Why we are prison Librarians

[…in which we begin what hopefully will become a regular series of vignettes serving to illustrate why we do what we do.  This 1st vignette is courtesy of the illustrious Velva Hampson, Senior Librarian, CSATF/SP Corcoran].



“I’m doing inmate book clubs, and they are a lot of work. Here’s one insight from level 2 GP that makes it all worth the effort.

When discussing Jeannette Walls’ father’s strengths and weaknesses as described in The Glass Castle, one inmate said: “He was there. Every time I talk to my kids on the phone, my son says: ‘You being here is more important than anything you thought you needed to do that got you incarcerated.’”

For the record, the fathers in the group were the ones who couldn’t be judgmental about the parents in that book, because they kept having to compare that to their example of being incarcerated for a large part of their children’s lives.”


Which puts me in mind of part of a much earlier post on Bill Cosby’s book Come On, People! On the Path From Victims to Victors:

“As long as fathers keep going to jail, kids will turn to the streets,” Abdul concludes. “Why? Because the father’s not there to watch TV with his kids, the father’s not there to listen to rap music with his kids, the father’s not there to teach the kids why the ‘N-word’ is degrading and hateful and hurtful. Kids miss that male guidance. Nothing can replace that.”

And a Child Shall Lead Them

Now Miguel sits up and raises his hand. All of 23 years old, Miguel grew up in Boston’s south end knowing poverty, racism, crime, a one-parent family, and street life. Since coming to prison, Miguel has turned himself around, parlaying his thug existence for a Boston University degree.  But right now, Abdul has lit a fire under him and he cannot sit still.

“I’ve been listening to people here, especially the OG’s, and I gotta say something to them. Here you sit, your second and third prison terms, a lot of you. Exactly who is raising your children? You talk about how important it is to be there for them, but you’re talking about it while you sit in jail.”

Gregg says, “Hold up, young brother. You don’t know all the facts. Don’t go judging what you don’t know.”

Miguel continues. “You’re here, not there– right or wrong?”

“That’s not the whole story,” Gregg shouts back.

“Right or wrong?”

Gregg sighs and turns his head.

“Kids need that male guidance, “Miguel continues. “They need limits, discipline. They need you at their bedside for that hug and good-night kiss, they need you for answers when life gets too hard, they need you to keep them from running to the streets. They don’t need your jailhouse letters, or copies of your program certificates, or promises over the phone. They need a father, and they need him there, not here. I never knew my father. I know what I’m talking about. I ran to the street because there was no man in my way to say ‘No.’ Now ‘cause my father wasn’t there, here I am sittin’ in jail with you.”

“You were the one who chose the street over your mother and family,” Gregg says. “Nobody shoved you out the door; you went willingly. Shoulder some of that blame, little man. You didn’t suddenly just wake up in a cell not knowing how you got here. You chose this.”

“Definitely. All my friends were doin’ it, so I wanted it, too. But if Pops had been around, maybe I wouldn’t have followed the crowd so easily. You only know what you see. When everyone’s doing it, how can you know it’s wrong?”

Come On, Convicts: On the Cosby Path From Prisoners to Citizens


Laughter Yoga in Prison

(IN WHICH we re-discover that starting a new physical activity in the middle of New England Summer is not the brightest of ideas, and have reinforced for Posterity the time-honored human truism that A Little Bribe Never Hurts….)


laughter yoga prison

We did our first laughter yoga session on Tuesday, July 21st.  With surprise and relief, I must admit that it went far better than I had anticipated.  Well, telling them ahead of time that we’d only be doing it for half the night and then they could go served to brighten their spirits.  It was kind of a bribe.  


Plus, it was oppressively hot and disconcertingly muggy.  hot hot hotThere’s no A/C in this library, only windows on the west side of the room (with no hope of a cross-breeze), and a wall-mounted fan that at present doesn’t work.  We brought out several table fans from the back office, but like that’s gonna help when you’re jumping around laughing and clapping and spinning and hopping in 90-degree heat & 100% humidity, with the sun streaming in aggressively through giant panes of glass at precisely that hour of the day? 

I am NOT whining; I am simply reporting.    


