HUMOR-AS-THERAPY: OR, “Don’t you know nobody takes these books out?”


Humor-as-Therapy: or, “Stop it, you’re KILLING me!”

I am a huge proponent of humor-as-therapy for the incarcerated. It works for those on the outside, why not for the imprisoned? In fact, from the poking around I’ve done (Mindess, Moody, Eastman, Keller, Klein), I now view humor as a type of correctional self-help material.

In the past 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of time choosing this stuff for the collection, and Norfolk now has a Humor section of a little over 200 books. To this I now add the following:

1. New New Rules (by Bill Maher)
2. Ecstasy Of Defeat: Sports Reporting At Its Finest By The Editors Of The Onion
3. Bossypants
4. Best Of The Rejection Collection (New Yorker)
5. Humorous Verses Of Lewis Carroll
6. Brief(Er) History Of Time
7. Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen As Comic Strip
8. Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons



[In which we use Dickens to once again shirk our important rehabilitative teaching duties…..]

The film is Scrooge, the actor is Alastair Sim. The class is ABLE MINDS. The group is a bunch of convicted felons that just want to watch a holiday movie without all the rehabilitative razzmatazz.

surplus population

So, after discussing one of the inmate’s conflict resolution assignments, we go right into the film. I worry that the third of the class who speak Spanish won’t understand the British accents, but we muddle through.

This is the 2nd Christmas season that I’ve offered A Christmas Carol in the Lending Library. The week before the 25th, we offer it twice, on consecutive evenings. Prisoners always sign up, and they’re always grateful for having seen it.

On this particular night, when I hear The Ghost of Christmas Present rebuke Scrooge with his own words about the ‘surplus population,’ it occurs to me for the first time in my career that I am sitting in this Library watching this film with representatives of that population. This scene, the film, and what I do for my living, are all given a certain urgency and meaning by this realization.  I consider this new thought a kind of serendipitous Christmas present, and I’m not entirely sure whom (Whom) to thank.

I have noticed that prisoners respond in one of two ways to educational films: either they’re embarrassed or nonplussed by the emotionality of the plot, laugh at inappropriate times, and make snide comments to each other — OR they’re quiet, attentive, and have honest, healthful emotional reactions to what’s being shown. On this night, I have people from the first group. This I feel is unfortunate, because these people have just completed eight weeks of intensive consequential thinking training.

The following night, I have men who fall into the second group. These are folks who signed up just for the pure pleasure of watching the film. The difference in their responses from the group of the previous night is remarkable, and I mention it to one of my clerks, who says: “They’re more mature.” Some men are in tears at various points in the plot. I’m always grateful when that happens, and it happens more often than you may imagine. I stoke this notion that tears are cleansing, and that prisoners need to cry.

There is a very self-conscious moment for all when the same Ghost again rebukes Scrooge with his own words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” All of us sitting there know emphatically that, indeed, 150 years after Dickens wrote the thing, there are plenty of prisons.

Showing this film to these people at this festive time of the year in order to solicit some tearful contemplation is our attempt at reaching “the Surplus.”


MANNA OVERBOARD: Or, “Who buys a VCR in the New Millennium?”

[In which your Beleaguered Instructor proves that he’s just bright enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth….]

My memory is shot. Nothing left. At all. How I think to post to this blog is anyone’s guess. How I know i HAVE a blog is even curiouser.

Today, I stopped by BSCC prison to pick up a donation of video tapes. These tapes were acquired through the previous BSCC Librarian, now retired. The arrangement was that A.D., the new librarian, was to meet me in the lobby at 1PM. Well, she didn’t. When she finally appeared, I found out why. I was a day early — which she promptly announced to every officer within earshot.

Thanks a bunch, A.D. Way to embarrass a future Alzheimer’s sufferer in front of his peers. And here EYE’m supposed to be the classless one     ;o)

But the donation was a pleasant surprise. A few days ago, A.D. said she needed to get rid of her remaining videos, mainly because they no longer had a VCR, weren’t gonna buy no VCR, and anyway they have DVDs and PlayAways aplenty. Her guess was that the tapes numbered “around forty or so.” Correction: there’re around ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY or so. So it turns out that I can’t tell time, and A.D can’t count. Perhaps this is why we’re both people-persons?

Of course, while transporting the three boxes of tapes from the Library to my car on a flatbed dolly, I made the mistake of complaining about the flattened disk in my lower back (it was rainy and humid, so sue me). A.D., who is by nature kind and considerate, started treating me with a kind of motherly solicitude, in the manner of a 1st-grade teacher caring for a child with a bloody nose. There’s a certain condescending singsong lilt to the tone of a young lady’s voice when dealing with a man twice her age; I’m suffering that lilt more and more these days, AND IT SUCKS. When A.D. broke out ‘the lilt,’ I concluded No matter how many times I hear that, IT WILL ALWAYS SUCK.

