I’M SPENDING YOUR MONEY: OR, “Bring me back some escape fiction!” he said with a wink

[In which we negotiate another materials purchase courtesy of the Governor, and try not to contribute to the further delinquency & depravity of the Hardened Criminal….]


Christmas! (but with a Caveat)

Our Libraries here have friends in high places, notably from the Department’s Education Division, where no less than the Director of Inmate Education and Training and the Assistant Director both have a genuine love for libraries and a respect for their power and majesty. Whenever possible (usually once a year), Education bestows a few grand on each of the Libraries in our system.

The caveat is that  approximately 25% of that money should go to careers & jobs, Spanish-language, large-print, re-entry/reintegration, and language instruction material.

This time, we have $1,700 to do with as we choose, so long as we keep to the 25% caveat above, and so long as the material is in concert with legitimate penological objectives. Because I work for Norfolk, I have the additional restriction and responsibility of ensuring that the material is in concert with the policy language found in the December 1, 2011 addendum to the Norfolk Procedures relating to 103 Code of Massachusetts Regulation 478, “Library Services.” Piece of cake.

SPOILER ALERT: We end up buying 152 books, including (1) DVD and (21) CDs. That’s making those tax dollars stretch. And it’ll give my cataloguer something constructive to do for a solid week, which is nothing to sneeze at.

It isn’t mobile. And it’s not a fair. But it does have books. Tons of books.

Since Fiscal wants us to spend this money fairly quickly, most of us choose to patronize our old standby: the New England Mobile Book Fair. I’m told they have over a million titles in stock. Having never counted them, I don’t rightly know. But it’s an enormous store, divided into two main sections. If you walk into the main entrance and turn right, you enter the retail section; walk in & turn left, and you’re in the gigantic remainder section. For retail, NE Mobile gives a flat 20% discount as well as best seller discounts. Most remainder books sell between $3.98-$7.98. It’s an experience, and whenever you’re out in this part of the country, it’s a booklover’s must. The store was recently sold to one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet and—just as importantly—he’s a booklover. It’s truly a wonderful, laid-back place to shop.

NE Mobile Book Fair Flickr photostream


Spinning the caveat to my greatest advantage

Regarding large-print: since we already purchase books occasionally from Thorndike, I choose not to be concerned with large-print at this time. And even though they do have a respectable (not sizable, but respectable) Spanish-language section toward the back of the store near Shipping, I saw nothing of use this time. I did, however, buy some foreign-language CD sets while back there.


The Flying Wallendas balancing act between What Inmates Want vs. What They Can Have

Well, at my place, I don’t have too much trouble. Having talked with me and participated in my socialization programs for years, inmates are fairly familiar with how I see my role and responsibilities. They know they can ask me for anything. They also know that I will limit their requests based on Department-wide and Norfolk-specific guidelines. If I can’t get what they want, I will explain why. Unless the immediate situation demands it (like an emergency), you always give an inmate an explanation for why s/he has to hear “Sorry” or “No.” The Golden Rule, after all.

I always announce on the Lending Library bulletin board when I’m preparing for the next book buy, which is their cue to petition me for titles and subjects that either they need (a school assignment) or they’re interested in (pleasure reading). My cataloguer keeps track of these requests in an Excel file, which I print out & take along on the appointed day. I find gratification when I can find something that someone has their heart set on. I think all Librarians do. It’s part of why we do what we do. On this day, I’ve been approved to use (8) hours to look and see what I can see. I’ll not need that much time, but for my personality I do this work best when I’m not racing against the clock.

Today I have (31) inmate requests to fill. From those, this is what I find:

Tale Of Two Cities (replacement copy)

63 Documents The Government Doesn’t Want You To Read

Magician: Master
Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (replacement copy)
Writer’s Market 2012 (to replace our 2011 copy)
God’s Shrink: 10 Sessions And Life’s Greatest Lessons From An Unexpected Patient

Writer’s Digest University
Mabinogion Tetralogy
Rise Of The Blood Royal
W.E.B. Griffin (Lieutenants/Captains/Generals)
New Jim Crow
All God’s Children: The Bosket Family And The American Tradition Of Violence (to replace our beat-up copy)
Defending Jacob (a novel about the adjudication process, recommended by a NEMBF employee who is familiar with the criminal justice system)

