LIVING IN THE PAST; OR “Do they really still make books?”

We’ve just been handed $1,900 by our Education division. We ha ve to spend it on the Lending Library, and we have 12 twelve days to do it in.

There’s really no time when this happens to concentrate on DVDs and mp3 files. The quick solution is books.

This Friday, I’ll visit New England Mobile Book Fair. I’ll get there when they open at 9AM. By the time I leave at 4PM, my money will be spent.

Books, In 2013. It just doesn’t seem right.

But prisoners don’t rate Kindles and Nooks and Kobos and Google Plays. At least not yet. Security concerns still need to be ironed out before these gizmos can be allowed in. And that won’t happen until the last book in the world rolls off the press.

Still. Buying books is weird. I feel caught in a cultural time-warp. And I am, actually. It’s a time-warp called ‘prison.’


[In which we finally get to put the population on notice that, once again, there are new books to be had in the Lending Library….]

Last night, we created a “Just Arrived!” and “New Library Books” display in the (6) display cabinets in the lobby of the Norfolk School Building. We’re advertising the books that were purchased at NE Mobile Book Fair a few weeks ago.

From a random sampling of about 70 books, we photocopied their covers onto brightly-colored paper, and then taped these pages onto the Plexiglas panes of each display cabinet. I wanted each cabinet to have a display theme (Sports, Self-Help, Recovery, Humor, Fiction), but I failed to communicate this in time to my clerk, and by the time I got out in the hallway, the display cabinets were an explosion of pretty oranges and yellows and greens and reds and blues and all like that. That’s a lot of tape and a lot of effort, so I had to leave it.

It’s difficult getting photos taken of these cases. Camera ownership is necessarily limited inside. Camera use is limited to security staff only, which means the Library is not permitted to have one. When you want photos of your new display cabinets, you’re at the mercy and mood of whoever is available at the time. I do not have photos of the current display, but here are photos of a previous one:

While the new display was going up, I noticed an inmate in the hallway checking out the new book postings. He’d just returned from the bathroom at the end of the hall, was on his way to the School upstairs, and just stopped a minute to take a look. I went over to him. He pointed at one of the self-help books and said, “I’d like to get that.” I told him it was available in the Self-Help section, and he said he’d check it out when his class was over.

As he walked away, I glanced over to the Library clerk who was finishing up the displays, who glanced over at me with a smile.


Every so often, someone notices what the Library does for them.

‘Gratifying’ I believe is the word here….

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

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

Our story thus far:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

And even the Deputy Superintendent is limited by policy. She

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


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



[In which, armed with the filthy lucre of the taxpaying citizenry, we continue our mandate to socialize, rehabilitate, and otherwise prepare the incorrigible & recalcitrant for a free life of conformity and Squaresville….]


“Watch your language! Hold your tongue!”
Language Instruction DVDs, CDs, and VHS/cassette tapes are very popular for this inmate population. We keep monthly stats on what is used, how frequently it’s used, and in what medium it’s delivered. Surprisingly, not only are the cassettes still holding up, but inmates choose more of them over any other medium. But these days, for obvious reasons, purchases are confined to CD/DVD. This time, I find the following:

Barron’s Learn Spanish (4 CD)
Barron’s Learn French (4 CD)
Barron’s Learn German (4 CD)
Barron’s Learn Italian (4 CD)
Flash Forward Spanish Vocabulary (CD)
Flash Forward French Vocabulary (CD)
Pun Also Rises, The: How The Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, And Made Wordplay More Than Just Some Antics

Although we already own intermediate and advanced lessons on CD, it’s the beginner stuff on tape that we’ve needed to replace. These purchases now allow us to do that. It’s a great day for our Watch Your Language/ Hold Your Tongue program. The pun book will be added to the floor collection, where we have about 50 books on linguistics and wordplay. And since language instruction is mentioned in our 25% materials mandate, we’re on our way to 30% of the total purchase. And that’s good.

