Curses in Captivity #2 : “Live FOREVER!”

My ILL clerk is perpetually bugged by my cataloger, because they share space in my Lending Library office and the cataloger’s wit is quick & nasty. 

Whenever the cataloger slings one his way, the ILL clerk says “Keep talking, I hope you live to be 100!  Live forever!” 

eternityThey’re both lifers.  So the one is wishing immortality on the other.  He’s saying, “I hope you suffer in prison for eternity!” 

It’s the only place on the Earth where you can wish someone long life and have it be a curse. 


[In which our superstitions discover they haven’t a ghost of a chance against the surrealism of the Big House….]

friday the 13th

It’s Friday the 13th again. I’m scared. Should I go inside today? Or bang out and stay in bed? I can’t decide. But I must, and soon.

Can the superstition about this particular number and this particular day of the week be any worse than a typical prison work shift? In other words — how could it be worse?

I’ll find out soon enough….

WONDERS HAVE YET TO CEASE: Or, “Even the losers get lucky sometime”

[In which Life reiterates rather emphatically that you just never, EVER know….]

SERENDIPITY. Noun. — “An assumed gift for finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

I am the last person to claim that I possess such a gift. But you wouldn’t know it, judging by the way today went down.

When I got in, an email was waiting for me by one of the Steward’s staff:

I received your new DVD player. It’s in my office.

I said to a clerk:

“Road trip!”

“Where to?”

“Steward’s office.”

“What are we getting?”

“You’ll see.”

“O boy! Christmas!”

Inmates like going places with you. It serves to break the moe-noe-toe-knee. Because most of our libraries are one-professional shows, it’s equally good for the Librarian to get out and give the limbs a good stretching occasionally.

We get to the Steward’s office, a quarter-mile away in the Administration Building, 3rd floor. I report to the requisite office, and say, “We’re here to pick up our DVD player.”

My clerk says “It came in!” He says this with surprise and enthusiasm, because this marks the fourth (4th) time I have attempted to get this player inside this here prison in about six months. Here’s what happened the last three times:

  • I ordered a Sony player from Highsmith. They called a few weeks later saying that their distributor no longer carried that model. All they had by way of replacement was a boom box. I asked them to refund the money. The refund came about two weeks later.
  • A month after that, I took a state check to a Sony outlet. I brought the player to the counter and presented the check. The check was refused. “This is a debit card/cash business, Sir. I’m sorry.” The young lady went on to explain that they couldn’t even accept cashier’s checks.
  • Two months later, I found a good deal at a local Best Buy. I called ahead to make certain that they accepted state checks (they did). I brought out the check, took the purchase to the counter, and then discovered that the item was on sale. This was a problem, I was told, because the check was made out for the pre-sale price, and their system could not issue change on a check.

Sony dvd

Madness. I finally wrote the Superintendent a letter that chronicled this mess, and asked him to give me the cash to buy the player at the Sony outlet. Instead, he directed the Treasurer’s office to order the player from a different source.

So, here we were, picking up a portable DVD player that’s taken seven (7) months to buy. Ain’t life grand? The funniest part of this saga is that we bought the thing to show ABLE MINDS students the LOTR trilogy. Now that the prison has given the Library its own cable channel, we no longer need it for that. ¡Caramba!

We have of course found an alternate use for the thing, which is using it to play the legal DVDs of trials and administrative hearings sent to inmates by the courts. So all’s well that ends well.

Not only that — when we reach the Steward’s office, she thinks we’re there for an entirely different reason and produces the $1,500 check for the Shire Book Shop, the check we’ve waited three-and-one-half months for.

So today was our day, for once. I mean twice.

“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.



I sometimes forget I’m in jail.

In the free world, we naturally and necessarily place trust in the people we work with. We study the character of each, and we trust one more over the other, as Time and discernment help to reveal the true selves of these relative strangers.

Corrections tells you to be wary of inmates. You sometimes hear that you can’t trust any of them. You sometimes hear that you can’t let your guard down. You sometimes hear that inmates are like children, and will get away with anything they can get away with.

And then corrections tells you: “Here’re the prison’s libraries, here’re the services we want you to provide, and here’re the inmates who are going to help you.”

“But you just told me I can’t trust them….”

“Well — let’s say that you shouldn’t. This is jail, not Yale.”

“But I’m the only professional you have supervising them — I can’t be everywhere at once. i HAVE to trust them.”

“Just do the best you can.”

What follows is an account of what can happen while you’re busy doing the best you can.

