“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”







When the Department of Correction must decide where to place a prison, most citizens have the NIMBY attitude.  Fred McFeely Rogers–“Mr. Rogers” to you and me–thought of the children, no matter whose rogers5children they were. 

In the 1970’s, Fred Rogers was instrumental in changing how the State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh approached the nurturing of the children of inmates. 


Mr. Rogers and The Children of Prisoners


I took my internship in prison library management at this prison in 1985-86.  I remember the resentment of some SCI-P staff over this change that Fred Rogers was able to effect.  Some employees felt that, for the sake of the victims, the children of inmates should suffer along with the inmate. I doubt these folks considered that the children of inmates were suffering. 

Fred Rogers did.

Even now, 30 years later, some staff still feel that, for the sake of the victims of violent crimes, nothing should be done for the inmate, let alone for their children.  Obviously, inroads have been made, and corrections has come a long way.  But crime is emotional. 

Because he lived & recorded his program in my hometown, I grew up watching and listening to Mr. Rogers, never suspecting that our paths would cross– however indirectly–in a prison. 

Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers. March 20, 1928-February 27, 2003.

Considering what the man accomplished, Fred was a force of nature.  The wonder of it is that he’d never agree with that statement.  What he wanted was for those of us listening to realize that we are all of us remarkable, and to live caring, compassionate lives for those who need us.  Fred knew that the kids need us.

Below is a link to an ordinary video, ordinary to all but those who grew up watching the show.  If you watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred’s words will challenge you, convict you, encourage you, and move you.  If you didn’t grow up in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, this will show you the man (with heartfelt thanks to SJSU instructor & friend, Raymond Dean).

“I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life”



New program tonight: “You mean ‘excited, not ‘nervous.'”

(In which again we plunge Headlong into the Breach, all in the name of rehabilitation, socialization, and re-integration….)

Last night, I mentioned to She Who Must Be Obeyed that the humor-as-therapy course would begin Tuesday night, and that I was ‘nervous.’  Said She:  “You don’t mean ‘nervous.’  You’re ‘excited,’ not nervous.”

nervousOf course, She is right.  And that’s an important distinction.  You get nervous about the unknown.  The only thing unknown at this point is how my curriculum actually plays out in the class room.  Even THAT’S not an unknown, because modifications to lesson plans are always necessary.

I should relax.


HA! The Science of When We Laugh and Why is our text, and the priHAsoners were given two weeks before today to finish it.  I’ve been thinking about how best to incorporate the views in this book into the presentation, as currently I don’t refer to it in any of my PPT lectures.  I guess I can just tell them that the book gives them a good scientific foundation for what humor is, where it comes from, how our minds process it, and why we need to practice it in our everyday lives.  Yeah.  THAT sounds good.  Maybe they’ll fall for it!


ha-ha-ha-very-funnyIn an email, I told a friend about tonight, and he wished me well.  “Break a leg,” he said. “BEFORE the class.”

Everyone’s a comedian.


Today I sat down with my classroom assistant to revise our course curriculum and match handouts, activities and PPT presentations to each Module.  The first thing we need to do is copy the two assessments for the first class.  One assessment, the COPE Inventory,  measures one’s stress-coping skills, the other defines one’s particular humor style.

teaching tattooWe’re also using a text book called HA! The Science of When We Laugh & Why by Scott Weems, a young man with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience.  The 12 participants have already picked up their program copies and (hopefully) will have them read by May 26.

Since the vast majority of course content (PPTs, handouts, etc.) has been created at home, the prison permits me to bring the program laptop with me so that I can load the files and return the computer to the library.  In the past, I’ve had to email files to work, and then figure out a way to get them from there to the program computer.  Or I’ve had to burn them to CD & then get permission to bring those in.  But then they started a policy of disabling ports and devices like CD drives, so that was not an option.  And–in the case of PPTs that are way too large to send as attachments–I’d have to get permission to bring files in on a thumb drive, a device that, until recently, they really didn’t want you bringing in.  The prison’s decided that it’s easier just to take out the machine, load your files, & return it.  Which makes sense..

We’re in pretty good shape now.  We’ve got the curriculum, the PPT lectures, handouts, assignments, program text, planned activities, assessments, equipment, and a roster of eager participants. Now, we wait for the 26th to roll around.