Faith (a novel)
Diary of Eve/ Diary of Adam (for a Mark Twain fan)
Clan Of The Cave Bear/ Valley Of Horses (3rd and 4th replacement copies, respectively, which is getting old….)
and Next (for a Crichton fan)
Anthem (replacement copy)
American Fantastic Tales: Terror And The Uncanny From Poe To The Pulps
(not an actual request, but they’re out of Lovecraft)

For some reason, they don’t have Hole in the Universe, a 2004 novel by Mary McGarry Morris, which figures, because it’s for the library clerk who assists me in my Tuesday night ABLE MINDS course. Well, you always want to kind of ‘reward’ the people who actually help you do things. Here, I use the term ‘reward’ in its loosest possible sense, because you’re not supposed to play favorites. But I know that I’m within the rules, because his is a legitimate request. I’m talking about my sense of fairness, given how much time and enthusiasm he gives to the program. Stinks.


Helping Cons Help Themselves

Next, I take my mini-shopping cart and wheel it to the retail Self-Help section. This is the one time of year that I load up on recovery texts. They’re not cheap, but prisoners need them and use them, so I’m not shy about tossing them in the cart. This is what I get:

1.       Workbook Of Compulsive Hoarding & Acquiring
2.       Self-Esteem Workbook
3.       Cognitive Behavioral Workbook For Anxiety
4.       Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook
5.       Mind-Body Workbook For PTSD
6.       Everything GT Stress Management
7.       It Will Never Happen To Me: Growing With Addiction As Youngsters, Adolescents, Adults
8.      Lord Of The Rings And Philosophy (for my Wednesday night ABLE MINDS program, to replace my personal copy that pines for its place on its shelf at home)
9.   Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, And Commitment
10.   Harness Your Dark Side: Mastering Jealousy, Rage, Frustration And Other Negative Emotions
11.   Learned Optimism: HT Change Your Mind And Your Life
12.   Saying Goodbye: A Guide To Coping With A Loved One’s Terminal Illness
13.   When Panic Attacks
14.   Grieving The Death Of A Mother
15.   Victory Over Verbal Abuse
16.   I Hate Conflict! Seven Steps To Resolving Differences With Anyone In Your Life
17.   Fireproof
18.   Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate And Spiritual Guide To Coping With Loss
19.   I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness To The Blind Side And Beyond
20.   Children Of The Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up’s GT Getting Over Narcissistic Parents
21.   Why Am I Still Depressed?
22.   Easy Way To Stop Drinking
23.   Hi, My Name Is Jack: One Man’s Story Of The Tumultuous Road To Sobriety And A Changed Life
24.   Alcoholics Anonymous (4th Ed.)
25.   Confusing Love With Obsession
26.   Save The Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care
27.   Disarming The Narcissist: Surviving And Thriving With The Self-Absorbed
28.   Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder
29.   Calming The Angry Brain: How Understanding The Way Your Brain Works Can Help You Control Anger And Aggression
30.   Sleeping With A Stranger: How I Survived Marriage To A Child Molester
31.   Healing After The Suicide Of A Loved One
32.   You’re Smarter Than You Look: Uncomplicating Relationships In Complicated Times
33.   Seven Simple Steps To Personal Freedom: An Owner’s Manual For Life
34.   10 Stupid Things Men Do To Mess Up Their Lives (a replacement copy)
35.   When Someone You Love Is Depressed
36.   Yes, You Can! 1,200 Inspiring Ideas For Work, Home & Happiness
37.   To Be A Man: In Search Of The Deep Masculine
38.   Guide To Stress Reduction
39.   A Man’s Way Through The 12 Steps
40.  Real 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance, And Independence Beyond The 12-Step Programs

I just realized that some of these are remainder titles.

Anyway, it’s a good haul. We’ll have to make a little space for them. We intend to re-section our trade fiction paperbacks currently shelved in a wooden “tower”-type bookcase built around a brick pillar in the Lending Library. This ‘pillar case’ ;o) abuts the wooden unit where we shelve approximately 500 self-help/ recovery titles. My goal is to fill this pillar case with more self-help/ recovery/ inmate-specific texts as the years roll by. It’s astonishing and heartening how many inmates avail themselves of this material. Some of them tell me how grateful they are that we offer this stuff. That’s all the encouragement I need. I do not believe, as some do, that a correctional Library should be nothing more than material that addresses the causes and problems of criminality. But I do think that a sizable percentage (10% of the collection) should be available to help prisoners overcome their criminal ways. Norfolk Lending Library houses about 13,000 items; our Self-Help/Recovery section has about 500 items. We’ve a ways to go….So we end up with 40 self-help/recovery titles out of a total purchase of 152 books. The 25% caveat has already been satisfied.