The laughter yoga leader training manual talks about certain personality types you’re apt to find in your session.  One of these is called the Laughter Blaster, the person with the loudest, golaughter blasterofiest, most contagious laugh. Well, we had one, a lifer who’s a huge fantasy buffoon.  He really must have needed to laugh.  I’ve attended laughter yoga sessions in public, and have never seen this kind of naked “let’s DO this!” enthusiasm for the concept.  He was champing at the bit (everyone thinks it’s ‘chomping,’ but everyone is wrong.  It’s ‘champing’) to perform the silliest exercises suggested in the manual.  And I am using the term ‘perform’ accurately. 


At one point I read to myself the title of one, the “Kangaroo Dance” and pants downsaid “We have no hope of doing that one.”  This guy says “What?” as if throwing down the gauntlet to the Cosmos.  So I read the exercise description to them.  And the guy starts hopping all over the room and laughing his fool head off.  He hopped so hard, his pants fell down.  I did not need to see that.  Everyone was laughing at his pants.



acting like an airplane


Before this hot, muggy night was through, we had hopped, shouted, giggled, clapped, stretched, laughed silently, and pretended we were airplanes buzzing around the room with our arms out & laughing at each other. We were exhausted. 




Laughter is work.  The Puritans banned it on the Sabbath [citation needed].  And they knew a thing or two about stomping out the natural joy God wired us for, you betcha! [common knowledge]




Them andcalvin those Calvinists.  I think those Calvinists used to pillory people who were found smiling on the Sabbath.  John Calvin, a real barrel of laughs.  What got his knickers in a knot?  There’s someone who needed therapeutic laughter! 


I hope he’s in Purgatory now, being shown South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut on an eternal tape loop with his eyes pried open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.





‘Escape’ is a bad word

…but it gets your attention.

At least the folks at the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals in London must think so, judging by the title of this interesting March 23, 2015 post about prison Librarians.

“The Great Escape”



After the Money’s Gone

(In which we are reminded that All Things Must Pass which, strangely enough, even includes library grant money from the United States government….)

THIRTEEN DAYS AGO, or one day before the grant spending was officially history, I got the OK to spend the remainder of the grant money.  This money represented DVDs & Blu-Ray purchase requests that AEP couldn’t fill by the June 30th deadline.  Having said that: if you don’t currently deal with AEP, you must.  Phenomenal fill rate, people who specialize in government sales, and what they



don’t have they drop ship.  Embarrassingly, until this grant experience I never knew what ‘drop ship’ meant.  Someone in our Fiscal office (who’s probably still laughing) schooled me, so now I’m in the know.


Advanced Educational Products – GSA



See this structure?  Isn’t it magnificent?  If only it was ours.  Our location is ugly.  But the people working at our ugly location are personable, competent book-people, and you can’t ask for anything more than that.  Wait–yes you CAN!  Earlier in the

year they also provided lunch on the house, as a thank-you for spending two thousand dollars.  Proving yet again that it’s what inside that counts.  This time, our paltry $281 netted us a paltry 19 titles.  Nineteen.  What is our world coming to?  You kids and your Nooks.

No books on humor-as-therapy were found this time, but among the titles purchased were (3) Bill Watterson Calvin & Hobbes remainders that are probably already delusionstolen as you read these words.  Cartoon collections are hard to keep.  I buy them anyway, in the psychotic belief that soon prison culture will undergo an inexplicable sea-change where inmates who normally steal this stuff begin to return them on or before the stamped due date.  We each of us have our self-delusions.


On Friday, we received the titles (all of them, it should be gratefully noted) from the Property Department.  The cataloger/classifier classified & cataloged them before he left at




3:30 to begin his weekend.  The circulation clerk created records for them in Circulation Plus.  The bookbinder covered hardcover dust jackets with Mylar.  Then the ILL clerk–who usually launches himself out of the building the moment “Movement!” is called but was still hanging around–took it upon himself to shelve them.




And so, the money’s gone.  This is what we have to show for it:

  • Some pedagogic technology
  • Humor-as-Therapy media to feed it
  • Two program texts (Healing Power of Humor by Allen Klein & HA! The Science of When We Laugh & Why by Scott Weems) @13 copies each
  • Laughter Yoga Leader training and certification
  • A 111-title comedian biography section
  • A 79-title humor-as-therapy section
  • 55 new books for the Humor section


And class content for a 12-week course on humorous techniques to apply when zHealing-Humoryou’re feeling stressed out and even when you’re feeling calm.  This Tuesday’s Week Seven topic is ‘Humor, Laughter, and Its Uses in the Correctional Environment.”



