(Part 1) “Say, what time is it, kids?” “IT’S CENSORSHIP TIME!”

It is at this time of the rolling year that our Department Education Division – a rather robust leader of our rehabilitative effort to help aid convicted felons in turning their lives around—extends some welcome and generous financial support to the DOC’s 17 library collections.

“Generous” because the support can be anywhere from $1,000-$3,000; “welcome” because it’s money spent where it’s needed most. By this I mean that, like most things in life, there’s a catch, and Education purchases for the prison’s lending libraries are no exceptions.

The caveat, we are told, is this: the money can only be spent for the following topics:

  • Spanish-language
  • Large-print
  • Community Re-entry/re-integration
  • Recovery/ self-help
  • Job/ Career guides

Well, that’s hardly a concession, when you consider the mission statement of the Department: “To promote public safety by managing offenders while providing care and appropriate programming in preparation for successful re-entry into the community.”

The Department also has something called a Vision Statement, which adds: “To effect positive behavioral change in order to eliminate violence, victimization, and recidivism.”

Seems like the Education Division Director has paid close attention to the intentions of the current Commissioner to move MA corrections to a more pro-active stance to help the incarcerated mend their lives. Because of this, she agrees that this is the way library services should be heading, too.

In a few minutes, I’ll be taking my approved purchase order for $1,900 to the Shire, armed also with my trusty laptop and manila envelope containing lists of specific titles I want to look out for. Included in this envelope are written requests from the prisoners. This is because I publicize my book buying beforehand, and want their input.

They are also informed of the purchase limitations. “Why can’t we get what we want?” some invariably exclaim.

“You can,” is my response. “Through ILL, through your own purchases, through purchases made on your behalf by family and friends, through purchases made by the Inmate Education Committee, and through the myriad prisoner reading organizations that have sprouted up all over the country.” All of which is true. Some inmates, I’ve learned, even have relatives working in the publishing world, who send them galley proofs on the regular. I also remind them that, because it’s Education money and not prison funds, Education may dictate all day long how they want their own money to be spent.

So — let’s go get some good books for crooks….

OK, we made it to the store. We use this store because we believe in keeping used bookstores afloat. Plus, they give you 30% off if you arrive with check in hand, which is what we’ve done. Buying books is fun — saving money while doing it, doubly so.   They have a small shopping cart for people like me, so I grab that and head out onto the main floor.

Let’s start with the self-help section. Not a lot here today, at least not a lot that’s new since the last book buy. What should we toss in our cart? How about:

  • New Rules
  • Going Postal
  • Cows of our Planet
  • Politically, Fashionably, and Aerodynamically Incorrect
  • Winter’s Tales
  • Baseball & the Meaning of Life
  • Men in Love
  • Sexual Health for Men: the Complete Guide
  • License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives
  • Some American Men
  • Male MENnopause
  • Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man
  • Men Confront Pornography
  • Beyond Feelings: Guide to Critical Thinking
  • Hurdle: the Book of Business Planning
  • Small Business Start-Up Kit
  • Why is God Laughing? Path to Joy & Spiritual Optimism
  • Before It’s Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble–And What Parents Can Do about It
  • Coming Home to a Place You’ve Never Been Before
  • When the mind hears: a history of the deaf
  • Mind to crime: controversial link between the mind & criminal behavior
  • Freedom will conquer racism & sexism
  • Readings in contemporary criminological thinking
  • In the belly of the beast
  • Winnie-the-pooh on problem solving
  • American red cross first aid & safety handbook
  • Who survives cancer?
  • Finding beauty in a broken world
  • Plain & simple: a woman’s journey to the Amish
  • How good do we have to be?
  • Is there life after stress?
  • Escaping the shadows/seeking the light: Christians & sex abuse
  • Owning your own shadow: dark side of the psyche
  • Full catastrophe living: using your body & mind to face stress, illness & pain
  • For your own good: hidden cruelty in child-rearing & the root of violence
  • Character disorders in parents of delinquents
  • Anxiety cure: 8-step program for getting well
  • We weep for ourselves and for our children
  • How Proust can change your life

Actually, there was more here than I realized. That’s because I scrutinized several different sections of the store to find this stuff. I’ve learned to broaden my outlook on what constitutes a ‘self-help’ book for the incarcerated. In other words — I don’t limit ‘self-help’ to the Self Help section. If you notice, the first several titles in this list are humor books. And this is because, from the reading and research I’ve done, I see humor as just as important a coping tool as any other strategy recommended by any self-help guru in any pop-psych section of any bookstore or library. Humor is coping and humor is healing and humor is fun. You need all three to get through a day in the Pokey….

The other titles in the list are more-or-less self-evident.


[In which we discuss the relative merits of murder mysteries for murderers, porno for pyros, and Parent Magazine for child molesters….]

When a patron walks into any other kind of library in the world, the mental, emotional, and physical problems she brings with her are her own. Unless her actions compel us to call the security guard or police, we’re not concerned if she’s got anger issues, or drinks too much, or reacts before thinking a problem through.

But in corrections, they pay you to be concerned about your service community’s problems. It’s because of their problems that the incarcerated are now part of your service community.