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


Next time, we’ll conclude this sale, and start the grueling procedure called “Getting This Stuff Inside”….

HEALTH IS WEALTH: Or, “I can make Curry Chicken with Rice & Beans better’n anybody in here!”

[In which the Library does its humble part for Health Awareness Month, remembering to change the genuine HP color Inkjet cartridge several times in the process….]

At Norfolk, April has been designated as Health Awareness Month. The Library has been directed to participate by creating a display of health material and health-related posters. We also have contributed 30 health-related DVDS/videos  to the Library cable channel, one health-related film per day for the entire month.

We created the display yesterday evening between 6PM-8:30PM, using 50 books, eight ready-made posters, and 12 health-related  internet images found using Google Images. That’s where the color Inkjet cartridges come in. Well, it takes a lot of ink to create these images, especially when you use Paint to print out nine, 12, or 16 8.5″ x 11″ pages which you then have to trim and tape together to make a decent-sized poster.  The Microsoft Paint program is useful when you need to print out multi-page poster-size images, and we use this each month when it comes time to change the theme in our display cases.

This became one of our centerpieces:

We created (6) displays: Laughter is the Best Medicine,; Sneezes Spread Diseases; Health Around the World; AIDS/HIV Awareness; Men’s Health; and Mental Health Awareness.

These display cases are in the hallway leading past the Lending Library and continuing on to the staircase that takes you to the second floor School Department.

Approximately 300 people will pass these cases in the course of a week. Few will stop and look at what my clerks have created.

But I’ve noticed that the ones who will are also the ones who will stop in the Library and give compliments. Last night, about 5 minutes after we completed the displays, 15 minute movement period was called, and the inmates who were attending classes upstairs were released. One of them came into the Lending Library and said “Bill! Who put that nice display together in the hallway?” I pointed to one of my clerks, the man who creates the displays each month. “Well I just wanted to tell you how nice it makes the hallway look.” We thanked the guy, and he went away.

Years ago, I used to say this was a thankless job. Then, I learned to pay attention to the “Thank-you’s.”

One new aspect of Health Awareness Month for this year is that the Administration is holding a recipe contest. One of my clerks, a latino from Philadelphia, and a cook on the streets, feels more than up to the challenge. “Give me the ingredients I need, and I’ll win that contest hands-down,” he boasts with a smile. “Nothing better than a plate of rice and beans on a cold Spring day. And it’s healthy eating, too.”

A cook-off in jail. This is how corrections chooses to emphasize health awareness in 2012. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Be well.






“Reading changes criminality; Film at 11” Or: WHERE DO THEY GET THIS SH*T?

[In which we marvel at the attempt of Generation Y to reason its way out of a paper bag….]

A few weeks ago, AD announced that she was going to direct her efforts toward helping inmates become better readers. I advised her that the Education Division already does an admirable job of this, and couldn’t she spend her time and talents focusing on inmate criminality?

Her reply:

literacy (sic) isn’t just about ESL…literacy (sic) in the DOC is about fostering an appreciation of reading in inmates, which i (sic) believe helps to address their criminality. just (sic) last week, an inmate wrote a piece in the inmate newspaper [developed by CRA] about bettering himself at the library; how even learning a new word a week can be the key to bettering oneself (he also was in ABLE MINDS last time around). to (sic) me, that’s literacy and that’s hopefully preparing these inmates to be better citizens once on the outside.


The problem with this kind of ‘hope’ is that it’s woefully misguided. Corrections doesn’t operate on hope; it operate on cognitive-based studies regarding efforts that directly address criminal thinking and anti-social behavior. Nebulous theories that reading somehow is enough to change criminals into citizens has no scientific support; indeed, it’s not even reasonable on its face. It’s a pipe-dream of liberals who convince themselves that reading naturally leads to greater self-esteem, which necessarily leads to wanting to better themselves, which magically leads to getting a job, and invariably results in a better citizenry.