He’s a Very Good Joe

(In which we pause for a reverent tip o’ the DOC cap to a recent retiree from the Connecticut Department of Correction, Mr. Joseph Lea, one of the most active & beloved prison Librarians ever to grace York Correctional Institute….)

It’s afternoon on Wednesday, May 27th, and after checking into the Mystic Marroitt, I report to the lobby where I see a smiling gentleman who looks like he’s part of the welcoming committee.  I ask him if he knows where the York prison tour group is meeting.  Smiling even more broadly, he tells me that he’s the tour guide, and introduces himself as Jean-Claude Ambroise.  While chatting, Mr. Ambroise learns that I’m a prison Librarian, and quickly mentions Joe Lea, the soon-to-be-retiring York Librarian, in attendance at the same Correctional Educational Association Region I conference.  I find out that “soon-to-be-retiring”  actually means Friday, a scant two days hence. 

Joe Lea_York

Mr. Joseph Lea, talking up prison libraries and their potential to change, enlighten, entertain, and educate.

At 4PM, give-or-take, the 2.5-hour tour commences at York Correctional Institution, Connecticut’s women’s prison, with Instructor Jean-Claude Ambroise leading about 10 inquisitive conference attendees.  I’d like to say Jean-Claude showed us around the whole place, but this would be hyperbole as the prison and its buildings sit on 850 acres.  But we saw what we wanted to see, and all of our questions were answered by the enthusiastic, accommodating Mr. Ambroise.

After about 1.5 hours of segregation, housing units, hospital, psych services unit, visitor’s room, and vocational classrooms, we were (finally) ushered into the library that Joe Lea spent the last 20 years of his professional life creating, thinking about, planning for, and teaching in.  I got to see law library computers on well-lit, organized tables.  I got to see rows of low, double-faced freestanding metal shelves housing well-chosen, nearly-new paperbacks and graphic novels.  I saw the well-planned, wooden circulation counter replete with circulation computers, and even a small cubby housing a very prominent aquarium.  I saw lots of ALA posters & signage. Not surprisingly, there was a fairly large section of books & material on parenting,  child-rearing, and women’s health.

At one point, I notice tall metal locking cabinets taking up the better part of a wall which were marked “Staff and Clerks Only.”  (Jean-Claude wasn’t sure what Joe kept in these, and no one had the key).  

I saw lots of windows welcoming the bright sunshine streaming in to warm the plants which were scattered about the place.  Even though inmates were not using the library, you get the feeling that inmates DO use the library, use it often, and are happy to be there when they come.  It is an inviting, colorful, useful, and friendly place.

Joe Lea work at York for 20 years.  After what I’ve learned, the place will never be the same without him.  Joe is a lawyer, and a teacher, but for women young and old, Joe was–first & foremost–their Librarian.  Joe advocated for and started many of the volunteer programs like AVODAH, theater with Judy Dworin, book clubs, the “Mommy and Me” program, and “Mother and Child.” 

Joe kept busy.  Mr. Ambroise assured the tour group that the women responded to and were grateful to him.  Joe brought more than library science skills to his work.  He shared his passions.  That’s the greatest gift from any correctional Librarian.


Wally Lamb: He just couldn’t keep it to himself.


Funny — you can see a book 100 times and it means little or nothing to you.  While in this particular library, I gravitate to the nonfiction, and notice a cover that I’ve seen 100 times and, until now, has meant little or nothing to me.  Shocked and startled, I stand in this library in this prison, holding Wally Lamb’s book which suddenly has a profound meaning for me.  Gazing at the cover, I suddenly wish the library were open so I could quiz the women to discover how many read the book, how many enjoyed it, and how many lived it (i.e., participated in Lamb’s writing workshops).

At the Thursday luncheon I was taken to Joe’s table, where we were introduced and, during our brief chat, I learned that Joe would soon be off to England.

Here’s to your retirement, Joe.  From what I’ve seen, you won’t stay still for long.

“A thank-you never hurt!” “But your FACE does!”

(In which the Librarian calls together his Intrepid Crew for the annual post-Inventory appreciation ceremony [no coffee or Danish allowed….])

2014_Certificate_CarlosAt right is a sampling of the certificate of appreciation we created last year.  This year’s looks the same, the only thing that changes is the text.  I just don’t feel like the aggravation of scanning right now.  Sorry.