I rely on 19 paid library clerks to help run library services in a population law library, a population lending library, a segregation unit law library, and services to the Hospital Services Unit as well. I also have classroom assistants for a law clerk training program, a book discussion group, and a literature-based consequential thinking seminar. That’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of clerks to supervise. As you can imagine, I can’t be everywhere at once. Because of that, I have to place an extraordinary level of trust in the library clerks who work for me. At times, that extraordinary level of trust is betrayed. That happened recently, when I had to fire a clerk for using his clerk computer to write his legal work.

Well, he shouldn’t do that, you see. This is because the computer he’s been entrusted with is for library work only. Well, you gotta have SOME limits, and that statement certainly rings true in a prison. The morality of some men become warped and perverted to the point where they actually believe that if there is no written rule prohibiting a specific act, then they are free to do it! Strange and dangerous thinking for an adult to travel through life with. Why, that kind of thinking could land you in prison!

So one recent afternoon, I entered one of the offices just off the lending library floor and caught site of my computer programmer (he builds databases in Access) with paperwork spread out over his desk, and he’s typing on his computer. I say: “What are you doing, George?”

George looks up from the screen and says, “My legal work?”

Now understand — this is happening in the same month precisely one calendar year ago when all 19 of my clerks were fired after it was discovered that some of them were — among other things — using their clerk computers to make greeting cards and writing college papers. This fellow George here was in that number. He didn’t have his job returned to him until four months later. But now, one year later, he’s at it again.

I said to George, “For God’s sake, George, been there, done that, remember? You’re not allowed to do personal work on these machines. Stop what you’re doing.” Then I walked back to my law library office.

Notice I didn’t stand there until I made sure that he made a move. That’s because, even given the circumstances, I put trust in him that he’d do what I directed him to do. This is because of the character I know him to have. Yes, he’s just been pinched for breaking the rules. But he’s worked in the library for seven years, and in that time he’s succeeded in heeding the rules. That’s the character I’m drawing from.

I have a friend who is a recreation officer assigned to provide security in the library of the Walpole State Prison. He once admonished me thus: “Billy, you and a con can be golden for five years. But the first time you have to tell him ‘No,’ he’s a different person.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly the situation here, but it bears repeating. The situation here was born of selfishness. This clerk decided that his desire to use a word processor on his work computer to complete his legal writing outweighed his chances of getting caught, losing his job, and damaging his credibility with me. All this I found out only because I brought him into my office later that evening and asked him just what the hell he meant by throwing a good job away?

When this kind of thing happens, it’s hard not to take it as a personal betrayal. In his case, I had him working for me for seven (7) years. Seven years is a long time to hold a job in jail. What it tells the Administration is that you’re very well satisfied with the job performance of this individual. And this certainly was true. The man did much good for his library in that time, so much that, hours after this first happened, I had to sit still and imagine library services without him. I actually considered turning a blind eye so I could keep him. Because of his past work, peaceful demeanor, good sense of humor, and ability to forgive my many faults, this was one of the toughest decisions I’ve made in recent years.

But good sense outweighed sentimentality. If last year hadn’t happened, MAYBE the blind eye could’ve been justified. But not this time. He was suspended. I wrote an Incident report. The Administration read it & asked me to write a Disciplinary report, which I did. The man had his hearing, during which he pled guilty. And one of his sanctions is that he lost his library clerk job.

Trust had been betrayed. I made that clear to him in our talk. He actually felt shamed by what he’d done.  But his earlier choice was to take the chance that I wouldn’t catch him, and would never know that trust had been betrayed.

They say, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

When it comes to trust — do those words ring true?

COME ON, CONVICTS: On the Cosby path from prisoners to citizens

“Can we all get along?”

Tuesday night at the MCI-Norfolk lending library, and my book discussion group has just set back the cause of brotherly love and acceptance at least 60 years.

This summer, at the behest of the Correctional Education Association, prison librarians and educators around the country have been invited to offer a discussion group on Bill Cosby’s book called Come On, People: On the Path  From Victims to Victors. This invitation, our Department librarians are told, comes from William Henry Cosby, Jr. himself.

Having read the book, and having been Norfolk’s librarian for the past 18 years, I know several inmates champing at the proverbial bit to kick in their two cents. I decide to hand-pick the participants, a technique I’ve used unflinchingly for other DOC library courses, because it’s guaranteed to set the fur flying.

But walking into the library from a back office to start the class, I feel like I’m suddenly the focus of a Punk’d episode. All people of color are seated on one side of the room. All whites are seated on the other. It’s as if a racist Moses has tapped his staff onto the freshly-buffed linoleum and parted the group along color lines. Straight down the middle.