Poppycock and balderdash. Without programmatic efforts to address criminality, all literacy does on its own is make a literate criminal out of an illiterate criminal. Address the errors in thinking that causes criminality, THEN introduce variables like literacy to the mix, and you stand half a chance of reclaiming a life mired in crime.


Common Sense vs. the Culture of ‘Expert’ Worship

[Today, AD sent me this exchange, which is excerpted from a prison library listserv to which she belongs. Some folks seem to think that if ‘Studies show…’ a thing, then and only then can they believe that thing….]

One Librarian started it off:

This is a question being pondered by my institution’s Administration. Allegedly, there have been some inmates (very problematic, prone to violence) who appear to be acting out [towards staff] certain scenes from Urban Lit books that are later found in their cells. While the connection between what is read and what is acted out has not, to my knowledge, been proven…the suspicion is there. Has another facility experienced this or heard of such a connection?

Another responded:

Here in _____________, we are a moderate size county jail and also function using the public library model and have two branches with professional library staff. We are not part of a library system but partner frequently with the public library. We do offer extensive legal reference service in addition to leisure reading and programs. I don’t think urban lit. contributes to the violence per se. I suspect most of  plots are not really new information for the perpetrators (personal opinion not based on research). Another question in Pandora’s box… Does urban lit promote violence in the community??

Which elicited this reply:

If we’re going to espouse that reading classic, motivational, self-help and re-entry books can improve people, I think we have to accept that reading violent books can cause people to be violent.

But the book doesn’t “do” anything; credit and fault lie not in the book, but in the person.  The reader must seek to copy or change. Let’s face it, it’s easier to throw out a book that is perceived to be “bad” than it is to follow due process to hold someone accountable for his/her behavior.

But blaming the book is just another form of censorship.  I’ve always felt it’s part of my job to advocate for all books and recommend that individuals be dealt with on an individual basis.

And then — at least to my mind — some common sense:

O.K. I’ll fire the first round. The argument goes like this: “Guns don’t kill–People kill.” Make guns available to the criminal who has used them in the past, but hold him accountable if he does more than hold it? But wait, there is no second amendment rights in prison, no uncensored right to association. Yet somehow we think that it’s 100% right for prisoners to read anything printed, because that will secure the blessings of liberty to everyone else?  Where is this coming from?

Is the imprisonment of one the imprisonment of us all? Then do away with prisons, problem solved.

The question really is: Do first amendment rights make sense as good correctional theory?

It is excellent public library theory for free people in a free society to have free access to anything they want to read (or shoot). But regarding criminals, could it be that librarians have bought into the idea that any attempt at rehabilitation is to be considered “forced therapy,” and public safety be damned?  Have librarians turned against the very concept of “bibliotherapy”?  Is the purpose of books in prison primarily to entertain — with vocabulary building as a bonus?

Is it not ridiculous to assert that true crime novels that describe the mutilation of women and rape of children should be allowed because newspapers also contain “true crime”?  Maybe someone thinks that since there are no women or children in prison, that it is harmless [for rapists and molesters] to relish their rape in a work of fiction?

Librarians in corrections should consider the correctional theory their collection development policy is based upon.

I recommend a book called Correctional Theory, Context and Consequences by Francis T. Cullen & Cheryl Jonson, Sage Press, 2010. It is only 215 pages long and contains a history of six correctional theories summarized as the following- Just Desserts, Deterrence, Incapacitation, Restorative Justice, Rehabilitation and Early Intervention.  I agree with the findings by researchers in the Netherlands and Belgium that reading has an impact upon the reader, especially fiction.

If you do not believe there is such a thing as a “criminal mind”  containing “thinking errors” that result in choices to destroy others and pose a danger to the public, then you will resist any criminal theory because you will not believe “criminals” exist that need rehabilitation in order to protect the public.

I don’t know why common sense is no longer invoked when a controversial subject is being considered by intelligent, educated people. I think, perhaps, that our intelligence and education gets in the way.

Here’s the way I see this — If what we read or what we view or what we hear did NOT influence our behavior, then the multi-trillion dollar advertising industry wouldn’t exist. But it does. And it continues to make a lot of money for those who earn their living manipulating the behavior of others through advertising. And the reason that it does is because those ladies and gentlemen who work for it know unequivocally that the behavior of people watching or listening to their ads can indeed be manipulated. The studies and science already exist to prove that, but that’s not my point. Watch the buying behavior of friends, family, and yourself after watching commercials, or being exposed to internet, radio or print ads. It affects you. It manipulates you.

