A fairly recent self-help title admonishes all to “don’t sweat the small stuff.” I’ve often imagined the author of this advice working in a correctional library. My edge-you-muh-cated guess is that after a few years dealing with the sociopathic personality, his book might’ve had a very different title and focus, more along the lines of, say, Hunter Thompson’s summation of Sonny Barger’s crew at the end of his Hell’s Angels: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Rules abound in the correctional library. There are library (internal) rules, and prison (external) rules. Often the external rules of the prison compel the Librarian to make a new library rule–or at least modifications of an existing rule.

One of these prison rules is a concept called “accountability.” For obvious reasons, the administration must know at all times where each inmate is. To fulfill this mandate, it is incumbent on the inmate at all times be where he says he will be. When the inmate fails to reach his stated destination, he is said to be ‘out of place,’ and he is in a world of trouble.

A few months ago while working a late shift in the law library, I was at the photocopy counter reviewing inmate legal copy requests. It was a little after 6PM, which marks the 1st evening movement. A law library ‘regular,’ a Mr. Joseph Shmoe,  came in, wished me good evening, and took a copy request form from me. Since we average 15 requests per shift, I continued reviewing requests.

Several minutes later, I came to the place on the counter where Joe Shmoe left his legal copy request. Upon reviewing his request, I had some questions about a few papers. I called Mr. Shmoe to the counter. No response. I called again, a little more insistently. Still no response. I then asked the men in the room if anyone had been designated the drop-ff person for Mr. Shmoe’s copy work. It looked like 15 deer in the headlights.

Now, Mr. Shmoe has a problem. He’s no longer in the library, which is where he should be. The rule of the building is that if you come in at 6PM, you must stay until the next scheduled movement, unless you are called out on legitimate prison business. So Mr. Shmoe is now ‘out of place.” It falls to me to notify the officer’s station that this inmate is no longer accountable at the law library, his stated destination before leaving his housing unit.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the officer’s station — a Twilight Zone moment, if you’ll indulge me. Because between the copy counter and the officer’s station, I  step into a criminal justice alternate universe, where the known laws of corrections as I’ve come to know them no longer apply.

To wit: I reach the officer’s station, and there is a lieutenant whom I’ve known for years talking with a relatively new sergeant who’s still learning the ropes of the place. I tell my story. The Lieutenant listens. He then recommends that I call the inmate back up to the library and ask him about his disappearance. Now, it’s here that library responsibility and security concerns begin to clash, and I point this out by saying, “Since he left the building, doesn’t that fall to you?” When these words leave my lips, they are seized by some apparently bored-but-enthusiastic wind sprite, who gives each one a fierce twist, and coats them with holier-than-Thou attitude before hurling them into the ear canal of my colleague, who apparently receives the message, “Do I have to tell you how to do your job?”

We all can agree that there are much better ways to start your evening.

The officer balks. “I’ve got more important things to do than chase down an inmate for his copies. This is petty.”

The Librarian balks. “Since when is inmate accountability ‘petty’? He left the building, which he’s not permitted to do.”

“Who says that? Inmates can come up here and leave. They just have to do it before the end of movement.”

Now I am convinced that I am a marionette and Rod Serling’s hiding somewhere up in that drop-ceiling manipulating and giggling away. “Then there’s no consistency here. Because the other officers who run this place at night run it that way.”

“The guy is not out of place. Do what you gotta do. I’ve got other things to take care of.”

When I left the library three minutes ago, I was a confident Librarian, sure of myself and of my duty. I now turn and walk back to my post, dazed and confused…

…and this ain’t the first time. Consistency in applying the rules is a problem that corrections seems powerless to solve. I suppose all workplaces suffer from this to a greater or lesser extent.

At the second movement an hour-and-a-half later, Mr. Joseph Shmoe returns for his legal copies. I interview Mr. Shmoe, who tells me that he entrusted his copy work to a man we’ll call ‘Freddy.’ Well, “Freddy,’ he no speaks the English so good. Mystery solved.

You’re only as good as the information you have. In prison, that’s doubly important. And you don’t always have the information you need in prison.

¡Ay, caramba!

MOLLYCODDLING MISCREANTS: Or, “Palm trees? In prison?”

If your own foibles strike you with bemused embarrassment, then the instant you realize that the current one you’ve been nurturing is particularly asinine, you face two rather similar choices:

1     Take your own life; or

2     Batter your bespattered self-esteem further by posting it on your blog

F’rinstance:  The first time I walked inside the courtyard of the California Institute for Men, I saw something I couldn’t believe–palm trees. They had palm trees in the prison. Everywhere you looked, there was another one. I thought (& nearly said out loud, thank God for small favors): “Palm trees? In a prison? I know California’s a permissive, libertarian land, but this is absurd! They really do mollycoddle criminals out here!”

