Our Return From OZ: or, “How can I ever thank you enough?”

(In which a two-page class exercise on using humor to diffuse stressful situations lends legitimacy to the showing of The Wizard of Oz to adult male prisoners in a medium-security walled facility….)

Last night, we completed a class exercise called “Popular Media and Its Uses in the Identification of Countervailing Humor Types.”  The countervailing humor types are constructive and destructive humor.  This particular use was in the form of a Blu-Ray disk.  And the specific medium used was an educational film for therapeutic purposes called The Wizard of Oz.

Prior to spinning the disk at 300 rpm, I distributed the above-mentioned exercise, containing 11 questions about how Dorothy & her companions use humor in dealing with the stressful situations they need to overcome.  I wasn’t sure how these men would take to answering questions while the lights were low and they were in the process of viewing a beloved movie that most of them haven’t seen since their childhoods.

But most complied, and some of their responses were spot-on, and even surprising.  One question reads:  “What do you consider to be the funniest spoken line in the film?  Does the line make you laugh out loud?  Is the humor constructive or destructive?”  One participant responded thus:  “The funniest line is when Dorothy says, ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’  It did not make me LOL.  The humor is destructive–shows her stupidity.”  This response made ME laugh out loud.  Stupid?  Dorothy?  Whaddaya DO with something like this?  The individual in question is from a country on the African continent, so the cultural gap may explain most of it.  But he reports that he’s lived here nearly twenty years, and he’s not even out of his 20s yet.  “Aw shucks, folks, I’m speechless!”  The following day, he tells me this was his first time seeing the movie.  That, in my view, explains it all.  We who have grown up with the film have emotionally invested in these characters.  What would we have thought of them if we were seeing the movie for the first time in our late 20s?  AND through the lens of a cultural gap?  Probably the same way as this young man.  We’d see Dorothy Gale as a stupid farm kid.  When I tell him, however, that Judy Garland was playing a character much younger than her actual age, that gives him pause.  “OK, now it all makes sense,” he says.  Finally.

To the question of How Uncle Henry uses humor when dealing with Miss Gulch at the farmhouse gate, one fellow writes: “She doesn’t find the humor amusing.  This is probably destructive, because the thrust of it is that she’s talking like a fool.”

The first question reads:  “Dorothy and her companions deal with considerable stress on their journey, yet manage to work in some coping humor along the way.  Name one scene where a character uses humor as a stress reliever.”  A student writes, “When it snows in the poppy field, the Lion awakens & says ‘Unusual weather we’re having.”  Another response: “When they meet the Lion and he’s bullying them, the Scarecrow cracks wise.”  Another:  “When the Lion has to lead the way into the Witch’s castle, he pretends to be all for it, but then asks the other two to ‘Talk me out of it!’  And then what I consider to be a strange response:  “The Wicked Witch of the West uses humor when she is stressed about the ruby slippers.  She laughs as she threatens Dorothy & her dog.”  WTF?   Another student responded, “When the Lion sings his song about his lack of courage, he calls himself ‘a sissy’ and ‘a mouse.’

About five minutes into the film, one prisoner in his 50s tells us: “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this.”  Incredulous, I ask, “How did you avoid it!”  He says, “I didn’t watch TV a lot!”  Tellingly, his was the loudest and most frequent laugh heard during the showing of the film.

The following day, my ILL clerk, who is a course participant, says: “Hey, I wanted to sincerely thank you for the film last night.  I haven’t seen that in ages.  It was good to see it again.  And I am impressed with Blu-Ray!  I have never seen such rich colors in a movie before!  That was somethin’ else!”

Praise, and for such a simple thing like showing a film, and introducing folks to new technology.  This job teaches me in many ways to never, never, ever take my freedom–and all concomitant blessings–for granted.

no place like it

“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”



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

OUT OF THE MOUTH OF CONS: Or, “That’s what Chi said”

First inventories can be rough.

We have a clerk whose unenviable job it is to keep the Vietnamese- & Chinese-language books in perfect sequence. A tall order, since he is Cambodian. They call him Chi, as in Tai-chi. This is Chi’s first inventory, may God have mercy upon his soul.