I work in an adult male medium-security prison. I have heard the vulgar and obscene language of convicted felons all the livelong day for months, years, and decades. I, myself, am a vulgar man, choosing the vernacular and worse more often than not to express my innermost feelings. Having said that, I still won’t spell out what I said to the group, but will edit the offensive part of the sentence and leave it to the reader’s own imagination to sort out. I said:

“You gotta be sh***ing me.”

In my feeble defense, I was so stunned, that’s all I could think of to say.

After about 5 mind-reeling seconds, my tongue un-sticks itself from the roof of my mouth. “Racial segregation’s alive and well in 2009! Didn’t the Civil War take care of all this? Remember hundreds of marchers scuffing up thousands of pairs of shoes so that this would become a shameful, distant memory? This is a joke, right? This is a set-up?”

Now, this class of men—and by now it’s evident that they have no idea what they’ve done—begin to look around the room at themselves. Some begin to chuckle.

One participant—a black man in his late 50’s whom we’ll call Ben—laughs and says, “Man, I didn’t even notice we did this until you called us out.”

A 50-something white man we’ll call Adam then jokes, “I guess Abraham, Martin, and John are looking down on us with scorn and condemnation.”

“How shameful is this?” I continue, “We’ve gathered as concerned Americans to discuss Cosby’s suggestions on helping our young Black males, and you guys can’t set aside your jailhouse racism for two hours?” No one here can give a plausible reason for why these 13 intelligent, educated men have arranged themselves thus. It was unconsciously done, they assure me.

“Now that the unconscious problem’s identified, will you please consciously mingle?” Nervous laughter. Nobody moves. “I’ll put it this way,” I said, folding my arms. “I won’t teach a class that looks like passengers in a 1964 Selma, Alabama bus.”

One of the participants on the ‘black’ side laughs, gets up, and takes a seat on the ‘white’ side of the room. “There!” he smiles. “Happy now?”

I am unimpressed. “Is this it? One measly concession to the cause of racial harmony?” I said, sitting down to my table in front of the room and picking up my Instructor’s copy. “No wonder Cosby has to keep writing these books.”

Black Rage at a Black Man

Each prisoner has been given a copy of the book to read ahead of time. It’s quickly evident that everyone has done their homework, because once these men start voicing their opinions, the criticisms come fast and furious. Everyone in the room has an opinion about the book, and most of what they feel is negative rather than constructive. I’m actually flummoxed when the arguments against Cosby’s ideas morph into attacks on his motives for writing the book, and even on his good character. These attacks take varied and creative forms:

  • “Cosby’s a billionaire and out of touch with American blacks.”
  • “Universities send their graduates into the world with an institutionalized point-of-view. Cosby is a product of that system.”
  • “There’s a generation gap with Cosby.”
  • “Cosby’s a comedian. He’s not a sociologist. “
  • For a guy who writes about family and fatherhood while he’s cheating on his wife – who’s he to be telling me how to live?”
  • “He’s well-intentioned, but he doesn’t get why kids act like they do.”
  • “He’s back-pedaling from some inflammatory statements he caught hell for. This book is his attempt to clean some of that up.”

The arguments are familiar—clichéd, actually. The themes boil down to:

  • The man’s educated, which disqualifies him from talking about the ‘hood
  • The man doesn’t have the right education
  • The man’s a hypocrite
  • The man’s too old
  • The man’s too rich
  • The man’s a sell-out/ an Oreo/ not Black enough
  • He’s only Bill Cosby

It’s very tempting to write off the negative diatribes of this group as just so much incarcerated sour grapes. Keep in mind that many of the men in this room have contributed to the problems with which Cosby is concerned.  Because of their imprisonment, this discussion with these men of a book identifying problems with Black America and offering solutions feels, at times, like nothing more than criminals belittling and shouting down any honest, earnest attempt to identify their criminality and refocus their lives. As the discussion continues, I begin to notice with some alarm that some folks in this room are not simply in disagreement with Cosby—they are angry with him.

Since I don’t see the need or justification for this anger, I call them on it.

Ben raises his hand.

“When I lived at home, I used to bring my friends in the house, and some of them were hoodlums. My mother would walk in the door, see me with these hoods in the living room, and go off on us: “Why are these SOBs in my house? Get these people out of here, now! And don’t bring them back!” My father used a different approach. He’d open the living room door, beckon me with his finger, and say “Lemme see you a minute?” When I got to him he’d say, “Get those hoodlums outta my living room.” Different approaches, same results. But with my father, my friends had a chance to leave with dignity. And I didn’t have to be embarrassed in front of the people I rolled with.

He takes a breath.

