You Get What You Need

Today, I receive a PDF file in my work email containing a letter to an inmate in response to his complaint that more typewriters should be placed in the population law library.  Now this may come as a shock, but I do not believe that this is a very professional way of communicating a change in service with your professional librarian.  Because I believe this, I am furious.  Dismissing the letter-writing impulse to the Superintendent, I feel that the direct way is best, and decide on the day following to call his secretary to make an appointment to meet & discuss this.


Next afternoon, while walking through our staff parking lot toward the front door–a walk of about 100 yards–it occurs to me that my input was in fact solicited by my boss.  Not only was it solicited, it had been mentioned more than once over the past two months.  It took a while for this to surface, because of the casual way in which these conversations were held, almost as an afterthought.  So it isn’t that the Librarian’s input was not sought; it was that a decision was made that did not jibe with the Librarian’s input.

So I have that to stew over.

But that’s much easier to deal with than having not been asked in the first place.  In this case, Administration does the professional thing and asks the front-line employee for input before weighing the alternatives.

Do I think that their decision caves in to the demands of a few loud-mouths?  Of course I do.  But you can’t always get what you want.  You can’t always get what you want.  You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometime, you just might find — you get what you need.

I need some sleep.



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.


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.


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!