We teach two hours each Tuesday night (6:15PM-8:15PM) in the Lending Library.  The course is scheduled to go 10 weeks.  No earned good conduct credits will be awarded, so inmates attend because they actually want to.  Which is nice.

teacher7After organizing our papers and revising content, my assistant says to me with a smirk, “This is, like, WORK!”  He’s helped me prepare for course, so he knows what’s involved.  Every teacher knows the bulk of the work is preparation.  Yes, you need to have an engaging teaching style, or you lose them.  But you need to have something useful and intriguing to offer them, too, or all the engagement and charisma in the world will be for naught.

book_prisonSince this is the first time out, we have no idea if we’ll have enough time to administer both assessments (the COPE inventory has 60 questions; the Antioch Humor Inventory has 47).  If not, we’ll have to revise lesson plans for weeks 1 and 2 after First Night is over.

This is, like, work.

VIDEO:  My Experience Teaching in Prisons

New Stuff: Or, “I haven’t seen ‘Wizard of Oz’ in 25 years!”

Amazing, the little things we free men take for granted that tend to grab the attention of the incarcerated.

Today, we receive 24 humor-as-therapy books, most of them purchased through Advanced Educational Products, an excellent source with a consistently high fill rate. Included in the shipment are books on stress management, and one on why it’s important as a parent to help nurture your child’s sense of humor. Good stuff.

We also received DVDs, Blu-Rays, & a comedy CD set. These will be for the ‘active listening’ and ‘active viewing’ part of the humor-as-therapy program. During active listening, we’ll listen to a comedian or a comedy bit, and stop it at certain points to analyze the type of humor used and its effects on the receiver (e.g., was anyone hurt by the joke). We’ll do the same thing with the DVDs.

Since most of my clerks are lifers, this is the 1st time they’re seeing Blu-Ray disks. One of them says to me: “Y’know how I knew which were Blu-Rays?” I figure he’s going to tell me some esoteric piece of information about something that he’s learned about the format, so I bite.


“Because their cases are blue!”

And EYE’m the idiot who hired him.

All of the films were chosen for their humor content. some titles include Fiddler on the Roof, Scrooged, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Wizard of Oz.

When I remove Oz from the box, my inter library loan clerk smiles broadly & says “HEY!  You got the Wizard!  I haven’t seen that movie in 25 years!”  Here I must pause and apologize to the world-weary and cynical, because hearing this breaks my heart.  The Wizard of Oz will always be one of my guilty pleasures, and I manage to see it once a year.  One day, to my delight, I discovered that one of our now-retired Lieutenants could recite whole scenes from this film, such is his mania & affection for it.  His favorite is when the Wizard ‘gives’ the Tin Man his heart.


The inter library loan clerk has signed up for the first cycle of the program, which begins on May 26th.  He will definitely get to see his movie.

Or, at least see sections of it.  Remember, we’re running a stress-reduction program using humor as our therapeutic vehicle.  We’re not permitted to entertain in our libraries, only to instruct & educate.  But if any entertainment value is gleaned by the participants, well, it’s all in the name of rehabilitation and re-integration.

“And remember, my sentimental friend: a heart is not judged by how much YOU love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

“Stop getting caught up in you:” Or: USING MY ENABLED MIND

Final class night. We began the cycle on March 13. It’s been a long course.

Distributed several handouts, one in particular–the quote from the novel The Exorcist— generated a great deal of discussion on how prisoners view themselves and how they might deal with those they do not get along with. The answer, so said the men, is in breaking the cycle of violence and being willing to help your enemy if they ask for your help. Two students spoke on how important communication is in these situations, and how prisoners tend to overlook effective ways of talking out interpersonal conflict.

One student spoke about how he felt that Tolkien was gearing The Hobbit toward courage, and how when you’re faced with ‘fight-or-flight’ it is sometimes the courage to walk away that takes control. Another man felt that the courage to walk way was a conscious decision one had to make, rather than relying on instinct or habit.

Another man said he has stopped second-guessing himself over the character of his associates, and now will only befriend others who are on the same change-based path. He finished by saying “For me to backslide is to commit suicide.” I reminded him that backsliding will always be a concern, because we who need to change are in a daily struggle with our old nature. The backsliding does not define one who struggles for a better life– the struggle to do better defines him. For some in your association, it’s not that they cannot mature, it’s that they refuse to mature. He who acknowledges his immaturity and still struggles forward on the right path is the man you need to walk alongside.

The PPT generated discussion about transferring into society and dealing with bigotry and prejudice against an ex-felon. When job interviews were mentioned, one man said “I’m going to produce every certificate I’ve earned during my time inside to point out the positive changes I’ve attempted to make.” He said he may not receive the trust from fellow employees or supervisors at first, but that trust is earned and “if I stick with it, the trust will come.”