One of the stats we keep is book format–hardcover, trade paper, and mass market. Now, some of the paperbacks can be confusing, having either a reinforced cover c/o Brodart, or a Permabound cover. If it’s your first inventory, stuff like this can be tricky.  Not to mention funny.

Soon after Chi diligently begins separating his assigned collection, he discovers one of the reinforced paperbacks, and confusion sets in. So, like any good library clerk, he turns to a fellow clerk and asks a question for clarification. Had this moment had a rewind button attached, he would have pressed it & hastily re-worded the question. As it was, he could do naught but suffer the ensuing slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Holding aloft the puzzling tome, he asks:

“How do you tell when it’s hard?”

Poor Chi. He will never be on the earth long enough to come CLOSE to living this down.  First inventories can be rough.

STORMING THEM LIBRARY GATES: Or: “Why do you have to CLOSE for Inventory?”

This is June 2013AD, and we’re worrying about a manual inventory of books and CDs and VHS tapes. Welcome to correctional Librarianship.

On Friday, June 7, we worked between 6PM – 8:30 putting all books in correct alpha-numerical order.

Cataloguer assures me that all shelf list cards are where they should be.

Some of these here Library clerks display a disturbing horseshoes/ hand grenade approach to inventory. If card and shelf order is “pretty good” or “close enough,” they’re satisfied. Then they wonder why they have to run around like chickens with their legs cut off trying to find where cards and books are.

Left a signed memo for the officers at the OIC desk to please keep the Lending Library closed for the weekend, in order to preserve the work we’ve just completed, and also to prevent any additional books being taken from the Library without being properly signed out. Amazingly, this actually happens, and the memo is honored. I am grateful.

Today my ILL clerk tells me that over the weekend some inmates from his Unit wanted to use the Library and came back to the Unit “heated.” The way he repeats “Heated” makes me ask:

“So they’re hiding behind the Book Return Box waiting to shank me?”

“I don’t know anything about that. All I know is they were heated!”

I remind him that it only happens once a year, everyone has a different way of processing disappointment. This is the way I convey this: “Think they’ll get over it?”

“I’m just tellin’ ya.”

“I guess for my safety I’ll submit a confidential IPS report.”

“No! No, it ain’t nothing like that. What I’m sayin’ is they were angry they couldn’t get in, that’s all.”

“Gee, that’s…too bad, I guess?”

“Yeah, well….”

A few weeks ago, we posted a memo in each Unit asking everyone to return books that were never checked out. These notices will be ignored. But we feel it’s worth a try.

WHY we feel that way is anyone’s guess.


Christmastime is here again. Donation. A big one.

For the past three years, the Franklin Public Library has been extraordinarily kind to us. in 2011 we received 12 boxes; we received 16 boxes of their castaways in 2012.

This year, they were a tad more generous: 24 boxes of donated fiction and nonfiction. There were some duplicates, but we are beggars and cannot be choosers.

We kept 89 titles, not including 19 titles that we used as swap-outs for books in lesser condition.
Six boxes of these books were reserved for nearby Baystate Correctional Center. Because they’re a much smaller prison, they don’t have the storage space, so we’ll send them a few boxes at a time.

15 boxes have been reserved for both Assisted Daily Living and the segregation Units. We’ll take these books as needed to these Units throughout the year.

Whenever we get a donation in — especially a donation of this size — the Library clerks are always excited to see what’s coming in, and they’re also excited to have a lengthy project to be working on. All kept material must be stamped, processed, catalogued, classified, dust jackets need covering, shelf list cards need creating and filed, data needs to be entered in the Follett system, and then everything needs to be shelved. We also need to alert the population that new material has arrived. apart from word-of-mouth, we copy covers onto colored paper and make a display in the hall display cabinets.

This time, the books needed to be brought into the Library in my absence, and thankfully both staff and Library clerks worked well together to make this happen.

All 108 books were processed in two half-day sessions.

The further adventures of a Library Science charlatan: OR, “What does ‘correctional’ mean, anyway?”