The tapes are now in the Bundle Room awaiting the requisite paper work to enter Norfolk. Before I left these boxes with the Bundle Room officer, we discovered several tapes that needed to be removed before the boxes could be approved to be sent inside. Because of a contract the Department signs with the vendor who supplies our prisons with films, we’re not allowed to offer the inmates anything approaching entertainment in their libraries. So out went Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, Big Trouble in Little China, the Marx Bros.’s A Night at the Opera, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Buster Keaton’s The General, a New England Patriot’s Super Bowl tape, and an Amos & Andy episode.

videotape pile

The question is — what was the previous Librarian doing with entertainment videos? By policy, she wasn’t allowed to have them, and she knew it. Do you get the feeling that DOC employees sometimes break the rules? Well, they do. And Librarians aren’t immune to this temptation.

FOR THE RECORD — You shouldn’t break the rules. Seriously. Because the consequences are bad if you do.

The tape that really flummoxed me was the Amos & Andy episode. Amos & Andy? What was she trying to do, start a riot?

We also removed two Bugs Bunny tapes. Understand: I have nothing whatsoever against Bugs Bunny. Like the Three Stooges, Bugs has helped pull me through five (5) decades with some of my sanity still intact. But how in the Wide World of Sports did this Librarian get these things in the library? I’ve got a tremendous amount of chutzpah, but even I can’t imagine smuggling Bugs Bunny cartoons into an adult male medium-security prison. (BTW — Bugs came home with me, where I’ll watch him with the kids. The prisoners can be content with Nova and the Discovery Channel and PBS and National Geographic specials).

I still can’t believe my staff and I are excited to be given another slew of video tapes in a span of 10 days. VIDEO TAPES, for cryin’ out loud, 60 years after their invention. It’s just wrong. But these things will see steady use. Beggars/choosers, and all that.

Thanks, A.D., for your beneficence. But stop it already with the lilt.

“There’s no crying in bibliotherapy!” WANNA BET, MR. HANKS?

For years, Dragonheart has been a guilty pleasure. For many reasons, it’s one of my favorite films.

It’s no work of art. In fact, for most, it’s just a fantasy film. But for those queer ducks like Yours Truly who search cinematic moments for their redemptive potential, Dragonheart ranks way, way up there with other fantastic films like Lord of the Rings, It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooge (the Alistair Sim version), and even Galaxy Quest.

For two years, it’s been a hope of mine to present Dragonheart to one of my book discussion groups, and that hope bore fruit a few weeks ago. Although the novelization of the film is long out of print, I actually found quite a good paper bound copy of Charles Edward Pogue’s story in the children’s section of the Shire Book Shop, the greatest used book store ever devised by the minds of men (Don’t judge a book store by its web presence — their site sux).

I took that book, made ten 4-to-1 copies, and then pow-wowed with my course assistant for the next five weeks on the lesson plan for presenting the plot of this interesting work in the best possible light. We highlighted compelling plot points, interesting and instructive poetry, telling moments that revealed depth of character and, of course (if you know the story at all) the five tenets of valor that Bowen attempts to teach Einon, prince of the realm and son of the worst tyrant in long memory.

We also used the DVD in our preparation. The assistant sat down with our portable Sony 7″ screen, with the captions feature selected (he’s from Côte d’Ivoire, and says his French impedes the way he hears English, or something), scrutinized each scene, and took program notes on a steno pad.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Opening Night of the course — what we ended up with was not a book discussion presentation, as we’d set out to do, but another dad-blamed consequential thinking seminar. Crap.

Oh, well…When life hands you yet another dad-blamed consequential thinking seminar, the least you can do is teach it. So, we did.

Since there wasn’t supposed to be a therapeutic bent to this presentation, I already knew that no earned good conduct credits–what the inmates call ‘good time’–would attach. Students would need to be informed that they would be participating for the love of reading, for lively and incisive discussion, for the pure enjoyment of the story, and for safe, like-minded company.

Half of the students dropped after the 1st night. Well, many inmates don’t take disappointment well. It probably didn’t help that I characterized a few of the whiners as “good-time sluts.”  I was raised to call’em as I see’em.

The five men that remained were aghast that so much work was involved for a non – “good time” course. But they stuck it out and did everything asked of them:

  • Read the book before Opening Night
  • Write five character sketches
  • Participate in class discussions of plot points
  • Memorize the “Old Code”

old code1

But again, a funny thing happened along the way — the inmates fell into the process of transference, where they relate plot points to events in their past that gave them particular troubles. We were flabbergasted. This is the kind of thing that we hope for in the Wednesday night consequential thinking seminar. We never expected it to happen here. But there they were, talking about former criminal lives and behavior, the terrible way their parents treated them, the horrible treatment of women and children at their hands, the daily regret for their selfishness. It was the whole rehabilitative dynamic and, because they themselves were making it happen,  it was truly awe-some to behold.

And I think not in spite of but because of this “extra work” put in by these five special men, the groundwork was laid for the course finale, which was the viewing of the DVD.

Now, if you’re a student in one of my socialization courses, you learn quickly that you are prohibited from calling films “movies.” We do not watch “movies” in my socialization courses. No ma’am — “movies” denotes entertainment, and we have not assembled to be entertained, but socialized. We call them “educational films for therapeutic purposes,” or EFTPs for short. And I am here to tell you that this particular EFTP caught our intrepid book discussion participants completely unawares. From an emotional standpoint, they never saw it coming.