The class also spoke on the anti-corrective attitudes of officers and other administrators. Some treat prisoners as untrustworthy because they refuse to see them as people. This is how some men will be seen when they try to find a job. The class agreed that dealing with that attitude while incarcerated is preparing them to handle it on the outside. One man used the balancing scales analogy: today the scale is balanced and all is well. Tomorrow, something happens to throw off that balance and the imbalance points to a problem. “Some in society paint ex-felons with the same brush-stroke: if one ex-felon is given a chance and screws up, then to them ALL ex-felons are screw-ups and not worth their time.”

Another student said “Take the focus off your conviction when job-hunting, and instead focus on the qualifications of those with whom you are competing for the job. You may not get the job, but it’s probably because the guy who did was better-qualified. Also realize that when 12 apply for the same job and you don’t get it, that means there are 10 other people who are heading back home, too, just like you. Stop getting caught up in you.”

We then turned to the remaining 28 slides of the PPT presentation — and actually got through all of them. Seven handouts, 28 slides, and constant discussion, all in two hours. It was the most productive final class night in eight years of running the program.

Finally, certificates of completion were distributed. Everyone was grateful for the three extra copies that they could use to send home. Many men mentioned over the course of the two months that they had family who were proud of their ABLE MINDS participation. Some even had family members following the reading in The Hobbit using their own copies of the novel.

‘Victor’ and I received many compliments, smiles and thank-you’s to end the night. Productive group.

PEER REVIEW: Or “No pressure, I’ll just quietly vomit in the corner over here….”

Tonight we hosted our department Manager for Library services, and a newly-hired Librarian from the Treatment Center. Our manager has attended my ABLE MINDS classes, but wanted to have the new hire sit in on a class as he will be required to teach them at his facility once he’s settled in.

Everyone except Julio was in excellent form (during the break, he told me he was fighting a cold).

Students submitted their ‘Achilles’ Heel’ assignments, then were given an ‘Achilles’ Heel: Release Day’ assignment which is due next week.

Tonight I stuck with the PowerPoint, and managed to cover 10 slides. This is the penultimate class, and we still have 28 slides to cover. But the point of the course is not to complete the presentation but to use it to generate discussion and insight. This group has taken to that concept since the first night.

During class discussion:
Sly talked about leaving his old neighborhood and starting afresh.
David said his transfer from NYC was necessary to break awat from peer pressure.
Luke said that when he’s released soon, he must apply this advice, otherwise he’ll fall into the same criminal habits “and all this ABLE MINDS sh*t’ll fly out the window.” I asked him his age; he told us 39 (surprising, as I thought he was 10 years younger based on the attitude about life that he has demonstrated).
Guy mentioned his first-degree life sentence, and how it is possible to face the fact of not going home but still be determined to become a better person.

Discussion ensued about what, exactly, to do AFTER you’ve decided to change your ways. Some said it was at this time that you learned who your true friends are. Ian said he needed to have ‘insight’ into himself first, to realize that it was his behavior and not those around him that was the source of his trouble.

Talk then turned to the concept of shame and its uses as a positive motivator. Some admitted that they felt shame over leaving their children and families in the lurch. Others feel shame when thinking of their crime. Still others voiced shame over getting released and not being able to use their freedom to stay free.

Ian mentioned how even though he was an insignificant creature, Bilbo managed to find reasonable, peaceful, and clever solutions to predicaments he faced on his journey, and how those solutions ultimately framed and defined his new character. Bill then invoked the “I must be patient with me” handout which was distributed a few weeks back. The text of the handout I obtained from the emotions Anonymous web site. I re-read this handout to the class from my lesson plan.

The question was posed: “Have you ever felt like the effort to try to turn your life around has been a waste of your time?” Alec answered Yes, but then explained that he counters those negative feelings with his hourly focus, which are family, freedom, and a changed nature.

One PPT slide asked: “Was the decision to change a frightening one for you?” The library services manager shared that she recalls the day she decided to change herself, and feeling confused about “what happens now? What am I supposed to do?” Most men felt that the word ‘frightening’ was too strong; they substituted ‘challenged.’

At the end of class, after the guests had gone, one student said to me: “We sounded like a well-rounded and wise group of men tonight! I think we all displayed the value of ABLE MINDS to your visitors.”

I think they did, too.