“Cosby makes the same mistake my mother made. He’s airing our dirty laundry in public. He should’ve taken a page out of Farrakhan’s game plan and kept this stuff behind closed doors. Instead, he writes a book for the whole world to read that tells me “You’re effing up, it’s all your fault, and now I have to straighten your mess out ‘cause you’re too dumb to figure it out yourselves.” That’s not only embarrassing for us, but degrading. He should know better than that.”

“Perhaps, like me,” I say, “He knows you’re adults, and that you can take it. You’re not children anymore, when Mommy and Daddy had to couch things a certain way in order to cut through your teenage belligerence. Cosby actually respects you, and wants you to respect yourselves and each other. He treats you like the men that you are, instead of the boys that you used to be. And by the way, when innocent people of all colors are being anonymously murdered by stray bullets being shot from moving cars, the problem becomes greater than the ‘It’s our house’ mentality.”

“Aw man, you sound just like Cosby,” someone says.

“How does Cosby sound?” I ask.

“White!” someone else says. Some of the class laughs in agreement. Racism is a natural jailhouse inclination.

“Really? And why should showing care and concern for black Americans sound “white” to your ears and minds?”

Ben sits up straight in his chair.

“If we as black America decide to get together, to organize our communities, to create another Panthers, the Powers That Be shout “No, no, no!” and won’t allow it. But responsibility for what’s gone wrong in our neighborhoods has also to be accepted by the whole of America, the power structure as well as the black community. Cosby’s part of the power structure. If Cosby was sitting with the brothers on this side of the room when we decided to organize, he’d be the first to break ranks with us, because his education and life experiences would send him to the other side of this room.”

You Did It, But It’s My Fault Too!

What about the ‘white’ side of this room? I ask Tim, a fellow who’s participated well in several of my other courses to share his impressions of the book. Tim says:

“I couldn’t relate to any of it. It was written for someone other than me. Reading this was like listening to a couple in the next room arguing over something in a foreign language.”

This statement was then examined by the group.  When I say “examined,” I don’t mean to imply that people took these comments to task directly, or that anyone else commented immediately after the speaker was finished. Rather, a strange, slow metamorphosis occurred between the time these words were spoken and the discussion’s end two hours later. The progression followed along these lines:

“Aren’t these problems kind of like what we go through growing up, no matter what your color or race?”

“Except for the racism, I think all men in this prison can relate to many of the same problems of poor black young men.”

“ Anyone who grew up poor in America can relate to unsafe neighborhoods, crime in the street, bad education, bad home life. We’re all Americans, and this is an American problem.”

“These problems ultimately affect us all. We’re all responsible for what’s wrong, not just the young poor American black man.”

Freddie says, “We need to get black America back on its feet and be self-sustaining. And c’mon, Cosby ain’t the first to deliver this message, there’s Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates and W.E.B. Dubois and Cynthia Dolores Tucker and all the others. In this book, Cosby uses our past on purpose, starting with the 1950’s, to illustrate the progression of this social tragedy, our American tragedy.”

Although we began the evening with the view that only poor young African-American men could begin to relate to the book’s message of urgency and hope, we ended the night on the most clichéd of all imaginable liberal creeds: ‘We are all responsible.’

Not everyone in this group left the room with that opinion, of course. Some men attempted to keep the focus on the very real problems of the street, and on some of Cosby’s solutions.  Glenn says, “But we must admit that a lot of what he says hits home – we have opportunities today that he didn’t have back in his day.”

“What has Bill ever done for us?”

“Well, it’s about time!” I interject. “Here’s a question for you – what did Bill Cosby do in the 60’s and 70’s to help the Civil Rights movement?”

Only two of the black gentlemen in this group of thirteen are older than 50. These men have very different responses.

Ben says “Yeah, I was in my teen in the 60’s. Other than him making comedy records, I don’t recall him marching or going to jail for any of us. Martin did more for us than he ever did. While Malcolm and Martin and Elijah Muhammad were standing up, Bill was busy making money.”

The other man, whom we’ll call Abdul, patiently listened then said, “I myself was a teen in the 60’s. I do remember Cosby coming out and doing things. I remember Cosby saying things. I remember, too, that standup comedy was a Jewish male or a white male profession, and I remember when you never saw one of us on TV. You know who changed all that? Bill Cosby. Cosby came on TV, Cosby went onstage. And not as some Steppin Fetchit caricature, but as an intelligent secret agent, and as an intelligent funny black man who was just standing up there being himself. That’s the first time I ever saw that. Cosby broke that ground.”

Because I have a comedy album collection at home numbering in the thousands, it occurs to me to interject this notion: “When Bill Cosby worked onstage, his audiences were predominantly white. And Bill made these white people laugh, which meant they enjoyed themselves. So these white people would come back, slap their money down, maybe even bring a white friend along.

