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.

“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!

(Part 4) “Say, what time is it, kids?” “IT’S CENSORSHIP TIME!”

I’ll let you in on a little secret, if you guys promise to keep your mouths shut:

The Education division really doesn’t expect us to limit our purchase to only the five previously-mentioned categories. We’ve been told unofficially that, as long as those kinds of books comprise 25% of the total purchase, no one’s going to give us any grief about it.

So, knowing that I usually come away with about 245 titles for my $1,500–and knowing that I’ve already placed 39 self-help titles in my cart–I’m well on my way to satisfying that requirement.

I still need Spanish-language material. Since the Shire’s Spanish-language holdings consists primarily of two shelves of teach-yourself textbooks, I have to look pretty carefully. Ultimately I toss in the cart the following:

  • La Mirada: No Ve La
  • El Ultimo Magnate
  • Dias De Poder
  • En Un Acto
  • Condicion Fisica Para Vivar Mejar
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Catecismo de la Inglesia catolica
  • La Isla Mejor el Mar

For Large-print, I find only six titles, and they’re nothing that anyone at Norfolk will want to read, so I pass. Our current large-print holdings stands at 81, which is a fairly respectable number.

For Community Re-entry/Re-integration, I usually look for guides and directories, something current that can help a prisoner plan for his successful re-entry into society by finding shelter, employment, and/or halfway house/treatment facilities before the date of his release. I must say that, since the Department gave its Librarians filtered internet access two years ago, we’ve been able to wean ourselves away from print and rely more on current information posted by both government and community agencies. Knowing this, I pass also on this category.

For Job and  Career Guides, I find:

  • Fiske’s Guide To Four-Year Colleges, 2006. Knowing that our recent college guide is 2005, in the cart it goes. (A little later in the year, when we’re given some Education Division money to spend, I’ll be able to visit a retail store and update this title).
  • How Not to Destroy Your Career in Music
  • What They’ll Never Tell You about the Music Business
  • The Resume Catalog: 200 Damn Good Examples
  • Careers in Crime: An Applicant’s Guide (this is a career guide spoof written by a career guides editor. I can’t resist)

That’s it for mandated titles. Now, it’s time to play….

(Part 3) “Say, what time is it, kids?” “IT’S CENSORSHIP TIME!”

Every acquisitions Librarian uses several time-honored and “wind tunnel-tested” criteria for determining if a particular book is good enough to be added to their existing collection. My experiences with corrections and with inmates has taught me to rely on a certain method of selecting which books are good enough to be tossed into my rickety stolen-from-the-supermarket shopping cart (the one with the front wheels that consistently and annoyingly veer to the right for some stupid reason).

  • Quality. We already know that material should not circumvent the overall mission of corrections, and that mission is to protect the public. This mean the correctional Librarian should shy away from mafia books and other true crime, murder mysteries, stalker stories and other “kill-your-neighbor” fiction, and fiction tending to glorify criminal behavior and reward criminal thinking. I’ve learned through experience that—much like the “If you build it, they will come” mantra of speculative marketing–prisoners will indeed read various other types of fiction and literature if you take time to seek it out and provide it.  For example: did you know that prisoners read romance novels? Well, they do. And now that genres are burgeoning into numerous sub-genres in the publishing world, there are a great many and varied romance novels to choose from. As you’d expect, not all prisoners go for this stuff, but you might be surprised to learn that these books are being checked out continuously.

But apart from which subject areas to include/exclude, other factors contribute to every book buy you do.

