Smells Like Teen Spirit

(In which an associate asks, “Do you feel that your parenting experiences helped inform your role of correctional librarian and dealing with inmates?”

This same associate says: “I am not equating dealing with my daughter with dealing with narcissists, sociopaths, and misogynists.” Whyever not?  EYE do.  Teenagers are narcissists, and I argue that they’re sociopaths until they learn to show real concern and compassion.  And many teen boys have never been taught to treat their female counterparts with the respect they deserve.  Parenting is an apt analogy. 

Prison is akin to a dangerous day care center, where the 10 year-olds are 6’5″, 235lbs, don’t read well, think the universe revolves around them, cry to their Mommies (i.e., file grievances), and hit instead of think.  It’s arrested development.

Hey — ‘arrested.’   Get it? arrested

IT’S ‘THE CRAP WE CAN’T GET RID OF’ SALE! Or, When the Public Library says “Jump!” you ask “How high?”

[In which it is driven home for the umpteenth time how, even in our Noble Profession, beggars must never be choosers….]



Yesterday I retrieved a voice mail from my local public library essentially saying, ‘Come get the leftovers from the book sale we just had.’ As every correctional Librarian knows, that’s a good deal. You’re not gonna get many keepers, but you’ll get enough stuff for your segregation and hospital Units to keep those inmates quiet for a few weeks. Since it’s good to keep these inmates constructively occupied, these kinds of donations are worth the time and effort.

I visited the library, spoke with the Director and thanked her for remembering us, then took away (3) boxes of reference/textbooks and a slew of unwanted paperback novels — the flotsam and jetsam of every three-day Friends of the Library book sale.

Now these books will be dropped off in the Mail Room and there they will sit for at least a week, while I complete & submit the requisite Authorization To Enter, patiently wait for the Deputy’s signature, and finally for the Mail Truck to get them inside.





Remember too that these books are subject to the same Department scrutiny as purchased material for the Lending Library, based on the language of “Security of Library Material” which is the December 2011 addendum to the Norfolk Procedural Statement relative to 103 CMR 478 “Library Services.” Using this language, any Mail Officer can object to any book in this donation and bring it to the attention of Security, even though the donation will have prior approval to enter.


Why? Well, the prior approval from the Deputy is an OK in substance to accept Lending Library material. Since she has no personal knowledge of what’s in the donation, her approval represents an agreement to accept the donation from a reputable source. Her approval also represents a vote of confidence that her Librarian has reviewed the material and confirms that it is in concert with the procedural language of the addendum.

But what happens when the Librarian makes a mistake? Enter the Mail Officer. S/he’s there representing the security side of prison operations, and sometimes is aware of events or other policy language of which the Librarian is not privy. Sometimes the Librarian reviews donated material along with the Mail Officer, and learns first-hand from the Officer what can’t come in and why.




Even with this scrutiny, something eventually slips past the safety nets. This often happens because of consistency–in other words, it’s not always the same Mail officers making these decisions. Sometimes the regular officers are ‘pulled’ to different areas of the prison, and replaced by other officers temporarily assigned to the Mail Room, officers who may not know the mail regulations as well as they need to.

So what if, down the road, an Administrator tells the Librarian that there’s something in the

Library that shouldn’t be there? Does the Librarian then argue “But the Mail Officers let it in here”? No. The Librarian removes the item. Contraband is contraband, and doesn’t magically become acceptable because it was mistakenly allowed in. That’s the logic of scoundrels, and also of the immature mind. “They let it in here, so I should be allowed to keep it!” It’s tiring, and tiresome.


We should receive the (3) boxes of donated material probably by the end of next week.

Thank God for Friends of the Library Three-Day book sales.

“They even let the Viagra book in!” Or, WORKIN’ FOR THE MAN EVERY NIGHT & DAY

[In which it pays to have a tightly-written Selection Policy & Acquisition Procedure, and preferably in the English language….]

Last Friday afternoon, we arrived in the Lending Library to (6) boxes of books c/o the NE Mobile Book Fair, faithfully delivered by the Property Department to the Library’s reference room. For the next two hours, we checked titles against the packing list, and assigned each item a Dewey number (Yes, we use Dewey, sue us) and a destination (PC Cabinet, Oversize Reference, Self-Help, etc.) 152 books received, along with 21 CDs and 1 DVD. Nothing was lost, nothing was stolen.

And this time out, no material was challenged.

One of my clerks balked at the health book entitled Viagra & the Quest for Potency. “Why would they let this in? Don’t they know we’re not supposed to engage in unauthorized sexual acts?” (Which is true, according to 103 CMR 430, “Disciplinary Proceedings.”)

“I didn’t buy it to encourage sexual acts, you dodo. Men happen to be interested in the drug and what it purports to do.”

“They’re interested in it, all right!”