“Wow, who can follow THOSE writing skills!” OR: MY CON’S BETTER THAN YOUR CON

Tonight in ABLE MINDS, I read a random written homework submitted for the Conflict Resolution: Past Choices” assignment. After finishing the two pages, one of the students said “Wow! How can any of us follow THAT!” referring to the eloquence of the writing. My assistant pounced on that one, reminding the class that socialization is not a competition but a chance to be honest with themselves and with the THINK FIRST method. The students were kind of relieved to hear this.

One student spoke of a past violent situation involving an officer and the rough treatment of some of his personal photographs. I related a situation that happened to me a few years ago when the inner security team searched my office for contraband and left the room in a less-than-tidy state. We all agreed that prison is not our homes, it’s property of the State. Some inmates were surprised to discover that staff have similar kinds of privacy issues as do inmates. I told them that nothing in my office is mine, in fact. ‘my office’ isn’t even mine. It belongs to Massachusetts.

Tonight started off slowly, but after a few more Conflict Resolutions were read, men became more comfortable and relaxed, as they usually do.

The prison concept of ‘disrespect’ was addressed and defined, and we decided that this is an emotional trigger that is harmful to the inmate case when trying to deal assertively respectfully with an officer or another inmate. The responsibility of choosing neutral words and phrases was discussed, and the principle that “Words are actions” was reiterated by one man. Another student talked of using a tool called a “value meter,’ which allows him to prioritize. It is also an alternative way of using the first step of THINK FIRST, which is “Take stock of the situation.”

One man shared one free-world experience of completing an earlier sentence. Hours after release, he and a cousin went to a shoe store. The ex-inmate asked the salesman to help him, but the salesman was busy with another customer and said, “I’ll be with you in a minute.” The ex-inmate thought that this comment was ‘disrespect,’ because he was accustomed to being waited on immediately which was his experience with prison staff. He confronted the salesman, but luckily his cousin pulled him away and explained that this wasn’t how things were done in the free world. The ex-inmate ended up apologizing to the salesman for his actions. The salesman ended up giving him a discount because he was just recently released, and gave him a few coupons to use for the next time.

At the end of the night the concept of love conquers all was raised. A man told of his gang life in LA, and said that h was taught that to get respect you had to be ruthless. He said what he learned from that is that you couldn’t earn anothers’ respect, only their fear. He concluded by saying “The Dali Lama says ‘Love and only love can conquer hate.'” I mentioned the scene in the book The Exorcistwhere the older priest Merrin tells the younger priest Damien that it is possible to do unto others without feeling love for them. It is a human impossibility to feel love for those who oppress you. But is it psychologically possible to help someone who is unworthy of you help.

Honest responses, thoughtful written assignments, a relaxed atmosphere. Good class.

“A man must be swift to hear, slow to speak” Uplift from an unexpected source

This evening, an inmate came to visit me after having been out of the prison due to serious surgery which removed his larynx. He talked with some kind of voice pen, and his speech was understandable.

I’ve known his for many years. I’ve learned tonight that his resiliency in the face of personal, permanent debilitation is astonishing and inspiring. For a guy who just lost his voice box, he talked a lot. Mostly about his faith and how he doesn’t feel bitterness, hatred, or resentment. He told me he wants to be a beacon of hope to others. That reminded me of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, when Tim tells his father in church on Christmas Day that he hoped the other people noticed that he was a cripple, so he would be a reminder to them Who it was that made lame beggars walk and blind men see.

This man still has an easy smile. His physical healing is coming along well. And he is in as good a spiritual space as he can be. He tells me he sees life a new way, and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. I believe him. I hope when my time comes, I can be as courageous and resolved as he is.

God bless us –every one.

“Not to kiss his a$$, but this is a good class!” OR, LOCAL HOOD MAKES GOOD

ABLE MINDS meets each Wednesday night for two hours in the Lending Library. Right now we have eight participants, including my course assistant. This is the advanced class, where we delve into the components of good human character. we’re using The Hobbit. Tonight marked the 2nd of eight planned classes for the cycle.

All students demonstrated the depth of their knowledge regarding the novel. To be sure, The Hobbit was written for children, but participation of this kind you do not take for granted in the Pokey. An engaged classroom is something to be thankful for. The Moderator (Yours Truly) did not dominate the conversation, as everyone had something tangible and pertinent to contribute. That’s the way ABLE MINDS is supposed to work. I don’t need to lecture; I need to introduce concepts, see where they take them, and then challenge them to come up with alternatives if opinions begin to stray in the antisocial realm.