“But it’s the way he got these white folks to laugh that elevated his work above mere entertainment. Recall that this wasn’t a guy who, like Dick Gregory, was talking specifically about the race problem. Cosby tried something different. Cosby talked about wives and husbands trying to live together in something approaching peace and harmony, he talked about parents and the monumental task of trying to raise their children without giving into the impulse to kill them, he talked about the human creature’s uncertain and comical relationship with his unseen Creator, and the tribulations of just being a kid growing up. No one in the civil rights movement had thought to do this before. Cosby did.

“I agree,” says Abdul, “Bill showed white and black America what they had in common. Night after night, his message to each white person in those seats was “We’re the same, and your laughter proves it. You couldn’t laugh at this if you couldn’t relate to it.” With Cosby up onstage it was a little victory for civil rights, because each time a white person laughed, it brought a few of them closer to the idea that black people are OK and should be accepted. And when you consider the turbulent time in which he worked, you gotta admit–the man had guts.”

Silence. Somebody dropped a pin. We all heard it hit the floor.

A young man named Glenn says to Abdul, “You sayin’ a comedian doing a stage routine is the same thing as protesters getting bitten by dogs and squirted with hoses?”

“I’m saying that their sacrifices would have had less of an impact on the conscience of white America if they weren’t also hearing Cosby’s message in nightclubs, listening to his records in their living rooms, and choosing to watch him on their TVs.”

Sympathy for Uncle Tom

Next to speak is a man whom we’ll call Teddy. Teddy helps me facilitate these discussions, he’s a recent graduate of Boston University’s outreach to prisoners program, and is a human being who feels so acutely for his fellowmen that we have to take a Brillo pad to the linoleum to scour out the crimson stains from his perpetually-bleeding heart. After raising his hand, Teddy opens a new line of inquiry:

“I had conversation with a black man in my housing Unit, a man who has very strong opinions about what society has done to American blacks. After I was finished with Cosby’s book he asked to read it. When he was finished, I asked him his impressions. He says he feels in some respects that Cosby is an ‘Uncle Tom.’ Does anyone have any feelings on that perspective?”

Abdul does.

“Don’t use the term ‘Uncle Tom’ until you have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this book, Uncle Tom gets whipped face-first because he refuses to tell the slave master where two slaves have fled. Simon Lagree whips him to death. Uncle Tom was a great hero of that novel, and the novel was important for its time. ‘Uncle Tom’ as it’s used in our popular culture is a perversion of the original meaning. I would advise your friend in the Unit to be careful to use words and phrases correctly. Words represent you.”

Teddy smiles.

Abdul continues. “I have a question for this group, because I’ve heard a lot of negativity tonight about this,” he says, holding up his copy of the book. “My question to you is: Is Cosby right?”

There is a general murmur of assent throughout the room that he is.

“OK. Now – Is Cosby’s book a blueprint for solving these problems?”

There is a general howl of disagreement that it isn’t.

“OK, so it’s not the problems he’s identified, it’s the solutions he’s presented that you can’t agree with. OK. But here’s something that we must agree on—if we as black men don’t understand that we’re in trouble, if we don’t get that our neighborhoods are crumbling, if we don’t lead the way and do something to stop it—what will be the outcome?”


“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 a latino named 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?”

A man whose jailhouse nickname is ‘New York’ says, “Peer pressure has a lot to do with why these things happen to us. I had to throw away good grades and an education because my parents had an accent which I got teased for, and my friends thought that school was dumb. My dad always told me that I was destined for great things and I could be whatever I wanted to be. The street took away all that.”

“Learned behavior is at the root of these problems,” interjects Tim. “Kids imitate what they see, even if what they see is wrong. Learned behavior is a trap, because you can’t see the choices, the alternatives.” He pauses, and then adds:  “A man falls back on what he knows.”

Freddie says, “Many young minorities have been disconnected from the struggle. They’ve simply lost their way. Cosby is saying, ‘The fledgling needs someone to guide him.’ He’s saying that you should be raised to be functional in society. There’s a place for Ebonics, for example, but it’s when you’re with your posse, not when you’re sitting in the classroom trying to learn.”

Big Poppa

Adam smiles.

“Raising kids to be functional is how I saw the whole tone of the book, in light of the age of the author and the young men he’s targeted. The book is a conversation between a grandfather and his grandson. He’s giving the grandson life instruction—how to speak, how to dress, how to choose what to listen to and what to watch, how to act around your elders, even hygiene advice. And this advice is given so that the grandson can avoid all the evil social traps that the culture lays for young black men who may not understand what they’re up against. It’s good advice, given in love, and he certainly meant well.”