  • Quantity. Because we do a substantial ($1,000) book buy from the prison’s budget only twice yearly, I like to get the most books for my book-buying dollar. So quantity has as much to do with the selection process as does quality.
  • Buy Hard Covers. Because it’s a prison’s library, I believe in buying as many hard covers as possible. If I could, I wouldn’t have one mass market in the collection, only because they don’t hold up to inmate handling for very long. We do, however, have a competent book binder on staff, and to him goes the tedious work of keeping our mass market books in good repair.
  • Buy Trade Paper. Having said this, I have no problem buying trade paperback in great shape, as they tend to take a better beating; plus, they seem to be easier to repair, and will stay repaired longer.
  • Condition. I don’t accept tattered covers, or books that smell bad, or text that’s been saturated in a sea of highlighting marker, or text with copious marginalia. I also take no books that have had other books leaning on them so that, over time, their spines have been compromised to the point where their cant (the way they sit on the shelf) is compromised and they no longer stand upright… Another thing to watch for at the prison is when inmates write their commitment numbers in permanent marker on the outside page edges and throughout the text. We won’t accept books marked this way. We also won’t keep our own books which have had the Library’s property stamp scribbled out in pen or magic marker, in an inmate’s vain attempt to pass off library property as his own.
  • Please your Administration. We know for ourselves that we tend to select books that are newer and attractive in appearance. Inmates are no exception. It does matter what the collection as a whole looks like staring back at you from those miles of shelving. And the reason it matter is because your Administration loves to see the shelves filled with brightly-colored reading material, which they are proud to show off to visiting dignitaries and American Correctional Association auditors.
  • Used Bookstores Rule. I enjoy proving to Administration and prisoners that useful recent books in great condition can be had from used book stores. ALWAYS PATRONIZE LOCAL USED BOOK STORES.
  • “Will they read the damn thing?” An important consideration – and probably THE most difficult one of all to determine – and the one that drives all acquisitions Librarians stark-raving cuckoo. To answer this, know your readers. To know your readers, you must mix & mingle with them each time the lending library’s open; pay attention to what comes in through your book return boxes;  and talk to inmates about their reading choices………..Notice that I omitted the idea of “Checking your circulation statistics by category.” Circulation figures by category are the library world’s equivalent of a popularity contest, and to me they’re meaningless. You don’t need circ stats by category to discover what inmates like to read. INMATES LIKE TO READ WHATEVER THE PUBLIC LIKES TO READ. This is because until their arrest/ conviction/ incarceration, these folks were members of the public. Plus, since many of these folks are outlaws, then stuff that is against the law or anti-authority holds constant appeal. But to spend State money catering to these preferences is utter folly………Speaking of knowing your readers — Many’s the time when I’ve had a nice recently-published, beautifully-illustrated coffee table book about this-n-that ready to toss in the cart, and then the Acquisitions Angel on my shoulder whispers in my ear: “Whaddayou, nuts? You know that’ll sit on the shelf collecting book mites. Put it back and save that $25 for five trade paperbacks that someone’ll actually read.” Then the little devil on the other shoulder chimes in: “Look – it’s Dorland Kindersley! Lotsa pictures! AND it comes with a CD and it’s still in the CD pocket? You can’t pass this up! And look at the cover – COLORS! Think how GOOD it’ll look on the shelf!”
  • Support the School/Other program Areas. Beyond the concept of “Knowing your readers,” you must also know what programming areas of the prison need your support. Check with Department heads before going out, and ask for lists of titles or subjects to search for. It’s great PR for the library, you’re working in concert with other prison professionals, and these people will appreciate that you thought enough of their work to want to support it.
  • Guide Them. When dealing with inmate patrons and their reading preferences, even the simple act of choosing reading material must be ‘corrected’ and guided. Inmates tend to read a plethora of material which runs counter to their programming and rehabilitative needs. That’s why you make a mistake by relying SOLELY on circulation information to determine what material to buy for inmates. If the only criterion you relied on for acquisitions was circ stats, you’d only be buying Jackie Collins, Iceberg Slim and similar types of urban fiction, Ann Rice and other vampire stories, erotica, outlaw biker magazines, horror novels, etc. Just like young adults (I’m thinking boys here in particular), when left to their own devices inmates don’t choose the most wholesome reading material.
  • Buy ‘New.’ Especially with science, health, and financial planning texts, the more recent the edition statement, the more likely it will be used.
  • Supplement with Retail Purchases. We pay for an annual service from Brodart called the McNaughton Lyfeguard Plan. We purchase new fiction/nonfiction in reinforced paperbacks. We also receive the cataloguing for each title. In addition, if there’s any end-of-year cash from the Education Division, we’ll use it to do a substantial purchase at a local retail/remainder house. This way your collection gets a yearly infusion of newer titles.

(Part 2) “Say, what time is it, kids?” “IT’S CENSORSHIP TIME!”

Here’s something else we need to do while we’re out here — we’re gonna honor some written inmate requests that we’ve got stashed in our trusty 10×13 manila clasp envelope we’ve brought with us for just such a moment.

You cannot ignore inmate requests for reading material, and I think I may have given several students the impression that I do. I do not. It’s truly fun and personally rewarding  providing requested reading for those who appreciate your efforts. It’s the Acquisitions Librarian coming out in you. Plus — unlike most men, apparently — I love to shop, and I love to shop for BOOKS. (Once you Kindle-worshipers finally manage to destroy the publishing world, we book-lovers are going to come and get every one of you).

It’s satisfying when you’re able to match a request with a purchase. And it’s doubly so when you see the prisoner following through and checking out the book. Your time’s been well-spent, and now some of his time can be well-spent in reading something he enjoys — within the limits of what the public and corrections deem appropriate.