This happens to be an election year. Pay attention to the ads you’re being shown, as well as the astronomical cost of those ads. Football fan? Three words: Super Bowl ads.

We have to be courageous enough — sensible enough — to admit openly that what prisoners read and view in the libraries of our nation’s prisons and jails certainly, unequivocally affects their thinking and behavior. It cannot be otherwise. And you don’t require academic studies to prove this. Common sense will suffice.

But don’t just take my word for it. Pay attention to the type of material that prisoners choose to read.




[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.

“I’m so glad we had this time together” Or, EASY COME, EASY GO

[In which your Beleaguered Instructor admits to breaking correction’s Cardinal Rule, and pays dearly for it straight through the heart….]

Today, a clerk tells me that Bob Merkin has finally left Norfolk; a shiver goes through me, and I instantly miss him.

I wish I had the writing skills to tell you exactly why. The only thing I can think to say is , when a prisoner that you’ve enjoyed as a human being leaves, it’s like having a friend die.

Yes, yes YES! You’re not supposed to get that close with inmates, and I understand why. But the truth is that it sometimes happens, you know that it’s happening, and you allow it to happen because you know what this individual brings to your work life. You never forget that the guy is a prisoner, but you always thank him for what he brings to the work place, and try to never miss an opportunity to make him feel appreciated. Inmates like him–no, PEOPLE like him—come once in a blue moon. For every thousand inmates you have a Bob Merkin and as there are only 12,000 inmates in this system you get the idea. I know I can’t replace him. And of course that’s what makes him special.

goodbye miss you

We worked side-by-side, both figuratively and literally. He was like a second staff member in the Library. Inmates do not like being thought of in that way, and I understand why. But there it is. If he had been a Department employee, he could not have helped me more. He literally re-invented the legal copy clerk position.

I’ve had copy clerks before, many of them. All they did was show up for work and push the Big Green Button. Bob just didn’t copy legal papers. Robb knew court rules off the top of his head which came in handy when determining how many of what kind of legal document or submission needed to be copied. Sometimes inmates ask for too many; other times, they ask for too little. Bob had no problem with keeping inmates honest. I think this was because he knew that the copy procedure—though nowhere near the free-for-all it used to be—actually worked, and he wanted to support that procedure.

His knowledge of court submissions rivaled that of any jailhouse lawyer, and this was something I didn’t know when I hired him. His familiarity with Massachusetts judges, of inmates’ individual filings, and of the court rules governing both federal and state submissions brought a new dimension to the legal copy clerk job. It never occurred to me when hiring for a copy clerk that I should be looking for an inmate with extensive familiarity with court rules. I have learned a great deal more about civil and criminal court submissions from working with him, and I am grateful.


He has this youthful appearance to his face, even though he’s in his early 40’s, and an easy smile that when it comes –and it comes frequently—makes your burdens a little lighter each time. He also has a sense of humor that allows my own humor to flourish, which makes it easy to be around him. He permitted us to joke about ethnicity and race and—since he is a black man—is refreshing and liberating. Especially to someone like me whose humor was weaned on Don Rickles and Andrew Dice Clay and the attack humor they were best known for. He is by no means politically correct, and anti-PC humor is particularly welcome and useful in a prison setting.

His humor style flew in the face of the regulations and policies in place warning us all that we’re not allowed to offend each other. Rob understands that life is offensive, and prison is offensive, and the Entitlement Attitude is offensive, and crime and the criminal mentality is offensive, and stupidity is offensive, and incivility is offensive. These personality traits manifest themselves in the daily lives of prisoners and prison employees, and Bob knows that it’s better to laugh at those traits than to punch the empty heads of the people exhibiting them….Together we made fun of all these things, and I cherished the freedom to do so with this man who is never afraid to thumb his nose at the cultural Thought Police. His attitude is: “You’re full of shit; I know you’re full of shit, and I’m going to laugh at just how full of shit you are. Excuse me? You say I’m not allowed to do that? Aw, HELL no. My Grandma raised me better than that.”