On hearing the words “meant well,” Ben rankles. “Yeah, well, you know, ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ Do y’all remember the Cosby episode about him meeting his daughter’s fiancée for the first time, and he don’t like the guy?” Cosby tries explaining to the man that it’s not him per se that he doesn’t like, it’s the way he’s being presented to him by the daughter. To illustrate to the young man the way he feels, Cosby asks the young man to imagine his favorite meal with all the trimmings, and then asks him to imagine that wonderful tasty meal being handed to him on the dirty lid of a garbage can.”

Many people in the room begin to smile, and comments like “I remember that show!” and “That’s my favorite episode!” are heard.

“Well, Cosby’s point is that if his daughter had introduced the fiancée in a more palatable manner, then the parents could’ve more easily accepted him. It’s all in the presentation. That’s how I feel about this book. If Cosby had kept it between us and him, and if he wasn’t preaching to these young bangers like he’s some almighty savior on a soapbox, the message would have a chance of getting through to them.”

“All grandfathers come at you from a superior vantage,” Adam says. “It’s the natural scheme of things: they have wisdom that you don’t have, but that you need. We’re taught to respect our elders, and we respect them by listening to their advice. If we love them, we honor them by applying what they know to our own lives.”

Like a Motherless Child

Right about now I’m reminded of the adage, ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’

I stand up. “This is how I see it. Out of concern for their future, William Henry Cosby, Jr. has stuck his neck out for the thousandth time for his troubled people. He’s not only trying to wake them up, he’s also giving them solutions. I’d say the book is an act of love, and of hope. Anyone agree?”

General murmurs.

“So now you’re gonna buy Bill a ‘Thinking of You’ card in the canteen, sign it and send it to his agent?”

General laughter.

Ben says, “For two years he organized all those Call-Outs. What I’d like to see is Cosby willing to come into these joints and debate those of us who have problems with his style of communication.”

Maybe someday he will.

Then again, maybe he knows already what he’ll hear.


If the truth were told, we’d have to admit that we nurture prejudices, and some of these are based on reason.

For example: If you are a woman and mother, you cannot reason away not liking child molesters and rapists. Nor should you, nor should anyone tell you that you have to.

The thing about correctional workers — and I don’t know why this is! — is that they’re nosey, and they’re gossips. They LIKE finding out why a guy’s in prison. I know some of this is simple human curiosity, but some of this is prying, plain and simple. There’d be more professionalism in corrections if we controlled this aspect of our curiosity.

But who knows — maybe for some, knowing the heinous stuff helps them to cope with prison. Gossiping about the heinous stuff smacks of moral superiority to me, and I know moral superiority when I see it, having spent the better part of the last decade trying to exorcise it out of my corrections persona (and I’ve made headway, believe it or don’t).


I have a lending library janitor who has a nasty conviction of bullying and torturing a mentally ill patient. I made this discovery one day after an officer told me he’d just read the clerk’s criminal appeal in one of the case law reporters.

I made the mistake of reading the appeal. I could not see that man the same way. I actually looked for a way to fire him. My behavior toward him began to change and, of course, he noticed. Each time he’d tease a clerk or engage in regular prison banter, I’d make comments to him, whereas before I’d see the teasing and banter as normal prisoner behavior with coworkers.

Finally, through staff who should know, I learned three things about his post-arrest life in jail that helped me change my thinking: not toward his conviction, but toward the person he’s become:

One — He suffers from depression and has scars up and down both arms from suicide attempts (he always wears long sleeves). Over the years he has eaten himself alive with guilt for what he did.

Two — He feeds reliable information to our inner perimeter security people and, in particular, watches over the libraries.

Three — From talking with him, I learned that he nurtures a spiritual life, and since deciding to do so has made contact with his children and a beloved sister, all of whom dropped him like molten lava when his criminality ultimately resulted in incarceration.

So PERHAPS it wasn’t such a mistake to have read his appeal. I don’t know, except to say I learned more good about the man than if I hadn’t “pried.”


We say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The step into corrections for Yours Truly began with an undergraduate class on magazine publishing called — oddly enough — “Publishing the Magazine.” The professor (my creative writing mentor) wanted some poetry in this magazine we were learning to publish. He told us of a prisoner he knew at Pittsburgh’s (now-defunct) Western Penitentiary whom he considered to be a decent poet, and then said “Who wants the assignment to solicit some poetry from him?” I raised my hand.

It took me three letters to gain the guy’s confidence, but he finally submitted a bunch of (mediocre) poems. I asked him all kinds of questions about being incarcerated, which he thought were fairly incisive, and condescended to answer.