Here is a persistent and tiresome notion: Anecdotal evidence gathered from teaching cognitive skills courses and providing direct correctional information services is somehow invalid and meant to be discarded, at least in the mind of the Library ‘scientist.’

Studies have their place. So does personal in-the-trenches experience.

objectivityDirect personal experience is unabashed subjectivity. But it can and should be sensibly founded upon correctional theory. As imperfect and inconstant as criminal justice studies traditionally have been, they at least inform we correctional employees about what may in fact be the best way to habilitate and socialize Those In Need.

Studies are actually personal experience, contrived in such a way as to give the researcher and his champion the illusion of literal objectivity. Admittedly, that is a sweeping generalization, and perhaps a tad irresponsible. At the end of the day, however, the statement “the illusion of literal objectivity” is probably closer to the truth than an unquestioning belief in obtaining objectivity from human beings.

Consider that many more library science-based studies than corrections-based studies have been done on correctional library use. Consider too that many of these have been done by Librarians.

Until more studies are completed, a correctional emphasis on prison librarianship will remain for the most part empirical and anecdotal.

Personally, I am no enemy of the scientific method. It’s good for measuring things, and testing notions that seem to fit observable reality.

But I say “Beware” when the scientific method and only the scientific method is applied to the human animal. Because one of the things which sociology has taught us is what was ‘doctrine’ only a few decades or even years ago is suddenly ‘heresy’ this afternoon.

Somewhere in between the word ‘science’ in ‘Library Science’ and the word ‘correctional’ in ‘Correctional Librarianship,’ we may yet discover a useful footpath to guide the steps in our corrective work of the social outlaw.

For the correctional Librarian, where and when and how does the human heart come into play?


An interesting viewpoint (click on above), serving at once to bolster and counter my argument....

A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING: OR, “Why is ‘God’s Middle Finger’ in Religion?”

We closed the Reference Room because of a project that should’ve been done decades ago. It has to do with sets. I like to keep sets together. It’s stupid, it’s anal -retentive, and it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans because, as any Librarian knows, patrons don’t use sets anyway. But we have over 20 sets in this Reference Room of ours and, for no good reason, we’ve kept them separate from the other material:

  • The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
  • Gale Directory of Medicine
  • Gale Directory of Science
  • Encyclopedia of Physics
  • Encyclopedic Dictionary of American History
  • American Heritage Encyclopedia of Art and Artists
  • Encyclopedia of World Finance
  • History of Greek Philosophers
  • Encyclopedia of Africa
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography
  • Countries of the World
  • English Matters!
  • United States Government/Constitution Series
  • Durant’s History of Civilization
  • Enciclopedia Cumbre
  • Gran Enciclopedia Planeta
  • Ethics and Values
  • Columbia Encyclopedia of World History
  • Encyclopedia of World Events
  • Peoples of the World
  • Encyclopedia of Popular Music

Today, I announced to the cataloger and classifier “Today, gentlemen, we will re-work that room to include sets in their proper places.” Here are just some of the comments I heard:

  • “Thank God! You must’ve grown a brain overnight, huh?”
  • “It’s about time! Now I don’t have to go nuts when we do Inventory!”
  • “Think we’ll actually be able to FIND something now?”

For me, the most amusing thing that happened during the re-organization is that, as shelf space was created for a particular set, the clerks often couldn’t bear to split the books between shelves. They were bending over backward trying to keep the volumes together! I fanned the flames a bit:

“See! You’re as bad as EYE am! Not so easy, is it?”

“But they just don’t look right when the set’s busted up like that!” Which elicited this comment from the cataloging room:

“F*ck what they look like! Put’em where they belong!”

We started around 1:10PM. At 3PM, we unveiled our new Reference Room arrangement to an unsuspecting public. The most common overheard comment was:

“Now I can’t find anything!”

Conventional wisdom says you can’t please everyone. But folks who deal with people are a tad more realistic and see the thing in this light: You can’t please anyone.

But in this case, it’s not true. The cataloger and classifier are both well-pleased. And even my anal-retentive nature is sated. Now if I can just figure out how to make room for those last two volumes on the same shelf, I can keep this set together.

Well, I’ll just have to discard something….
reference sets

“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.