Health is Wealth, Especially in the Poky

Although to a large extent the type of health treatment which inmates receive is regulated by the State, inmates have some autonomy over their own health. And in some Departments, certain health information is not permitted to be offered through the Lending Library. We have never been permitted to offer the DSM, for example. And Gray’s Anatomy is also not permitted, in light of an attack at another prison where the perpetrator, when interviewed, admitted to finding information from this text in the Library that helped him commit the assault. So when it comes to health-related information, there may be specific security concerns of your Administration of which you must be aware.

Beyond the orderly running of the prison, health information is offered and prisoners do seek it out. Needless to say (but perhaps not), I buy as much as I can which is specific to the men in my population. This is what I find in both retail and remainder sections:

Dr. Katz’s GT Prostate Health
Men’s Health Big Book Of Food & Nutrition
Why Men Die First: HT Lengthen Your Lifespan
Irritable Bowel Syndrome And Stress Management
Alzheimer’s Disease: Guide For Families And Caregivers
Crohn’s Disease And Ulcerative Colitis
Migraine Brains & Bodies
Good Health For African-Americans
Why Women Live Longer Than Men
Viagra & The Quest For Potency
Every Heart Attack Is Preventable
Men’s Club: HT Lose Your Prostate Without Losing Your Sense Of Humor
Hepatitis C Help Book
Men’s Health GT Peak Conditioning
Banish Your Belly: Ultimate Guide For Achieving A Lean, Strong Body Now
Curing Multiple Sclerosis

I know inmates who suffer with both IBS and migraines, so I seek out this material. Hepatitis C affects the lives of many incarcerated people, so I try updating our holdings for that material. One of my long-time law library patrons has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so I found something for him….In preparation for this book trip, I took a look at our existing health holdings, and was shocked to find only about 125 titles. I thought there should have been at least a few shelves more. When I mentioned this to one of my circulation clerks, he smiled and said, “Bill, there’s stuff that goes on here that you don’t know about. Guys find a health book that can help them, and they keep it. I don’t agree with that, in fact I think it’s a dirt-bag thing to do, because then someone else can’t use it. But that’s the reality here.”

I’ve often wondered if health material, when offered through the correctional Library, should be considered part of the Self-Help genre? I’m just sayin’.



“What the hell does E=MC squared mean, anyway?” the con asked unabashedly for everyone in the correctional Library to hear….

Because Librarian internet usage is limited to legal research questions (due to something that happened about a year ago related to security) — we don’t have access to current journal articles. The Library is limited to the currency of the science information it can offer, as we can only rely on books and DVDs. Currently we have about (6) shelves of science books, but it’s been a while since I got a large infusion of titles. I decide that this needs to be rectified:

For The Love Of Physics
Mathematical Games & HT Play Them
Evolution Isn’t What It Used To Be
Genesis: What Does It Mean To Be Human?
(actually, this is fiction, but I found it with their science books, which means they also thought it was nonfiction, which means we were both fooled….)
Garden Of Unearthly Delights: Bioengineering & The Future Of Food
Geek Logik: 50 Foolproof Equations For Everyday Life
Inside The Human Genome
How Far Is Up? Measuring The Size Of The Universe
Astro Turf: The Private Life Of Rocket Science
Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering And Cloning Will Transform The American Family
Weighing The Soul: Scientific Discovery From The Brilliant To The Bizarre
Genethics: The Clash Between The New Genetics And Human Values
Math Doesn’t Suck
Separate Creation: Biological Origins Of Sexual Orientation
Fly: The Unsung Hero Of 20th Century Science
Brief History Of Time: A Reader Companion
Hubble Space Telescope
Night Sky Identifiers
Friendly GT The Universe
Unnatural Selection: Promise & Power Of Human Gene Research
How Life Begins
Do Fish Feel Pain?
Annus Mirabiliis: 1905, Albert Einstein, And The Theory Of Relativity (W/DVD)

Most of these are remainder titles, mainly because remainders stretch that budget, but also because I got 0 title requests for this material this time out which, BTW, is odd. I’ve learned that our population’s intellectual curiosity weighs in heavily with all forms of math, physics, astronomy, and current science trends like cloning, the human genome project and its implications, bioengineering and bioethics, Frankenfood, and the creationism/ Darwinism debate. Science books are stolen with something approaching regularity which, at once, is a testament to their incorrigible ways AND to my impeccable and well-informed tastes in science matters (probably a lot less of one and a little more of the other….)