Or — probably more accurately — EYE never saw it coming. What the students had done in the previous 16 hours was permit themselves to be vulnerable to such things as friendship, duty, honesty, loyalty, and love. It was all there, between the pages. And now it was written in their hearts.

At the film’s end, when Draco sacrifices himself by allowing his good friend Bowen to take his life, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. It was more than I had bargained for.

And it was glorious. When the lights came on, we were all of us wiping away tears and laughing at each other, like men must when displaying open naked emotion to fellow men. And these were convicted felons in a medium-security prison. They tell each other not to cry, because real men don’t cry. Real men don’t let themselves feel. “Crying’s for chicks and children.”

Except when, in an inhuman place, grown men are allowed to be human beings, allowed to feel safe, allowed to feel. When you can create a safe environment in the library, then men will allow themselves to open up to their own feelings. Even if their stimulus happens to be a silly fantasy film featuring Double-Oh-7 as the voice of a dragon.

Connery as Draco:

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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.

“But what does rehabilitation SMELL like?”

Lord of the Rings is a blessing to the world.

I’ve never met anyone who, after reading the book, wasn’t positively affected and touched by its messages of friendship and hope. And I’ve met quite a few who, after reading this novel, were inspired to do something great, or simply inspired to do the right thing –which is a kind of greatness — which is all we ask of the prisoners in our ABLE MINDS program.

Peter Jackson’s movies are remarkable —  but the book is so much better. Jackson could spend the rest of his movie-directing life trying to illustrate all of the life-affirming messages in those 1,150 pages.

And you better believe the prisoners respond to it. There’s a rabid reading core of fantasy fanatics in prisons, they can’t get enough of it. And the strangest thing of all is most of this stuff is one gigantic MORALITY PLAY! It’s all about good vs. evil, how light vanquishes the darkness, how the sun will eventually come out and shine again. The hearts of these men thrive on the hope that spills out of these tales. It’s curious, and it’s fascinating, and how they relate to it is miraculous. Sometimes, the smallest successes can be most gratifying — I love it when you see that figurative light bulb flash on over an inmates’ head and they ‘get’ something they didn’t know before. What you’re witnessing is socialization before your very eyes.

And the way you teach these programs matters, not only to the participants but also to yourself. In this course, I encourage you to be a model of integrity for yourself, so that you may preserve your own humanity in a perverse place. Of course, God only knows if, by doing so, you actually influence people for the better. But it can’t hurt to try. And you keep your mind and heart open to any self-discovery moments along the way. Always remember — you’re not preaching, but instructing. And the person you may instruct most may be yourself.

  • If you want to experience what rehabilitation LOOKS like, peek into a classroom when a teacher’s proctoring the GED exam
  • If you want to experience what rehabilitation SOUNDS like, attend a prisoner Toastmaster’s meeting
  • If you want to experience what rehabilitation FEELS like, give a bibliotherapy session.

“I knew I was a girl since I was six years old:” PRISON TEACHES US TO LIVE AND LET LIVE


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.”


I don’t mean to sound trite or apologetic — which means I probably will — but facts are facts. Prisoners are told:

  • What to do
  • What they’ve done wrong
  • What punishments they must suffer as a result of their bad behavior
  • What problems they have  and how to address them

And they have friends who (in the American vernacular) ‘bust their balls’ or (in the British vernacular) ‘take the piss’ out of them. Only occasionally, as a prison employee, do you hear a thank-you, words of encouragement, or praise from one inmate directed at another.

In my workplace, I emphasize praise where it is due. On my better days, I emphasize praise where it is needed.

It was a lifer who taught me this about myself. About four years ago, my Inter-library Loan clerk came to my office with a comic he clipped from a newspaper. In the comic, the main character was saying ‘thank-you’ over and over to one of the other characters. I’m sitting there wondering, “Why is he showing me this?” I finally asked, and the clerk said, “I saw this and immediately thought of you. I said ‘What does Bill say all the time?’ ‘Thank you.'”

Well, that gave me pause. I never thought of myself as particularly grateful, and would never say that I showed my gratitude out of the ordinary way. And the more I thought about this, I realized that this self-examination was true. I never thought that I went out of my way to say ‘thank you.’ But I said it enough so that it made a good impression on this man.

And that was my lesson learned. The incarcerated women and men working for you are so starved for sincere words of courtesy and gratitude that the smallest amount makes a positive impression.

As correctional educators, we were always talking about making a positive difference in the lives of prisoners, and here in our daily power were words — simple words that uplifted and encouraged and were gratefully received each time they were spoken.

Some nights I used to leave the prison and self-indulgently worry if anything I did could ever help anyone there. With this new knowledge, all I could do was remember those times and feel ashamed. Common courtesy was all that was required, and I was too stupid to know it.

I looked up at this very tall man — with goddamn tears in my eyes! — and said “Thank you.” He laughed and said “Thank you.”


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.