“You can’t get the drug, so it’s informational only. It’s a reference work, for Pete’s sake.”

“You mean ‘For peter’s sake!’”


There were also more than a few juvenile comments from clerks about the title Great Speeches on Gay Rights. I’ll spare you these, which were mostly directed at each other. Mostly.

The same clerk balked at 63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You to Read.


“I can’t believe they let that in here!”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Because they’re the Government!”

“I’m the Government, too, and I bought the thing. Besides–Don’t look now– but the Governor signs your paycheck, too.”

“I don’t work for The Man; I work for myself!”

“That reminds me of my favorite Pride and Prejudice line: ‘You think that, Jane, if it gives you comfort.’ “


Surprise is also expressed by the same clerk – a voracious reader and dystopian prophet – over the title The New Jim Crow.

“You can’t tell me they know what this book says & they still let it in! “

“It’s a popular sociological text. What’s the problem?”

“Yeah well, it may be popular but it slams the government. Either they haven’t heard of it, or this is a mistake.”

“You must not know this but, by policy, the DOC can’t exclude political opinions that are critical of the government. Even if the Bundle Room officer read the thing and disagrees with it, it has to come in. And are you forgetting that we got this for one of the law clerks a few months ago through ILL?”

“I remember. I assumed they missed it because of normal DOC incompetence!”


MOTHER, MAY I? OR, “The truck won’t come in again ’til next week”

[In which much is made of permission slips, fluoroscopes, mail delivery, and patience…LOTS AND LOTS of patience….]

Our story thus far:

  1. We were given $$$ to buy books
  2. We decided which books we needed
  3. We chose an approved vendor from which to buy the books
  4. We submitted requisite paperwork
  5. We received approved paperwork
  6. We secured permission to visit book store
  7. We bought books
  8. We picked up books
  9. We delivered books to prison ‘Bundle Room’

Now we need to get approval to get the books inside. Even though we have an approved State purchase requisition to show, we still need authorization to bring this stuff in. This requirement is found in the addendum to the Norfolk Procedural Statement covering 103 Code of Massachusetts Regulations 478, “Library Services.” And the authorization we’re required to get is known as an ‘Authorization to Enter’ form, or ‘A TO E.’

I log onto the Department intranet, locate the form/print it out, and then fill out the form with the following information:

Description of items to enter institution
Purpose of items entering institution
Date items will enter
Time of day items will enter
Contact staff

Then there’s a section at the bottom for the signature of the Deputy Superintendent and a place for her to date her signature.

Last Friday evening, I walked the quarter-mile to the deputy’s office and secured her signature on the A TO E. Because the Bundle Room closes at 3PM, I cannot submit this until the next time I’m in.


Because Monday was a Massachusetts holiday (Patriots’ Day), on Tuesday afternoon I deliver the A TO E to our ‘Bundle Room’ officer.

On Wednesday afternoon, when I started my shift, one of my clerks informed me that the Bundle Room truck made a delivery to our Supply House. There were no boxes of books on the truck. This truck only comes into the prison once a week. Hurry-up-and-wait.

My guess is that the Bundle Room officer hasn’t had the time to fluoroscope each of these books in all six boxes. It’s a procedure, and he’s a thorough kind of guy. We need to wait until next week. Patience is, we are assured, a virtue. Bullshit. I want my books! Notice I said “my” books. Ridiculous. My books are resting here at home on their shelves.

Here’s another thing — Just because I have the Deputy’s approval to bring in (6) boxes of books from NE Mobile Book Fair doesn’t mean the Library will receive everything that I’ve selected for purchase. The Bundle Room officer has the authority to question any material in those boxes, and bring it to the attention of either the Deputy or the Director of Security. Language in 103 CMR 481 gives him this authority.

The last time a book I bought was challenged was about six months ago. I bought a Madonna biography, inside of which were color photos of her body in various stages of undress. For their own reasons, this Department has become strict about nudity. I do not agree with their strictness. I’d rather that they concentrate on violence, gore, criminal intent, and sexual perversity. And, to an extent, they do attend to these concepts. But there currently seems to be an across-the-board prohibition on nudity which (to my mind and tastes) is disturbing. But it’s reality. This particular book was not let in. Yet in 103 CMR 481 §14(3) you find this:

Publications may be excluded solely because they contain sexually-explicit material or feature nudity as defined in 103 CMR 481.06 In addition, the deputy superintendent of the Treatment Center, with the approval of the Commissioner, may exclude additional types of material that may interfere with the treatment and rehabilitation process at that institution.


The Treatment Center is for inmates (patients, actually) whom the system has classified as “sexually dangerous.”