“I know it says ‘NOT TO BE TAKEN FROM THE LIBRARY,’ but can I have it for a week?”

When the Lending Librarian retired in 1994, I was suddenly handed the responsibility of supervising that Library, the law Library, the segregation law Library, and the libraries in the Hospital Services Unit. Accordingly, I noticed (but I won’t tell you how long it took) that I couldn’t be everywhere at once. I had to decide and quickly what I was going to do about the Reference Room collection, as inmates were stealing from it left and right. I decided to make the collection circulating; it was either that or risk losing a nicely-built collection of useful titles. Also, we expanded the subjects that we keep in the former Librarians’ locked “PC Reference Cabinet” (it actually stands for ‘Protective custody,’ but we tell people that it means ‘Padlocked cabinet’….) These are the reference titles that piqued my interest:

Billboard Book Of Top 40 Hits
Love That Dirty Water! The Standells and the Improbable Red Sox Victory Anthem
Book Of African-American Quotations
Great Speeches On Gay Rights
Great Speeches By African-Americans
Rights Of Man (Thomas Paine)
Six Great Dialogues (Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, The Republic)
Complete Idiot’s GT Starting Your Own Business
Videohound Golden Movie Retriever 2012
Leonard Maltin’s 2012 Movie Guide

I say “…piqued my interest” but, of course, that interest is necessarily tempered by the information requests of Library users. We have many musicians hanging around the place (including Your Beleaguered Instructor), so the song guides and directories see tons of use, especially our Billboard Book of Top Pop Singles by the illustrious and prolific Joel Whitburn. Movie fanatics abound, too, so we have every English-language movie guide imaginable (just not updated at the same time, alas….) We also nurture a kind of fetish for quotation books; at present, the collection numbers 43 and growing. Well, we’re rarely stumped by the “Who was it who said….?” query. Small business start-up guides are extremely popular. Not sure why? But I have some theories! Between the oversize reference shelf, PC cabinet, Ready Reference cabinet, Reference Room, and BIP/encyclopedia wall, we have about 1,300 reference books, not including Spanish-language references (100) and reference on other media (100). Not bad for such a small space, and considering that we’re limited mostly to books.




“God brought me to jail and said ‘Now do I have your attention?’”

Some inmates are believers. They fight for their right to practice their faith as they see fit. Could some of this righteousness be disingenuous and deceptive? Probably. But my impression is that people who seek out religious and faith information in prison do so from a genuine desire to know and apply. This impression comes from observing the material they seek, the interlibrary loans they request, the purchase requests they make, and the reference questions they ask. This impression also comes from the discussions I’ve had with inmates in my office or out on the Library floor. The Library has about 200 books, DVDs, and VHS on the major faith systems.

Why Can’t We Be Good?
Confessions Of St. Augustine
Varieties Of Religious Experience
CS Lewis Signature Classics (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Problem Of Pain, Miracles, A Grief Observed, The Abolition Of Man)
Prayer For People Who Think Too Much: A GT Everyday, Anywhere Prayer From The World’s Faith Traditions
Touched By God: Black Gospel Greats Share Their Stories About Finding God

For inmates who reject faith, you provide contemporary atheist nonfiction, fiction, and books/DVDs presenting the omnipresent(!) Creationism/Darwin debates. It impresses me that atheism is a type of faith or belief, and it’s interesting that in the Dewey scheme (yes, we use Dewey, sue us) atheism is classed under 291. New books in this vein include:

God & The New Physics
Mind Of God, The: Scientific Basis For A Rational World

36 arguments for the existence of God
Rock Of Ages: Science & Religion In The Fullness Of Life