Since you’ve read these notes beforehand, you have a pretty good idea of what you need to look for. Let’s start with this one…A poetry lover wants a specific translation of Chaucer. I remember saying to this guy:

“Look, Bud — this is jail, not Yale. You get what we give ya.”

He replied, “So far, you’ve given me 15 years, and a migraine.” Ingrate!

  • Anyway, we’re now in the poetry section, and it’s clear that they don’t have the Chaucer he’s looking for BUT — they do have a nice little Perennial Library hardcover called The Poetry of Chaucer, and I toss that in the cart ’cause it’s in great shape and they only want ten bucks for it, meaning we’ll get it for $7. Such a bargain! Since we only have his Canterbury Tales, this’ll improve our poetry holdings. Of course, this choice doesn’t fill the request, but you can’t have everything. Plus, there’s always ILL.

What’s next?

  • One of my clerks who’s a horror/sci-fi nut wants me to look for some Robert McCammon. I turn my cart down the 10-unit Science Fiction/Fantasy aisle, where these Shire-folk have placed hard covers first, followed by paperbacks (alpha by author). No effort is made to separate sci-fi from fantasy, but who cares because we’ve got the author’s name. And we discover that there’s no McCammon. OK, knowing they don’t have a separate horror section, I turn to the paperback fiction wall and head for the “M” section. And that’s where we find several — Bethany’s Sin, Swan Song, Boy’s Life, and Stinger, all paperbacks, all in great shape, and all stuff we don’t have.
  • Since my clerk is also a Harlan Ellison freak, I return to the sci-fi/fantasy aisle & pick up a trade paper copy of Medea: Harlan’s World. Because it’s more than a little shelf-worn, our book binder will put a hard cover on it to make it more shelf-worthy.
  • Knowing that these have been missing since last inventory, one of my circulation clerks asked me to keep an eye out for The Godfather and volume two of Wouk’s War and Remembrance, but I can’t find either in HC/PB
  • Another clerk asks for Thomas Pynchon & Margaret Atwood, and I find Vineland and The Handmaid’s Tale, both in HC for a measly $10 each
  • A patron asks for something on back pain and I find a trade paper with a 2003 edition statement; this is “recent” for our collection, so I toss it in the cart
  • A regular law library patron asks for “Books on World War II from the Japanese perspective.” He’s given me a list of about 10 titles to look for, titles that he’s copied out of a recent Edward R. Hamilton catalog. I hand the list to Jack Boland, proprietor, and tell him “Any help is appreciated.” About 10 minutes later, Jack returns and reports that he has none of the requested titles, nor anything else that will help fill the request
  • A fellow asks that we replace our missing copy of Guns, Germs and Steel, and I find a nice trade paper copy for $8.50 in the History aisle
  • Another inmate needs some biographical material on poet Christina Rosetti for a college report he’s doing. We have her poetry, but no biography, so I check both HC/ trade paper biography aisles, and find some biographical notes in a trade paper poetry collection
  • Finally, one of my inmate authors (a good writer who’s never been published but keeps trying) asks for a Stephen King book he’s read about called On Writing: Learning to Write Fiction. I find it in the Grammar & Journalism section, and it’s a whopping $20 for a flimsy trade paperback.

See, because we’re never given a lot of money for these book buys, I try getting the most bang for the buck, which is why I’m in a used bookstore instead of a multinational chain or mom-n-pop retail. So I try avoiding any title over $15, unless I’m convinced we really need it. Well, we don’t need this King book, but the writer would definitely get his money’s worth out of it, plus we have a sizable literary criticism section in the Reference Room. So that’s where this title will go.

That being the end of the “special requests,” I turn now to the other mandated categories on the list.

(Part 1) “Say, what time is it, kids?” “IT’S CENSORSHIP TIME!”

It is at this time of the rolling year that our Department Education Division – a rather robust leader of our rehabilitative effort to help aid convicted felons in turning their lives around—extends some welcome and generous financial support to the DOC’s 17 library collections.

“Generous” because the support can be anywhere from $1,000-$3,000; “welcome” because it’s money spent where it’s needed most. By this I mean that, like most things in life, there’s a catch, and Education purchases for the prison’s lending libraries are no exceptions.

The caveat, we are told, is this: the money can only be spent for the following topics:

  • Spanish-language
  • Large-print
  • Community Re-entry/re-integration
  • Recovery/ self-help
  • Job/ Career guides

Well, that’s hardly a concession, when you consider the mission statement of the Department: “To promote public safety by managing offenders while providing care and appropriate programming in preparation for successful re-entry into the community.”

The Department also has something called a Vision Statement, which adds: “To effect positive behavioral change in order to eliminate violence, victimization, and recidivism.”

