by policy is forbidden to offer movie comedy. So, apart from our books-on-CD collection which contains a few dozen humor disks, the majority of our humor is in book form.

The humor books themselves are kept in a standalone single-faced wooden case, separate from the rest of the nonfiction. this is done partly to emphasize this genre of nonfiction, partly because my boss gave me the book case & told me to use it in good health, and partly because we needed to open up some space on the nonfiction wall.


The three centerpiece cases now display books about comedians which we find in both Humor and Biography — Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, Don Rickles, Howie Mandell, Phyllis Diller, Charlie Chaplin, Chis Rock, Chelsea Handler, Bill Cosby, Whoopie Goldberg, George Lopez, the Smothers Brothers, Mae West, Barbara Eden, Roseanne Barr, Gilda Radner, Janeane Garofalo, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Audrey Meadows, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Lucille Ball, and Mo’Nique, to name but a few. We own about four dozen comedian biographies, and this is because I’ve learned by talking with them that prisoners gravitate to the lives of comedians, many of whom have had a tough time in the business and a hard life to live. And they manage to give the gift of laughter, in spite of the odds. This is a hopeful message that tends to resonate with the inmate population.

on the real side

Two of the better books on American black comedians can be found in our Humor section. they are Mel Watkins’ On The Real Side and Black Comedians on Black Comics by Darryl Littleton. The Watkins text, although as excellent and comprehensive as the older Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, tends to be information-dense for many people, and doesn’t see as much use as it should. The Littleton text is more accessible, because it contains dozens of brief interviews with contemporary standup comics.

At present, the Library contains just a single text on the uses and meaning of humor, the superb Laughter and Liberation by the late, great American psychologist Harvey Mindess. I’ve read two dozen books on the the effects of laughter on human psychology, but I find the Mindess book to be the most accessible, and I talk it up in the Library every chance I get. Human uses of humor and laughter fascinate me, and no more so than within the confines and miseries of a penitentiary, where there is in fact tons of laughter each day to be heard–albeit much of it derisive and at the expense of others.
harvey mindess This book elucidates many of the ways in which humor frees us from societal constraints, constraints which–although arguably necessary for a civil and orderly society–tend to confine our spontaneity and playfulness. The book reminds us that poking fun at our constraints and sacred cows is actually a vital piece to our mental and physical health. It’s one of the most important books ever written on the subject.

The remaining three display cases are filled with representative samplings of the Humor section: Bill Watterson, the Harvard Lampoon, Mad ?Magazine paperbacks, Shel Silverstein, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, The Onion, Carlin, Woody Allen, even Charles Shulz & the ‘Peanuts’ gang. It is certainly true that, as in other Libraries, this material doesn’t fly out the door. It is just as true that when you offer to inmates a program built upon humor, that the interest in this material increases. zHumor08Suddenly, people notice with joy and enthusiasm that you have a Humor section, and material gets some use. Although there is much to be said for reader’s advisory services, in a correctional Library you must go a step further and bring program material to the attention of those who ordinarily might not give it a second look. My contention is that humor plays a vital role in keeping inmates grounded, balanced and, if not happy, then at least content with their present circumstances. Just as yoga instruction teaches us that it’s just as important to direct our breathing as it is to breathe, so it is with humor. It’s just as important to employ purposeful laughter as it is to enjoy a book of Sidney Harris cartoons.

HUMOR-AS-THERAPY: OR, “Don’t you know nobody takes these books out?”


Humor-as-Therapy: or, “Stop it, you’re KILLING me!”

I am a huge proponent of humor-as-therapy for the incarcerated. It works for those on the outside, why not for the imprisoned? In fact, from the poking around I’ve done (Mindess, Moody, Eastman, Keller, Klein), I now view humor as a type of correctional self-help material.

In the past 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of time choosing this stuff for the collection, and Norfolk now has a Humor section of a little over 200 books. To this I now add the following:

1. New New Rules (by Bill Maher)
2. Ecstasy Of Defeat: Sports Reporting At Its Finest By The Editors Of The Onion
3. Bossypants
4. Best Of The Rejection Collection (New Yorker)
5. Humorous Verses Of Lewis Carroll
6. Brief(Er) History Of Time
7. Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen As Comic Strip
8. Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons



[In which we are reminded that jailhouse humor is beastly, cruel, disgusting, foul, inhuman, sick, wicked, and deranged. All at the same time….]

There are some topics about which one should never, ever joke.

This blog post discusses such a topic.

If you’re a healthy, normal person, or are easily offended, close your browser and go read a book.

For once, I am being serious. Please. For your own sake.

You cannot say you were not warned.

*                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

Recently I visited the Walpole Public Library. They had leftovers from their Friends of the Library sale, and we were invited to take what we wanted for our Lending Library.

From the 150 books we chose, one of them — LIFE Laughs Last — held our special attention. Specifically, a B&W photograph appearing on page 156, taken in a San Francisco court room somewhere in the 1960s. Obviously, they posed for this. What’s not so obvious is WHY. Even now, I find it almost impossible to imagine what gave these adults the idea to stage this. It’s WEIRD.

Upon seeing the photo, I chuckled and promptly showed it to one of my cynical Lending Library clerks. He laughed out loud and said: “Teddy’s accuser!”

‘Teddy’ (not his real name) has a disturbingly dark, sardonic outlook on life. Teddy holds nothing sacred. Teddy makes fun of everyone and everything. In particular, Teddy cracks jokes about topics which no tasteful, intelligent, well-bred, sane man would ever think to joke about.

Once the other clerks caught on about the Life photo, this is what they did with it:


This photo was taped to one side of our book binding cabinet.

The next day, our Superintendent comes through the libraries leading a tour of approximately 15 people. It isn’t until hours after he’s gone that I realize that this “in-joke” was visible where he might have noticed. The fact that he did NOT notice bode well for all concerned. The man has a great sense of humor but, had he seen the posting, his professional sensibilities would have impelled him to object.

You may be asking yourself: Schmuck! Didn’t it occur to you that Administration might see this thing? Yes, it did. But Management only occasionally visit the libraries. Of course, life being the Obstinate Cuss that it is, it took less than one solar day for Management to make a walk-through, and it had to be the Superintendent, a man for whom I hold the utmost respect. Thankfully, his attention was on his tour group and not on appropriate and professional Department of Correction office decor.

Which made the joke even funnier. It’s like suppressed laughter in church. You’re not supposed to laugh, but you do, which makes you laugh more.

But I took the thing down. No sense tempting fate ad infinitum. I’m foolish, yes, but NOT fool-hardy. I’m told by folks who love words that there’s a significant difference. Being too lazy to look it up, I choose to believe them.

Jailhouse humor: You either get it, or you don’t.