We also talk about other things that matter, like our families and raising children and keeping a wife happy and what to say when a loved one of a friend passes on and how to control your anger when dealing grudgingly with fools and making fun of fellow clerks and their peccadilloes, and how The System sometime hurts people, and how manipulating certain inmates are.

Bob knows how helpful certain staff can be even though they may be unpopular and have a certain negative reputation. In fact, I emailed my boss’s boss to tell her his good opinion of her, and how helpful he always found her to be even though it’s generally believed that she’s unhelpful. This employee wears her heart on her sleeve, and was appreciative of the man’s comments, as I knew she would be. Prison employees rarely hear inmate praise, which is why I was happy to pass his words on to her.


His words made her day, and he made that happen because he was comfortable enough to share his opinion with me. His courage to voice true feelings for a staff member who is generally seen as unhelpful is one of the reasons I am fascinated by this man. He knows what he knows, and he’s not afraid to tell others about it, even if it doesn’t jibe with the conventional inmate wisdom. Bob is savvy enough to know that the conventional wisdom is often wrong. And that, Dear Hearts, is true wisdom.

His political opinions of prison and prisoners are aligned with mine, and it’s refreshing to hear him unabashedly voice it in the company of other inmates. His social views are decidedly conservative in many respects, which is a refreshing change from the liberal rants you usually receive from the incarcerated. And if inmates screw up, he unflinchingly and unhesitatingly condemns them in the presence of other inmates, which is a kind of intellectual courage and honesty you do not often see displayed.

And although this behavior can sometimes be used by manipulative inmates to secure the confidence of the on-site employee supervisor so that they won’t be scrutinized as closely as other clerks, such was not the case with this individual. I say this with confidence because we worked side-by-side for nearly three years, and in that time a man will surely pull the covers off of a manipulative personality if he possesses one. This man is what-you-see-is-what-you-get. This man learned a lot about himself in his incarcerated time (15 years), and isn’t about to let the vagaries of prison and criminals deter him from losing the self-knowledge he painfully gained through soul-searching, prison programs, and learning about his anger issues.

anger issues all day long

We both have anger issues, and here I feel closest to him, because I know that this is a fellow traveler who understands my own cross, and is quick to forgive my transgressions against him because he recognizes the signs. I am grateful to him for this. It taught me to be more forgiving of those who have a similar burden, and not just in inmates but in staff as well. Anger is an unresolved issue for many prison employees. It helps to be able to share it with someone who’s been there/ done that. I will miss his support and encouragement.

Another fascinating and sad aspect of Robb’s incarceration is that his own father is imprisoned with him. In fact, he didn’t really know his Dad until the older man was transferred to Norfolk. So we got to talk about that aspect of his life, and what it was like to catch up with a father whom for years had been an absent, unknown quantity. He was happy to have the opportunity to get to know his Dad.


Bob is that rare prisoner who has learned to own his crime and feel true regret for what it has done to others. Of course he’s sorry that jail happened to him, but he has learned to be sorry for his victim. He is very lucky that his victim did not die. He has contacted his victim, and his victim has forgiven him, something that Bob counts as a daily blessing. This forgiveness helps him to continue his self-discovery which served to make him a better, rehabilitated human being. He shows insight into his criminal thinking, and takes the hard steps to try to leave it behind.

Bob has several step-children and a loving wife waiting for him. His family has stuck with him through it all, which will forever amaze me about women and children and their resiliency in the face of incarceration. They visit him often, accept his collect calls each week, and send him packages and letters. And not just his own family, but his extended family; he talks of his Aunts and his brother and his nephews & nieces. Unlike the majority of inmates, Bob’s bridges were never burned. His family awaits him. Because of them, he will never return.

I am a better man for the blessing of knowing Bob Merkin. I will never see him again, which is painful to write. I will try to remember that smile, because it’s an uplifting smile, and I will be happy knowing that he’s now sharing it with the people he loves, and who love him.


“Hey, mee-ster! You wanna rehabilitate my see-ster?” Or, CURBING THE NURTURING IMPULSE

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?”

My reply:

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.”

A.D.’s response:

“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.