Which always gets gets me to thinking about the type of fiction prisoners often find on the prison library shelves of the United States of America. Can certain kinds of fiction be considered therapeutic as well as entertaining? There are certainly gratuitous fiction that your common sense would compel you to stay away from — you could name some, and so could I. But let’s shine a brighter spotlight on our correctional lending library collection to see what’s actually ‘tween them pages….

Take, for example, science fiction, of which there are various sub-genres, and certainly there are morality tales from certain authors who believe that the good guys must triumph over some particular evil. Same with fantasy, although with fantasy the themes seem to be more obvious, and here I’m thinking particularly of Tolkien and the gargantuan sweep of good versus evil in much of his work for public consumption. Since the 50s Tolkien has certainly had his imitators, dozens of writers the world over who have created their own worlds and peopled them with creatures falling heavily to one side of the good/evil dichotomy.

Westerns! Who’da thunk that Louis L’Amour was out there in the American southwest crafting dozens upon dozens of morality plays? But that’s what he was up to. I never read one of his books until I used his Daybreakers in ABLE MINDS, and discovered that there is true substance to the man’s work, a do-the-right-thing philosophy coupled with careful studies in good human character, therapeutic elements that rarely get preserved for the big or small screens.

Last year I had a conversation with a prisoner who said he read murder mysteries because they’re morality plays where the good guys & gals pursue the baddie until he’s brought to justice. That certainly gave me food for thought.

It could creditably be argued that Crichton’s Jurassic Park — at least in the hands of Spielberg — was a re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankensein.

What about the plays of Camus? Satre? Tennessee Williams? Eugene O’Neil? The poetry of Donne? The novels of Dickens, or the short stories of Shirley Jackson? I’ve made a study of the Twilight Zone stories of Rod Serling, which are collected in at least four paperback anthologies, and much of his stuff centered on human frailty/ immorality and the sometimes terrible consequences of such behavior. These stories are in the fantasy section of the Norfolk library.

There are some who’d argue that the smut ‘n’ fluff of romance novels qualify not only as good, dumb fun but also as therapy, because you’ve got the pursued & the pursuer in a healthy social setting and usually the characters you want to see ending up together end up together and live happily ever after. Is Pride & Prejudice therapeutic? What would Jane herself say? Perhaps she’d agree, at least to see her work in the context of a correctional lending library.

All I’m asking you to do is to be thoughtful in your choice of reading material for the people you serve, where those that you serve have problems to overcome that might not be helped and even hindered by the type of material you provide. To me, that’s worth giving thought to.

To me, that’s part of the responsibility of a caring correctional librarian.

To me, that’s a professional way of serving your employer.

To me, it’s a good way of being accountable to the public.

To me, it makes the librarianship meaningful, challenging, even fun.

And you certainly will never look at your collection in the same way again.


“If you have an ILL arrangement with a public library would you prevent someone from ordering murder mysteries (especially since it seems like they are in virtually all collections as donations or library purchases)? I can understand and support the idea that the correctional library might focus purchasing dollars on more positive materials; I am not sure I would be able to explain why if allowed by the administration an inmate would be barred from ordering that stuff through ILL.”

This comment is quite similar to a student post in the 2008 class, except that the answer is included in the question:

“…if allowed by the administration….”

If the Department advances no reason why this material should be forbidden, then the Librarian has no administrative support; therefore there’s nothing you can do. When inmates are permitted to buy these books for themselves, they’re certainly free to request them thru ILL.

I can trace back the source of my attitude about such material to one morning years ago when I received a call from one of the ILL librarians from the public library we deal with. She was concerned about a couple ‘true crime’ title. “Are you joking? Do you really let them read this kind of stuff?” It was the first time I’d heard a member of the public objecting to the type of material that inmates were reading. We talked about it at some length, and it gave me something to think about.

After that conversation, I made this part of our library procedures: If the Librarian believes that a request runs counter to the legitimate penological objectives of the Department, the request will be denied and the inmate will be called to the library and informed. He then may appeal to the Superintendent, and the Superintendent may over-rule the Librarian.

Since that addition to our procedures, I’ve had that exchange with probably a half-dozen inmates, and I’ve never been directed to get the books in (no doubt the inmates had someone buy them and send them in….)

But with me, it’s a matter of conscience, and if the Superintendent ever does overrule me, then that’s on the Superintendent, and I can live with that.

Again, it comes down to “Remember whom you’re helping.” This is a special population of people with very specific behavioral problems who have destroyed lives, including their own. Ask yourself, “Whom am I helping by providing this book/ magazine/ newspaper/ DVD/ etc.?”

You also must ask:

  • “Whom am I hurting by providing this material?”
  • “Does this further an inmate’s unstructured socialization?”
  • “Would sensible, reasonable members of the public object to seeing this material in this library?”

I think correctional librarianship illustrates one instance in our profession where the rights of the individual are subservient to the greater good of the larger society. As Librarians, we’re not really trained to handle situations like this. It smacks of pontification, or moralizing.

Perhaps that’s what it is. But if it is, it is for very sound, articulate reasons that are designed to serve both Keepers and the Kept.


[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.