Inventory 2015 goes as well as can be expected under these trying circumstances.  No one quits, or gets canned, or earns a disciplinary report, or gets lugged to Segregation.  There is plenty of incompetence, but incompetence tends only to hinder, it doesn’t stop us.  And it gives us plenty to laugh at.

Inventory takes five full days to account for a little less than 17,000 items, and we use no automation, only manpower & drawers of shelf list cards.

Everyone gets mocked & made fun of in these presentations, not a surprise, since that’s what they do to each other every working day.  During these five days, I pay close attention to what is done and said, recording the flubs, mistakes, & funny things people say during the process.  These flubs/mistakes/bon mots get recorded on the certificates.  The certificates are then distributed to the clerks while the Lending Library is closed.

Since refreshments aren’t allowed, we must make do with our wit.  Most of this wit is not suitable for family viewing.  Suffice to say that it is decidedly un-politically correct, which is the way we like it.

A sampling of this ‘wit’ is tthank-youhe title of this post, which comes about when one clerk moans about having to be in the library when where he wants to be is in the Yard.  Another clerk chastises him with “Y’know, getting a thank-you like this never hurts!”  To which yet another clerk replies, “No, but your face DOES!”

We pass out 11 certificates.  A good time is had by all.  Only one guy fails to show, so we read his in absentia & make fun of him anyway.

Clerks enjoy getting these thank-you’s, as they’re not often the recipient of appreciation.  I try to say “Thank you” each time someone does something for me.  Which means I say ‘Thank you” many many times a day, because clerks are always working & making library services what they are.  They are sick and tired of hearing me say “You’re only as good as the people you have,” because I say this several times each week.  But they’re people, and people thrive on praise, and if there’s one thing a manager must refrain from is taking your people for granted.  Show them you admire, respect, and appreciate all that they do.

The ceremony itself takes only about 15 minutes.  We read the certificate, everyone laughs at the guys’ expense, he comes up, we shake hands, and everyone applauds for him.  The rest of the time is spent talking shop & making more fun of each other.

as the people

After all certificates are distributed, one clerk asks me, “Now where’s YOURS?”  I gesture toward the other clerks and say:  “THIS is my thanks.”  A clerk on the other side of the room hears me and says, “I like that!”

Thanks, guys.

Like Rain On Your Wedding Day

The San Jose class is a go, with 11 students.  It starts June 1st, ending August 7th.  Actually that statement is high-Larry-us.  The course officially begins months in advance, with all of your pre-course prep. 

San Jose State’s really got their ducks in a row with their distance learning program, they use the best communications technology available to optimize the student learning experience.  And the Learning Management Systems are not nearly as daunting as they used to be, for both student and instructor.

One student who lives on the West Coast emailed saying he’ll be in my neck of the woods in late May & could he come in to see the library?  I thought it would be too close notice, but Norfolk approved it.  I’m just waiting on the result of his background check.

An interesting side note:  If he has a criminal record, he can’t come in.  And isn’t that ironic?  Don’tcha think?  A little TOO ironic.


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.

Counting Them Beans: Or, “Can we PLEASE toss these cassettes out?”

Today we start inventory. Because Monday was a Massachusetts holiday called “Patriot’s Day, we get beat out of a day. Poor planning by Yours Truly. At least SOME planning was involved.

We use no portable scanners. Kooky, right? Instead, we take our shelf list drawers to each section of the library, the old-fashioned way. Well, it keeps them off the street. It’s the one time in the year when your staff comes together as a team. It’s an interesting dynamic, seeing inmates from different departments (e.g., bookbinding and cataloging) working toward a common goal. It’s not perfect–what human endeavor is?–and sometimes opinions as to how something should be done leads to flaring tempers. We are, after all, talking about cranky old men here.

But by weeks’ end, the beans’ll be counted accurately, diligently, and relatively peaceably. I’ve never lost an inmate in an inventory to death or dismemberment. I’ve never even had anyone quit. These are good things.


After bean-counting, I have 30 days in which to submit the inventory report. This report usually constitutes 30 pages, half of which comprise statistics from the population law library. Although we don’t need to tally books which have been replaced by the Lexis system, we still need to account for physical equipment, hundreds of legal forms, and what seems on certain days like millions upon millions of regulations, policies, and procedures.

Once more, into the breach….