I also bought Darwin’s Sacred Cause and was tempted to include it here, but it belongs elsewhere. Perhaps with biographies, memoir, and autobiography:

Autobiography Of Mark Twain (Volume One)
Memories Of John Lennon
Jeannie Out Of The Bottle
Finding It: And Satisfying My Hunger For Life Without Opening The Fridge
Gladys Knight: Between Each Line Of Pain & Glory
Rickles’ Book
Bedwetter: Stories Of Courage, Redemption, & Pee
Tracy Morgan: I Am The New Black
Darwin’s Sacred Cause

…And my newest favorite title (I’m a title buyer): Another Bullshit Night In Suck City



The remainder of the book buy breaks down into sports:
Knuckler (memoir of a former Red Sox pitcher)
Ones Who Hit Hardest, The
100 Things Patriots Fans Should Know

…and poetry:
Blake’s Selected Poems
Contemporary Irish Poetry
Best American Poetry 2010
Catching Life By The Throat: HT Read A Poem And Why


Next, we’ll talk about picking up the books, getting them to the prison, getting them inside, getting them processed, getting them on the shelves, and getting them ‘advertised.’

I’M SPENDING YOUR MONEY: OR, “Bring me back some escape fiction!” he said with a wink

[In which we negotiate another materials purchase courtesy of the Governor, and try not to contribute to the further delinquency & depravity of the Hardened Criminal….]


Christmas! (but with a Caveat)

Our Libraries here have friends in high places, notably from the Department’s Education Division, where no less than the Director of Inmate Education and Training and the Assistant Director both have a genuine love for libraries and a respect for their power and majesty. Whenever possible (usually once a year), Education bestows a few grand on each of the Libraries in our system.

The caveat is that  approximately 25% of that money should go to careers & jobs, Spanish-language, large-print, re-entry/reintegration, and language instruction material.

This time, we have $1,700 to do with as we choose, so long as we keep to the 25% caveat above, and so long as the material is in concert with legitimate penological objectives. Because I work for Norfolk, I have the additional restriction and responsibility of ensuring that the material is in concert with the policy language found in the December 1, 2011 addendum to the Norfolk Procedures relating to 103 Code of Massachusetts Regulation 478, “Library Services.” Piece of cake.

SPOILER ALERT: We end up buying 152 books, including (1) DVD and (21) CDs. That’s making those tax dollars stretch. And it’ll give my cataloguer something constructive to do for a solid week, which is nothing to sneeze at.

It isn’t mobile. And it’s not a fair. But it does have books. Tons of books.

Since Fiscal wants us to spend this money fairly quickly, most of us choose to patronize our old standby: the New England Mobile Book Fair. I’m told they have over a million titles in stock. Having never counted them, I don’t rightly know. But it’s an enormous store, divided into two main sections. If you walk into the main entrance and turn right, you enter the retail section; walk in & turn left, and you’re in the gigantic remainder section. For retail, NE Mobile gives a flat 20% discount as well as best seller discounts. Most remainder books sell between $3.98-$7.98. It’s an experience, and whenever you’re out in this part of the country, it’s a booklover’s must. The store was recently sold to one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet and—just as importantly—he’s a booklover. It’s truly a wonderful, laid-back place to shop.

NE Mobile Book Fair Flickr photostream


Spinning the caveat to my greatest advantage

Regarding large-print: since we already purchase books occasionally from Thorndike, I choose not to be concerned with large-print at this time. And even though they do have a respectable (not sizable, but respectable) Spanish-language section toward the back of the store near Shipping, I saw nothing of use this time. I did, however, buy some foreign-language CD sets while back there.


The Flying Wallendas balancing act between What Inmates Want vs. What They Can Have

Well, at my place, I don’t have too much trouble. Having talked with me and participated in my socialization programs for years, inmates are fairly familiar with how I see my role and responsibilities. They know they can ask me for anything. They also know that I will limit their requests based on Department-wide and Norfolk-specific guidelines. If I can’t get what they want, I will explain why. Unless the immediate situation demands it (like an emergency), you always give an inmate an explanation for why s/he has to hear “Sorry” or “No.” The Golden Rule, after all.