A few years later when I found myself in library school and realizing I would soon be another in a long sorry line of out-of-work graduate students, I added two-and-two together and got a prison library management internship out at Western Pen, under the tutelage of a talented Pitt alumnus named Stephen Mallinger. I got to meet the inmate poet (we ended up hating each other), Stephen & I became friends —

— and 23 years later, I teach an online course in correctional library management….The teaching gig, like another academic achievement in my life, was courtesy of that most rare of human beings, a compassionate, caring person who, in my case, took on the fetching  form of a certain Blanche Woolls, PhD, a supremely talented and able young lady who enjoys nothing more than hooking up a free spirit whenever possible. She says it makes the world a better place. I’m in no position to argue.

I started at Walpole  State Prison about a month after being graduated. I had to move my life 630 miles up the road in order to do this.

People often ask, “Was it scary, your first day in?” My first day at Walpole was nowhere near as scary as my first day at Western Pen. In preparation for that day, I had managed quite inadvertently not to sleep a wink. The early-morning Spring sun rose unusually rudely & hot, and as the dirty-grey bus wended its way through the busy Pittsburgh streets I’m thinking “I could be in a nice cozy bed, dreaming of Venus; instead, I’m walking into a stinking dangerous 130 year-old jail. No wonder I have no friends.”

But a funny thing happened on my walk down the east wall to the gatehouse: I noticed a fleet of cable TV trucks. The prison was being wired for cable! “F**k a duck!” I blurted aloud, “They let cable TV in a prison? Maybe those Jimmy Cagney movies were all bulls**t! How bad can it be?” I felt a little bit of the weight lift off my shoulders.

During my six months out there, I received threats in the yard, an inmate cut a counselor’s face with a knife forcing him to retire, and they managed to burn down the Auditorium where they held music concerts, watched movies, and what-not. And I was glad that these things happened while I was there; it showed me what convicts are capable of.

But I saw the librarian having fun with his inmates. I saw the respect they gave him. And I got to know a bunch of the clerks and realized that you could have a fun time with them. They made jokes about their homosexuality, they made jokes about being in prison the rest of their lives, they made jokes about the administration, they made jokes about being incompetent to make homemade weapons, they made jokes about things you weren’t supposed to joke about. That appealed to me, that through the power of humor the successful inmates managed to cope through the daily grind of incarceration.

I also remember one of the library clerks asking me to bring in some contraband information. The information related to his health, or so he said. I’d been warned beforehand that inmates may ask me to bring in things for them, and to just say no. I said ‘no.’ The next evening, he asked for another inappropriate item. I warned him that the next time this happened, I would report all three attempts to the proper authorities.  He stopped asking.

Knowing what I now do about how prisons work, the inmate was probably asked to test me, just to see what I would say and do. Prisons do that, you know. They test you when you’re new, to see if you’ve got what it takes to do the right thing. And I think it’s good that prisons do that. They may as well find out now what you’re made of, rather than have to clean up a very messy or even costly mistake of your creation later on.

My internship in Correctional Library Management lasted six months. I was out at the prison each Friday, from 8:15AM – 8:15PM, a  240-hour baptism into what would become my livelihood, my (sometimes) bane, and one of the true loves of my life.


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!


[In which we contemplate exactly what it takes to be a competent corrections employee, and how librarianship sometimes gets in the way….]


In his fascinating text Libraries in Prisons: a Blending of Institutions, author Bill Coyle rocked the prison library world with this simple truth:

Prisoners do not legitimize prison library services — the State does.

What Coyle means by this is simply that the inmate’s relationship to the prison, the prison’s library, and the prison’s librarians are different than those of free-world library users. The prisoner does not pay for library services like his free-world library-using counterparts. Nor is the inmate in a position to dictate library services, due to his temporary status as ward of the State.  Indeed, his presence in the prison is involuntary, he doesn’t give a plug nickle to the building or its contents, nor does he collaborate with the librarian or the prison or the State with any library programming efforts.

On the other hand, every free-world library user coming through the library doors is a bona fide patron of that library, because his taxes help to support the building, the grounds, the librarians, library staff, maintenance crew, the library collection, and every business meeting and program the community wants. Free-world library users are stakeholders in their community libraries, and therefore have a say as to what goes on in them. This cannot be said for the incarcerated and correctional library services.

For many librarians, this is at least a sea-change in service philosophy, if not outright professional blasphemy. Each library science program proclaims that it is the library patron who legitimizes library services. Without the user there’d be no libraries, library services, librarians, or library staff. So the idea is — Give the people what they want. Why? So they keep coming back. If you have patrons, you have a reason  for being.