“Do you ever actually see the inmates?” Or: PRISON MYTHS EXPLODED WHILE-YOU-WAIT

Friday at 2PM–as a favor to their Instructor who’s currently out of state–I’m meeting & greeting a class of 17 library science students from Boston’s Simmons College. They’re taking a class in Special Libraries and we’ve arranged to give them a tour of good ol’ MCI-Norfolk. Based on previous experiences with student tours, here’re some of the questions we’ve received:

“Have you ever been attacked?”

“Don’t you get scared in here?”

“Don’t you find it hard to censor material?”

“Are Massachusetts guards really the highest-paid in the country?”

“I know they can watch DVDs. Are they allowed to have iPods?”

“Why do you teach them to sue you?”

“Wouldn’t you agree that prisons as a concept are immoral?”

“Don’t you think they should lose their rights once they come to prison?”

“Why doesn’t corrections force prisoners to read and write?”


“Can they use the internet?”

“Do you really need a Master’s degree to work in a prison?”

“Why do we have to pay taxes so criminals can have law libraries?”

“How much does a prison librarian make?”

“Does corrections really rehabilitate anybody?”

“How can you take all the negativity?”

“I bet it’s never boring in here!”

“Can’t you find a decent job?”  (This one always stings….)

“Isn’t is weird being around murderers and child molesters all day long?”

“As a culture, aren’t we coddling criminals by giving them these nice libraries??”

“Why should criminals earn college diplomas?”

“They’re not the most honest people. Do they ever return anything?”

“Why should you care about these wackos?”

“How many of these guys can read?”

We’ll give them an hour tour of the place, including showing them the library in the Segregation Unit, and then end up in the School Building, where we’ll set up shop in the lending library (which will be closed for the afternoon).

We’ll finish the day letting them wander around a bit in the Lending Library and poke around in the collection. We’ll remember to remind them that Malcolm Little did lots of reading here, we’ll answer about 200 more questions, and we’ll just have ourselves one knee-slapping, gut-busting, heckuva good time!

(Part 4) “Say, what time is it, kids?” “IT’S CENSORSHIP TIME!”

I’ll let you in on a little secret, if you guys promise to keep your mouths shut:

The Education division really doesn’t expect us to limit our purchase to only the five previously-mentioned categories. We’ve been told unofficially that, as long as those kinds of books comprise 25% of the total purchase, no one’s going to give us any grief about it.

So, knowing that I usually come away with about 245 titles for my $1,500–and knowing that I’ve already placed 39 self-help titles in my cart–I’m well on my way to satisfying that requirement.

I still need Spanish-language material. Since the Shire’s Spanish-language holdings consists primarily of two shelves of teach-yourself textbooks, I have to look pretty carefully. Ultimately I toss in the cart the following:

  • La Mirada: No Ve La
  • El Ultimo Magnate
  • Dias De Poder
  • En Un Acto
  • Condicion Fisica Para Vivar Mejar
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Catecismo de la Inglesia catolica
  • La Isla Mejor el Mar

For Large-print, I find only six titles, and they’re nothing that anyone at Norfolk will want to read, so I pass. Our current large-print holdings stands at 81, which is a fairly respectable number.

For Community Re-entry/Re-integration, I usually look for guides and directories, something current that can help a prisoner plan for his successful re-entry into society by finding shelter, employment, and/or halfway house/treatment facilities before the date of his release. I must say that, since the Department gave its Librarians filtered internet access two years ago, we’ve been able to wean ourselves away from print and rely more on current information posted by both government and community agencies. Knowing this, I pass also on this category.

For Job and  Career Guides, I find:

  • Fiske’s Guide To Four-Year Colleges, 2006. Knowing that our recent college guide is 2005, in the cart it goes. (A little later in the year, when we’re given some Education Division money to spend, I’ll be able to visit a retail store and update this title).
  • How Not to Destroy Your Career in Music
  • What They’ll Never Tell You about the Music Business
  • The Resume Catalog: 200 Damn Good Examples
  • Careers in Crime: An Applicant’s Guide (this is a career guide spoof written by a career guides editor. I can’t resist)

That’s it for mandated titles. Now, it’s time to play….

(Part 2) “Say, what time is it, kids?” “IT’S CENSORSHIP TIME!”

Here’s something else we need to do while we’re out here — we’re gonna honor some written inmate requests that we’ve got stashed in our trusty 10×13 manila clasp envelope we’ve brought with us for just such a moment.