I always announce on the Lending Library bulletin board when I’m preparing for the next book buy, which is their cue to petition me for titles and subjects that either they need (a school assignment) or they’re interested in (pleasure reading). My cataloguer keeps track of these requests in an Excel file, which I print out & take along on the appointed day. I find gratification when I can find something that someone has their heart set on. I think all Librarians do. It’s part of why we do what we do. On this day, I’ve been approved to use (8) hours to look and see what I can see. I’ll not need that much time, but for my personality I do this work best when I’m not racing against the clock.

Today I have (31) inmate requests to fill. From those, this is what I find:

Tale Of Two Cities (replacement copy)

63 Documents The Government Doesn’t Want You To Read

Magician: Master
Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (replacement copy)
Writer’s Market 2012 (to replace our 2011 copy)
God’s Shrink: 10 Sessions And Life’s Greatest Lessons From An Unexpected Patient

Writer’s Digest University
Mabinogion Tetralogy
Rise Of The Blood Royal
W.E.B. Griffin (Lieutenants/Captains/Generals)
New Jim Crow
All God’s Children: The Bosket Family And The American Tradition Of Violence (to replace our beat-up copy)
Defending Jacob (a novel about the adjudication process, recommended by a NEMBF employee who is familiar with the criminal justice system)

Faith (a novel)
Diary of Eve/ Diary of Adam (for a Mark Twain fan)
Clan Of The Cave Bear/ Valley Of Horses (3rd and 4th replacement copies, respectively, which is getting old….)
and Next (for a Crichton fan)
Anthem (replacement copy)
American Fantastic Tales: Terror And The Uncanny From Poe To The Pulps
(not an actual request, but they’re out of Lovecraft)

For some reason, they don’t have Hole in the Universe, a 2004 novel by Mary McGarry Morris, which figures, because it’s for the library clerk who assists me in my Tuesday night ABLE MINDS course. Well, you always want to kind of ‘reward’ the people who actually help you do things. Here, I use the term ‘reward’ in its loosest possible sense, because you’re not supposed to play favorites. But I know that I’m within the rules, because his is a legitimate request. I’m talking about my sense of fairness, given how much time and enthusiasm he gives to the program. Stinks.


Helping Cons Help Themselves

Next, I take my mini-shopping cart and wheel it to the retail Self-Help section. This is the one time of year that I load up on recovery texts. They’re not cheap, but prisoners need them and use them, so I’m not shy about tossing them in the cart. This is what I get:

1.       Workbook Of Compulsive Hoarding & Acquiring
2.       Self-Esteem Workbook
3.       Cognitive Behavioral Workbook For Anxiety
4.       Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook
5.       Mind-Body Workbook For PTSD
6.       Everything GT Stress Management
7.       It Will Never Happen To Me: Growing With Addiction As Youngsters, Adolescents, Adults
8.      Lord Of The Rings And Philosophy (for my Wednesday night ABLE MINDS program, to replace my personal copy that pines for its place on its shelf at home)
9.   Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, And Commitment
10.   Harness Your Dark Side: Mastering Jealousy, Rage, Frustration And Other Negative Emotions
11.   Learned Optimism: HT Change Your Mind And Your Life
12.   Saying Goodbye: A Guide To Coping With A Loved One’s Terminal Illness
13.   When Panic Attacks
14.   Grieving The Death Of A Mother
15.   Victory Over Verbal Abuse
16.   I Hate Conflict! Seven Steps To Resolving Differences With Anyone In Your Life
17.   Fireproof
18.   Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate And Spiritual Guide To Coping With Loss
19.   I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness To The Blind Side And Beyond
20.   Children Of The Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up’s GT Getting Over Narcissistic Parents
21.   Why Am I Still Depressed?
22.   Easy Way To Stop Drinking
23.   Hi, My Name Is Jack: One Man’s Story Of The Tumultuous Road To Sobriety And A Changed Life
24.   Alcoholics Anonymous (4th Ed.)
25.   Confusing Love With Obsession
26.   Save The Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care
27.   Disarming The Narcissist: Surviving And Thriving With The Self-Absorbed
28.   Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder
29.   Calming The Angry Brain: How Understanding The Way Your Brain Works Can Help You Control Anger And Aggression
30.   Sleeping With A Stranger: How I Survived Marriage To A Child Molester
31.   Healing After The Suicide Of A Loved One
32.   You’re Smarter Than You Look: Uncomplicating Relationships In Complicated Times
33.   Seven Simple Steps To Personal Freedom: An Owner’s Manual For Life
34.   10 Stupid Things Men Do To Mess Up Their Lives (a replacement copy)
35.   When Someone You Love Is Depressed
36.   Yes, You Can! 1,200 Inspiring Ideas For Work, Home & Happiness
37.   To Be A Man: In Search Of The Deep Masculine
38.   Guide To Stress Reduction
39.   A Man’s Way Through The 12 Steps
40.  Real 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance, And Independence Beyond The 12-Step Programs

I just realized that some of these are remainder titles.

Anyway, it’s a good haul. We’ll have to make a little space for them. We intend to re-section our trade fiction paperbacks currently shelved in a wooden “tower”-type bookcase built around a brick pillar in the Lending Library. This ‘pillar case’ ;o) abuts the wooden unit where we shelve approximately 500 self-help/ recovery titles. My goal is to fill this pillar case with more self-help/ recovery/ inmate-specific texts as the years roll by. It’s astonishing and heartening how many inmates avail themselves of this material. Some of them tell me how grateful they are that we offer this stuff. That’s all the encouragement I need. I do not believe, as some do, that a correctional Library should be nothing more than material that addresses the causes and problems of criminality. But I do think that a sizable percentage (10% of the collection) should be available to help prisoners overcome their criminal ways. Norfolk Lending Library houses about 13,000 items; our Self-Help/Recovery section has about 500 items. We’ve a ways to go….So we end up with 40 self-help/recovery titles out of a total purchase of 152 books. The 25% caveat has already been satisfied.


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


Next time, we’ll conclude this sale, and start the grueling procedure called “Getting This Stuff Inside”….

“Reading changes criminality; Film at 11” Or: WHERE DO THEY GET THIS SH*T?

[In which we marvel at the attempt of Generation Y to reason its way out of a paper bag….]

A few weeks ago, AD announced that she was going to direct her efforts toward helping inmates become better readers. I advised her that the Education Division already does an admirable job of this, and couldn’t she spend her time and talents focusing on inmate criminality?

Her reply:

literacy (sic) isn’t just about ESL…literacy (sic) in the DOC is about fostering an appreciation of reading in inmates, which i (sic) believe helps to address their criminality. just (sic) last week, an inmate wrote a piece in the inmate newspaper [developed by CRA] about bettering himself at the library; how even learning a new word a week can be the key to bettering oneself (he also was in ABLE MINDS last time around). to (sic) me, that’s literacy and that’s hopefully preparing these inmates to be better citizens once on the outside.


The problem with this kind of ‘hope’ is that it’s woefully misguided. Corrections doesn’t operate on hope; it operate on cognitive-based studies regarding efforts that directly address criminal thinking and anti-social behavior. Nebulous theories that reading somehow is enough to change criminals into citizens has no scientific support; indeed, it’s not even reasonable on its face. It’s a pipe-dream of liberals who convince themselves that reading naturally leads to greater self-esteem, which necessarily leads to wanting to better themselves, which magically leads to getting a job, and invariably results in a better citizenry.

Poppycock and balderdash. Without programmatic efforts to address criminality, all literacy does on its own is make a literate criminal out of an illiterate criminal. Address the errors in thinking that causes criminality, THEN introduce variables like literacy to the mix, and you stand half a chance of reclaiming a life mired in crime.