Many of the men contributed personal anecdotes about explaining the course to family members, both face-to-face in the visiting room and over the phone. One student’s ex-girlfriend was surprised to hear that he was reading the novel, a book that she happens to know well, So now they have a common conversational thread. Another student said his sister was shocked to discover that he was reading the novel, as she has been coaxing him to read both it and Lord of the Rings (LOTR) for several years.

The men were honest and sincere. One guy held up the novel and said, “I can’t relate the story to the life I’m leading.”  But then he held up his THINK FIRST handout and said, “But I can ride with this. This is gonna help me live in here.”  (At break time, my assistant discovers that this man had difficulty reading in English, and is ashamed to admit it. I’ll discuss this with him later on).

From the PowerPoint lecture, the concepts of friendship, duty, and honor drew nearly an hours’ worth of reflection. We identified plot points in the novel where examples of these take place, and then attempted to relate these to our American culture generally and then to specific prison culture.

One individual was called out of the classroom by an Officer, and was told to bring his coat and books with him. It looked like he was done for the night. But he returned, and explained that he had the choice of remaining in the Unit but chose to come back to class because “I have an anger issue, and I think this class can give me a better way of thinking.”

Several times during the evening, I’d made correlations between The Hobbit and LOTR.  Finally, one man said enthusiastically, “Why don’t we do that book next?” which elicited some laughter from my course assistant.  I explained that we’d been using LOTR in ABLE MINDS since April 2007, and just discontinued it in favor of The Hobbit.  Feigning frustration, I said “Where have BEEN for the past five years?!” He said “Here!” which elicited general laughter.

Toward evening’s end, our discussion turned to emotions. I ventured the notion that once someone recognizes an emotional problem within himself, he must next recognize an inescapable truth about that problem, which is — It Will Never Go Away. The best that we human beings can do is work at it and hope that it gets better. A student said “And will it? Does it ever get better?”

I said that this question is probably one of the most useful questions that can be asked in a consequential thinking seminar. I asked the class to contemplate the adage, “While there’s life, there’s hope.” We’ve assembled in a course that offers troubled people encouragement and a problem-solving method to try. Like the reformed alcoholic, the problem remains but we are its master. We try. We fail. We try again. We succeed. It begins to get easier. Nothing we can ever do can make the problem vanish. But we can learn to manage it. And managing it is good enough. Knowing we have the control to make it better is enough of a self-esteem boost to get up out of bed and face each other. We give ourselves the confidence we need to face our burdens every hour of every day.

It’s a good group of men. They listen, they ask questions, and they give those answers consideration. That’s all any teacher can hope for from the classroom dynamic.

“A spirit-abusing drudge of mindless routine;” OR, WELCOME TO MY WORLD

A spirit-abusing drudge of mindless routine, priggish complaints, Cassandra-like drama, unpredictable violence, and ubiquitous paranoia. This veritable cornucopia of workaday evil defines contemporary front-line corrections. Welcome to my world.

During a 9-month internship in prison library management at SCI-Pittsburgh under the tutelage of the great Stephen Mallinger, I began to believe that corrections would allow me to help prisoners reject their criminality so they could shoe-horn some meaning and purpose into their broken lives.

I still believe this. But I don’t count on it.

I further nurtured the altruistic-but-misguided conceit that I could champion prisoners’ rights. I learned the only true way to accomplish this was to quit and join a prisoner’s advocacy group. I decided to stay in corrections.

Nearly three decades separate Now from those heady, idealistic days, when my kindhearted inclination was to characterize prisoners as “Those poor, poor people!” Since then, I’ve witnessed enough orgies of self-righteousness in the Pokey to compel even the most starry-eyed public defender to stab herself through the heart with her dog-eared, latte-stained copy of Gideon’s Trumpet.

Corrections can suck so audibly that the licking & slurping can be heard from Honolulu Harbor to Bangor Bay. The bad days feel as if the lone requisite for correctional work is that I be a dim-witted masochist, gleefully subjugating myself to humiliating doses of convict scorn and hate, public apathy, and bureaucratic short-sightedness. And I willingly fell into this talent-wasting, spirit-crushing trap. Whither sanity, rationality, reason? What the Sam Hill’s a’goin’ on here? Back then I could’ve shaken this nightmarish notion, ran outside, hugged a tree, then snagged a practical library job working around happy, trustworthy people who enjoyed their work and were glad to see me each day.

I chose the exact and utter opposite. I am a correctional Librarian at an adult male medium-security prison.

So I labor in blissful obscurity. Some prisoners and Administrators seem to appreciate my efforts. That’s got to count for something. Surely?