You cannot ignore inmate requests for reading material, and I think I may have given several students the impression that I do. I do not. It’s truly fun and personally rewarding  providing requested reading for those who appreciate your efforts. It’s the Acquisitions Librarian coming out in you. Plus — unlike most men, apparently — I love to shop, and I love to shop for BOOKS. (Once you Kindle-worshipers finally manage to destroy the publishing world, we book-lovers are going to come and get every one of you).

It’s satisfying when you’re able to match a request with a purchase. And it’s doubly so when you see the prisoner following through and checking out the book. Your time’s been well-spent, and now some of his time can be well-spent in reading something he enjoys — within the limits of what the public and corrections deem appropriate.

Since you’ve read these notes beforehand, you have a pretty good idea of what you need to look for. Let’s start with this one…A poetry lover wants a specific translation of Chaucer. I remember saying to this guy:

“Look, Bud — this is jail, not Yale. You get what we give ya.”

He replied, “So far, you’ve given me 15 years, and a migraine.” Ingrate!

  • Anyway, we’re now in the poetry section, and it’s clear that they don’t have the Chaucer he’s looking for BUT — they do have a nice little Perennial Library hardcover called The Poetry of Chaucer, and I toss that in the cart ’cause it’s in great shape and they only want ten bucks for it, meaning we’ll get it for $7. Such a bargain! Since we only have his Canterbury Tales, this’ll improve our poetry holdings. Of course, this choice doesn’t fill the request, but you can’t have everything. Plus, there’s always ILL.

What’s next?

  • One of my clerks who’s a horror/sci-fi nut wants me to look for some Robert McCammon. I turn my cart down the 10-unit Science Fiction/Fantasy aisle, where these Shire-folk have placed hard covers first, followed by paperbacks (alpha by author). No effort is made to separate sci-fi from fantasy, but who cares because we’ve got the author’s name. And we discover that there’s no McCammon. OK, knowing they don’t have a separate horror section, I turn to the paperback fiction wall and head for the “M” section. And that’s where we find several — Bethany’s Sin, Swan Song, Boy’s Life, and Stinger, all paperbacks, all in great shape, and all stuff we don’t have.
  • Since my clerk is also a Harlan Ellison freak, I return to the sci-fi/fantasy aisle & pick up a trade paper copy of Medea: Harlan’s World. Because it’s more than a little shelf-worn, our book binder will put a hard cover on it to make it more shelf-worthy.
  • Knowing that these have been missing since last inventory, one of my circulation clerks asked me to keep an eye out for The Godfather and volume two of Wouk’s War and Remembrance, but I can’t find either in HC/PB
  • Another clerk asks for Thomas Pynchon & Margaret Atwood, and I find Vineland and The Handmaid’s Tale, both in HC for a measly $10 each
  • A patron asks for something on back pain and I find a trade paper with a 2003 edition statement; this is “recent” for our collection, so I toss it in the cart
  • A regular law library patron asks for “Books on World War II from the Japanese perspective.” He’s given me a list of about 10 titles to look for, titles that he’s copied out of a recent Edward R. Hamilton catalog. I hand the list to Jack Boland, proprietor, and tell him “Any help is appreciated.” About 10 minutes later, Jack returns and reports that he has none of the requested titles, nor anything else that will help fill the request
  • A fellow asks that we replace our missing copy of Guns, Germs and Steel, and I find a nice trade paper copy for $8.50 in the History aisle
  • Another inmate needs some biographical material on poet Christina Rosetti for a college report he’s doing. We have her poetry, but no biography, so I check both HC/ trade paper biography aisles, and find some biographical notes in a trade paper poetry collection
  • Finally, one of my inmate authors (a good writer who’s never been published but keeps trying) asks for a Stephen King book he’s read about called On Writing: Learning to Write Fiction. I find it in the Grammar & Journalism section, and it’s a whopping $20 for a flimsy trade paperback.

See, because we’re never given a lot of money for these book buys, I try getting the most bang for the buck, which is why I’m in a used bookstore instead of a multinational chain or mom-n-pop retail. So I try avoiding any title over $15, unless I’m convinced we really need it. Well, we don’t need this King book, but the writer would definitely get his money’s worth out of it, plus we have a sizable literary criticism section in the Reference Room. So that’s where this title will go.

That being the end of the “special requests,” I turn now to the other mandated categories on the list.