OF BLACK RIDERS AND BLACK FRIDAY: Or, “How do you say ‘bargain’ in Elvish?”

[In which — armed only with our wits and a sizable State check — we make our annual pilgrimage to The Shire Bookshop to see if Your Beleaguered Instructor walks the walk when it comes to buying rehabilitation, socialization, and positive-recreational material for the incarcerated in his charge….]

I visited the Shire on Friday, having got the OK from my boss to work there the day following Thanksgiving. I got a good start on the approved $1,500 purchase. As a nod to Black Friday, the Shire has everything marked down by 30%. A 30 percent discount stretches this money to a very respectable $1,950. And since we’re tax-exempt, we don’t have to worry about the governor stealing any of it.

I set aside 64 books, but that also includes the 15 they let me take a few weeks ago for our Thanksgiving display cases. So I actually was only able to set aside 49 books inside of eight hours’ work. Why only 49? Because I had to work from a 75-title list of inmate requests that my cataloger created over the past several weeks. It takes me the bulk of the day to shlep around the place looking for these books. Drives me nuts.


The Shire Bookshop. Franklin, MA.

And since I’ve spent only $750, that means I’m a little more than a third of the way through. I’ll have to solicit more inmate requests. And I need to do this, because prisoners must feel invested in their library, if you expect them to care about the material and services you offer.

I searched through Humor, Foreign Languages, Religion, Words/word play, Poetry, Drama, Music, Writing, Sports, Computers, and the Occult. I also combed thru True Crime, looking for any books on prisons and the experiences of the incarcerated (we have a smallish section on criminology and criminality that I’m trying to expand). And then I chased inmate requests through the various Fiction sections all day long. A lot of horror requests this time.

There’s also a smattering of VHS tapes that I’m buying (mostly travelogues).

I haven’t hit Self-Help/Psychology/Sociology yet, so that’ll help for next time. I want to get in the hardcover & TP biography sections, too. I need to remember to go through Sci-Fi and American history.

Next time, I hope to bring A.D. with me, but I’m not sure when that’ll happen. About a week ago I advised her to ask her Superintendent for some money to spend, but she told me recently that she hasn’t done it yet.


She’s dawdling. You don’t rehabilitate anyone by dawdling.

WONDERS HAVE YET TO CEASE: Or, “Even the losers get lucky sometime”

[In which Life reiterates rather emphatically that you just never, EVER know….]

SERENDIPITY. Noun. — “An assumed gift for finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

I am the last person to claim that I possess such a gift. But you wouldn’t know it, judging by the way today went down.

When I got in, an email was waiting for me by one of the Steward’s staff:

I received your new DVD player. It’s in my office.

I said to a clerk:

“Road trip!”

“Where to?”

“Steward’s office.”

“What are we getting?”

“You’ll see.”

“O boy! Christmas!”

Inmates like going places with you. It serves to break the moe-noe-toe-knee. Because most of our libraries are one-professional shows, it’s equally good for the Librarian to get out and give the limbs a good stretching occasionally.

We get to the Steward’s office, a quarter-mile away in the Administration Building, 3rd floor. I report to the requisite office, and say, “We’re here to pick up our DVD player.”

My clerk says “It came in!” He says this with surprise and enthusiasm, because this marks the fourth (4th) time I have attempted to get this player inside this here prison in about six months. Here’s what happened the last three times:

  • I ordered a Sony player from Highsmith. They called a few weeks later saying that their distributor no longer carried that model. All they had by way of replacement was a boom box. I asked them to refund the money. The refund came about two weeks later.
  • A month after that, I took a state check to a Sony outlet. I brought the player to the counter and presented the check. The check was refused. “This is a debit card/cash business, Sir. I’m sorry.” The young lady went on to explain that they couldn’t even accept cashier’s checks.
  • Two months later, I found a good deal at a local Best Buy. I called ahead to make certain that they accepted state checks (they did). I brought out the check, took the purchase to the counter, and then discovered that the item was on sale. This was a problem, I was told, because the check was made out for the pre-sale price, and their system could not issue change on a check.