In my cryptic defense, this was 2001, and it was my first time in CA. I’d only been there a week when these thoughts occurred to me. In that week leading up to that moment, I’d spent all my time in a Cal State-Fullerton computer lab learning PowerPoint and constructing a 63-slide presentation that I intended to use in my first-ever correctional library management course. Except for the morning walk to the school, I never saw the light of day–only the inside of that lab. Yes, of a morning I walked from the hotel & across the beautifully-landscaped eastern side of the campus. Yes, there were palm trees there! But these were the grounds of a major California university, and you’d expect to see palm trees in a place like that.

After the 6-day course was over, I had three days to myself before my return flight home. So I drove places. I walked places. And I saw my first palm trees outside of a prison. I began to see them in people’s yards, which I considered a tad extravagant. Until I realized what everyone else with commonsense already knew — they were in everyone’s yard. They were on the grounds of the In-N-Out burger chain. In the parking lots of used bookstores. Framing the front entrances of churches. They were so commonplace it became an odd site not to see them as part of the landscape. Finally, the light went on.

I’d realized that all my life I’d equated palm trees with luxury and leisure. It never occurred to me that palm trees were as ubiquitous here as evergreens & pines were back home. I thought you had to be stinking rich to own a palm tree. Myself, I blame Robin Leach.

That same day, we spent the afternoon at the CA Institute for Women. They had palm trees in their courtyard, too. The Lieutenant giving the tour told us of the time an inmate hid in one of these trees for nearly three full days, and no one but the inmates periodically sneaking food out to her knew where she was. I very much wanted to ask the good Lieutenant why for pity’s sake didn’t they cut the tree down, but dare not embarrass a fellow corrections employee who also happened to outrank me. But soon after the story I saw something that compelled comment — a palm tree right next to their outer-perimeter cyclone fence, a tree which had grown tall enough potentially to tempt some enterprising lady to shimmy up & leap over the razor wire and into freedom. When I took the Lieutenant aside & mentioned this, he sighed. “We’ve all told them again and again about that, but nothing gets done.” He then looked at me and repeated the same observation I’ve heard offered too many times in my career to count: “It’s corrections.’

Understood. “Palm trees in a prison! The very idea!”



…in an endless sea. For your consideration we offer Jailfire, another in a long cyberspace conga line of adjunct graduate course web pages. You’ll quickly discern that I have not the slightest, teensy-tiniest idea of what the hell I’m doing. But that’s not what makes jailfire remarkable. No way Nelly! Because in this ever-expanding world of cyber-communications, we’ve all of us visited the blogs of folks who have no business running blogs, so this by itself is no mark of distinction.

As for starting a blog, I recall here the words of Stephen Stills at the iconic 1969 music festival in Woodstock New York, when he and his obscure-but-soon-to-be-staggeringly-famous band took the stage for the first time. Stephen confided in the intimate audience of 500,000: “This is the second time we’ve played in front of people, man. We’re scared sh**less.” Sorta like that.

The remarkable part is this — the site was created thru the website wizardry of a website design company called Digital Stax. Digital Stax is owned and operated by one of my ex-pupils, a Mr. Raymond Dean, by name. And when I say ‘pupil’ (no one uses ‘pupil’ to mean ‘student’ anymore, and that’s just silly) I should explain that the San Jose State University, particularly their School of Library and Information Science, has asked me six times in the last eight years to instruct certain of their more adventurous (foolhardy?) graduate students in a seminar that I boringly dubbed Correctional Library Management. This seminar is how, in early 2008, I had the good fortune to meet & greet the tenacious Mr. Dean. Almost from our first series of flippant email exchanges, we struck up a satisfying professional relationship built upon a reverence for each other’s command of the mother tongue, a mutual penchant for the base, vulgar, and common, and a shared value of directness and bare-faced honesty.

Judge for yourself: when I approached him with the idea for this site after not having heard from me for one solar year, the very first sentence of my ex-pupil’s email (it should be distinctly understood that I gave him an ‘A’ ) read: “I thought I had rid my life of you completely.” I’m quoting, by the by, and not paraphrasing. Well, I have this affect on people.

And Mr. Raymond Dean is a people, and he’s good people. Whatever good comes out of jailfire, it’ll be due to Raymond and his self-taught, hard-won, practiced talent for stacking things digitally.

Raymond, glad to have you in my corner of the Cosmos. Just please scooch over a bit, my legs’re cramping! There.

Thanks, man.