Notice something else — The final decision to reject is not the Bundle Room officer’s to make; the decision rests with a higher Administrative authority. The Bundle Room officer can only question the appropriateness of material, based on policy, and then bring it to the attention his supervisor. He cannot refuse material on his own. That limitation on the powers of the front-line mail officer is almost a sea change in our system.

And even the Deputy Superintendent is limited by policy. She

…may not reject a publication solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social, or because its content is unpopular or repugnant.”


We must wait to see when we receive these books, and if we receive everything we bought….


Common Sense vs. the Culture of ‘Expert’ Worship

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

One Librarian started it off:

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

Another responded:

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

Which elicited this reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



LEARN, BABY, LEARN: Or, “Don’t they teach you ANYTHING in Library School?”

[In which your Beleaguered Instructor gets to play ‘Sage on the Stage’ with an MLS candidate, and discovers that there’s hope yet for the Human Family….]

A few weeks ago, A.D. gets a call from Shelley Quezada, who is the Consultant to the Underserved for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Shelley is a huge proponent of correctional libraries, and teaches about them in one of her Simmons College courses.

She asks A.D. if she will host Kay, one of her students who is interested in correctional Librarianship. Kay has a library management assignment and needs to learn something of the management concerns of prison librarians. Shelley asks A.D. to take this interview because–apart from being a former student of hers–Shelley knows that A.D. is herself a huge proponent of correctional libraries and the potential they have to fix broken lives.

library alcatraz

So this afternoon, Kay visits the minimum-security prison next door to ask our brand-spanking-new Librarian A.D. some pointed questions about correctional librarianship. Recognizing that she IS brand-spanking new, A.D. has the presence of mind to ask me along for the interview to field any questions of which she might not know the answers.

During the 1.5 hour interview, we discuss the following:

  • Service Philosophy (what Kay calls “management style”)
  • Collection Development Policy
  • Budgeting
  • Working with other prison departments
  • Supervising inmate workers
  • Being supervised by DOC managers
  • Library Programming
  • Acquisitions Sources (including donations)
  • Professional Connection (e.g., librarian’s meetings)
  • Censorship
  • Differences between public/correctional librarianship

Kay seems enthusiastic enough about the assignment and about our responses, at one point saying, “This is one paper I’m looking forward to writing!” As the afternoon continued, it becomes clear that she’s not just fulfilling an assignment; she seems genuinely interested in what prison librarians do. As to whether she’s equally interested in becoming a correctional employee, time will tell.

Kay had some last-minute questions about square footage of the Lending Library and other logistics. A.D. graciously offers her work email so that these questions can be answered later.

And an hour-and-a-half is not a lot of time to talk about what it takes to be a correctional employee. We barely touched upon security concerns of the library and of the Librarian, which is a shame. But we were there to answer question posed to us by a library science student, and LIS students are not trained to ask questions about security aspects of this job.

One aspect of corrections that A.D. emphasized for this student is the loneliness of the work. You’re a one-person, one-professional library. And when you’re brand-spanking new to corrections, being by yourself is at times overwhelming, and not a little intimidating. You have little to rely on but yourself, and any inmate clerks who may have been working in the Library before the hiring of a professional Librarian.

This is why an internship in correctional library management is so important to understanding all that corrections expects and requires of its Librarians. Please heed this advice — If you’re truly interested in working for corrections, an internship in correctional library management cannot be overstressed. Get an internship, or create one.

LIBRARIES WITHOUT WALLS: An Internship at Oshkosh Correctional Facility


A.D. had such an internship, a five-month stint at another nearby prison. As she admitted to Kay, it was that experience that helped her decide that corrections was her cup of tea.

As the interview progressed, something happened for me that I had not anticipated. As I listened to A.D.’s responses, I began to feel proud that I was sitting alongside her fielding these questions. She continually impressed me with her view that a correctional library is meant to help correct anti-social thinking, and is not a library that just happens to be in a prison. A.D. came to her internship in correctional library management with that attitude, was hired by the MA DOC with that attitude, and is now applying that attitude to library services at her prison. Her prisoners — and the public at large — will be the beneficiaries of her desire and efforts to help those who accept help.

In my experience, few library science students — and even fewer transplants from the public library world — ever understand or care to learn about the power of correctional librarianship to correct deviant thinking and be a part of the larger prison effort to re-build lives destroyed by criminal mentality. A.D. gets this, and because she gets this,  she’s earned my respect.

“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.


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

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

“Have you ever been attacked?”

“Don’t you get scared in here?”

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

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

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

“Why do you teach them to sue you?”

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

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

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


“Can they use the internet?”

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

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

“How much does a prison librarian make?”

“Does corrections really rehabilitate anybody?”

“How can you take all the negativity?”

“I bet it’s never boring in here!”

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

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

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

“Why should criminals earn college diplomas?”

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

“Why should you care about these wackos?”

“How many of these guys can read?”

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

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


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?