Sony dvd

Madness. I finally wrote the Superintendent a letter that chronicled this mess, and asked him to give me the cash to buy the player at the Sony outlet. Instead, he directed the Treasurer’s office to order the player from a different source.

So, here we were, picking up a portable DVD player that’s taken seven (7) months to buy. Ain’t life grand? The funniest part of this saga is that we bought the thing to show ABLE MINDS students the LOTR trilogy. Now that the prison has given the Library its own cable channel, we no longer need it for that. ¡Caramba!

We have of course found an alternate use for the thing, which is using it to play the legal DVDs of trials and administrative hearings sent to inmates by the courts. So all’s well that ends well.

Not only that — when we reach the Steward’s office, she thinks we’re there for an entirely different reason and produces the $1,500 check for the Shire Book Shop, the check we’ve waited three-and-one-half months for.

So today was our day, for once. I mean twice.

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.

“HURRY UP AND WAIT!” Or, The best-laid plans of Librarians and Men

[In which we collectively witness the gears of the Machine grind, mesh, and grind again, and always slowly…Ever so slowly….]

State workers, man. From east to west and from age to age, you gotta admit — they’re consistent.

Back in August, I submitted a purchase request through my boss and then through her boss to buy $1,500 worth of books from the Shire Book Shop in Franklin, MA. August is over three months in the past.

A few days ago, I receive an email entitled ‘SHIRE’ from our Steward, notifying me that the Shire money had been approved. This is happy news because in our Department, purchases over $1,000 must first be approved by the prison Superintendent and then by the Commissioner of Correction. As you might imagine, this process takes several weeks to play out.

Picking up the phone, I call to the clerks within shouting distance, “Hey, we’re going to the Shire!” General cheers from their various stations. Library clerks are happy at the prospect of new books. So are library patrons. So is the Librarian.

I phone the Steward to ask when I can pick up the check. She says:

“I lied to you. The request hasn’t been approved yet.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“I found it on my desk and thought that the Commissioner had approved it. But only the Superintendent has said ‘Yes.’ I forgot to send it downtown.”

“I see. Well, please do so. I started this in August, hoping to make the purchase by Thanksgiving.”

And that was that. Notice the Steward never offers an apology. I’m thinking that an apology was appropriate, for I was led to believe that all we’ve been waiting for was the decision of the Commissioner. Turns out he hasn’t even seen the request yet and doesn’t even know that it exists.

This is particularly annoying for another reason. In October, after not hearing anything for two months, I called the Steward to see where the request was in the process. I discovered that although she received the Superintendent’s approval, she hadn’t filled out the paper work that needed to go to the Commissioner’s office. In fact, she started doing so while she had me on the phone.

Ave Maria!


For the past five years, it’s tradition that I complete a major book purchase by Thanksgiving. This year, the Commissioner may not make a decision until after the New Year.

It’s typical. And it figures. But just because I expect it doesn’t lessen my frustration. Nor for my clerks, a few of whom have little to do until a donation or a book purchase arrives for them to classify, catalog, stamp, enter into the computer, fashion with a Mylar dust jacket cover, and place out on the shelves. One of the pragmatic uses of a prison library is a little game called Keep Library Clerks Busy. The greatest enemy to prison peace and good order is boredom. Inmates are proud of their library work and enthusiastic about getting a load of fresh reading material out to the population. It stinks to have to disappoint them. Not that they’re not used to disappointment. And not that they should be coddled. But they need gainful, interesting employment. Book buys help fill the bill.

Ah, well! This Thanksgiving, instead of showing gratitude for our bounty and the beneficence of the Commonwealth, we’ll give thanks that the prison still has a library that the inmates use constantly and do not take for granted.

Lemons into lemonade. And we have professional incompetence to thank for it!