Well, you can’t do that in jail. You cannot give the inmates what they want, the same way you cannot give an alcoholic or a gambler or an arsonist or a junkie or a rapist or a cat burglar or child molester what he wants. When it comes to people with problems, common sense dictates certain limits. If your best friend who is an alcoholic and has been on the wagon for 13 weeks tonight begs you for a drink, you will not give her one. And you do not give her one because you have a vested interest in her well-being, that vested interest being that you love her and want to see her get well.

In corrections, you are paid to serve the inmate community. But that ‘service’ is not defined to mean “Anything goes, as long as they’re quiet.” ‘Service’ in the correctional sense means Helping people overcome problems that brought them to prison. In order to be successful at this, you have to have a vested interest in the incarcerated. You have to care.

The correctional librarian needs to construct a service philosophy based on the therapeutic and programmatic needs of the incarcerated human being. Why? Because the State expects corrections to correct. The State does not require its public libraries to correct its patrons, therefore the materials and services there can be more recreational in scope. This is folly in the correctional library. Your ‘patrons’ are not patrons — they are wounded, down-and-out women and men who’ve hit rock-bottom, and wouldn’t mind a helping hand up out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. If as the Librarian you can help lend a hand, you must.

How? Offer consequential thinking seminars. Offer bibliotherapy programs. Offer every kind of self-help and recovery book, tape, and DVD that there is. Offer career information and materials. Offer book discussion programs. Offer re-entry and reintegration material specifically written with the ex-con in mind. Instead of just the typical and often destructive (as opposed to constructive) reading material from the popular best seller lists, offer positive-recreational novels and classic literature — go out of your way to find uplifting fiction and nonfiction for these folks to try.  Offer program support for as many rehabilitative and socialization programs in your prison as you can. And let every department head in that prison know that you’re there to support them, from the education staff on down to the contract vendors.

In the public sector, you can afford to be passive and let the patron guide what you do for them. Below is a concise illustration of the typical patron-librarian dynamic:

PATRON: “Gimme.”


In correctional librarianship, we focus on what are the programming needs of the incarcerated, and not so much on what they want out of the library. And when an inmate indignantly tells you “It’s my library!” you say “Let me disabuse you of that notion. This library belongs to the State — it’s not yours, and it’s not mine.”

You cannot be passive in correctional librarianship. The State–in the form of taxpayers and politicians, crime victims and the long-suffering families of criminals–says to you “These people need help. That’s why they’re here. Your role here is socialization and program support. You’ve also been trained to find information. Go find information that can help these people turn their lives around.”

You cannot wait until an inmate decides to try this text or watch this video or see what this program is like. You have to take it to the streets, and hit them where they live. You have to advertise and make them know what’s going on in the library for them to take full advantage. You gather therapeutic and socialization material, make it available, advertise, and develop programs around this material to see who bites. Also, many inmates will open up to you and confide exactly what brought them to prison. Those moments are golden opportunities to recommend a book, to encourage program attendance, to talk about the seminar you’re teaching. You get them involved. And you get yourself involved.

There is a legitimate penological objective at stake in the correctional libraries of the nation. That objective is to rehabilitate and socialize. This effort includes the incarcerated women and men who frequent the libraries. You owe it to them. You owe it to their families. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones. And you damn sure owe it to the State, your employer. The State has hired you to to simultaneously fill the roles of Authoritarian, Disciplinarian, Humanitarian, and Librarian. And all of these roles are compatible with one another; in fact, it’s the first two that make the last two possible. You establish authority and consistency so that socialization has a fighting chance to happen. You cannot have rehabilitation without good reliable security. Security and good order are paramount to the socialization efforts of the correctional librarian.

In prison, daily routine negativity is a palpable part of the air you breathe. Your efforts at socialization through the library and its services help to cut down on that negativity so that all may breathe a little easier. Any time you do something to offer the incarcerated some hope, you participate in a human miracle called redemption.  And only then is the State getting their money’s worth out of you.

You also need to encourage what we in this course refer to as unstructured socialization. This is when inmates, for reasons known only to themselves, refuse to attend any structured programming taught by prison staff, contract vendors, university professors, or volunteers. Instead, they seek self-help information on their own, and prefer reading,  watching DVDs, or writing in workbooks to participating in a classroom. Unstructured socialization is a frequent occurrence in correctional libraries. There are more of these inmates that you might think, and you must provide material for them to use. Otherwise, the State wastes many helping opportunities.

As a correctional librarian, the patrons of the library are not the people who come through its doors – it’s the people you never see. And these are the very people you must forever keep in mind, if the time that the incarcerated spend in the library is to have meaning, value, and purpose for the State — that is, for the much greater free-world community, the real patrons.