Seems like the Education Division Director has paid close attention to the intentions of the current Commissioner to move MA corrections to a more pro-active stance to help the incarcerated mend their lives. Because of this, she agrees that this is the way library services should be heading, too.

In a few minutes, I’ll be taking my approved purchase order for $1,900 to the Shire, armed also with my trusty laptop and manila envelope containing lists of specific titles I want to look out for. Included in this envelope are written requests from the prisoners. This is because I publicize my book buying beforehand, and want their input.

They are also informed of the purchase limitations. “Why can’t we get what we want?” some invariably exclaim.

“You can,” is my response. “Through ILL, through your own purchases, through purchases made on your behalf by family and friends, through purchases made by the Inmate Education Committee, and through the myriad prisoner reading organizations that have sprouted up all over the country.” All of which is true. Some inmates, I’ve learned, even have relatives working in the publishing world, who send them galley proofs on the regular. I also remind them that, because it’s Education money and not prison funds, Education may dictate all day long how they want their own money to be spent.

So — let’s go get some good books for crooks….

OK, we made it to the store. We use this store because we believe in keeping used bookstores afloat. Plus, they give you 30% off if you arrive with check in hand, which is what we’ve done. Buying books is fun — saving money while doing it, doubly so.   They have a small shopping cart for people like me, so I grab that and head out onto the main floor.

Let’s start with the self-help section. Not a lot here today, at least not a lot that’s new since the last book buy. What should we toss in our cart? How about:

  • New Rules
  • Going Postal
  • Cows of our Planet
  • Politically, Fashionably, and Aerodynamically Incorrect
  • Winter’s Tales
  • Baseball & the Meaning of Life
  • Men in Love
  • Sexual Health for Men: the Complete Guide
  • License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives
  • Some American Men
  • Male MENnopause
  • Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man
  • Men Confront Pornography
  • Beyond Feelings: Guide to Critical Thinking
  • Hurdle: the Book of Business Planning
  • Small Business Start-Up Kit
  • Why is God Laughing? Path to Joy & Spiritual Optimism
  • Before It’s Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble–And What Parents Can Do about It
  • Coming Home to a Place You’ve Never Been Before
  • When the mind hears: a history of the deaf
  • Mind to crime: controversial link between the mind & criminal behavior
  • Freedom will conquer racism & sexism
  • Readings in contemporary criminological thinking
  • In the belly of the beast
  • Winnie-the-pooh on problem solving
  • American red cross first aid & safety handbook
  • Who survives cancer?
  • Finding beauty in a broken world
  • Plain & simple: a woman’s journey to the Amish
  • How good do we have to be?
  • Is there life after stress?
  • Escaping the shadows/seeking the light: Christians & sex abuse
  • Owning your own shadow: dark side of the psyche
  • Full catastrophe living: using your body & mind to face stress, illness & pain
  • For your own good: hidden cruelty in child-rearing & the root of violence
  • Character disorders in parents of delinquents
  • Anxiety cure: 8-step program for getting well
  • We weep for ourselves and for our children
  • How Proust can change your life

Actually, there was more here than I realized. That’s because I scrutinized several different sections of the store to find this stuff. I’ve learned to broaden my outlook on what constitutes a ‘self-help’ book for the incarcerated. In other words — I don’t limit ‘self-help’ to the Self Help section. If you notice, the first several titles in this list are humor books. And this is because, from the reading and research I’ve done, I see humor as just as important a coping tool as any other strategy recommended by any self-help guru in any pop-psych section of any bookstore or library. Humor is coping and humor is healing and humor is fun. You need all three to get through a day in the Pokey….

The other titles in the list are more-or-less self-evident.

“Stop it, you’re killing me!” THE IMPORTANCE OF JAILHOUSE HUMOR

One truism about humor in the jailhouse workplace: it’s not so much the funny situations as it is the funny comments; imagine a room of stand-up gunslingers trying to outdraw their opponents–forgive the trite analogy, but it’s that kind of thing.

It’s boring, being in prison. Things don’t change. The routine is horrifyingly routine. One of the few things that can change is how the sameness is perceived. That’s where prisoner’s humor is important. The incarcerated seek to combat the Mundane through their funny observations of the day and of the people in it. It’s a way of marking one day from the next, and it’s a way of getting through one day to the next.

One changing Constant that prisoners can rely upon to make the day bearable is the mistakes that people make. And when you make one–boy, do you hear about it. Mistakes are entertainment; they also give prisoners something new to think and talk about. Because the prison’s regimen requires them to behave perfectly, they take delight in pointing out the human frailties of others, especially those of their keepers, the very ones imposing the high standards of prisoner conduct.

Last year, I brought in eight boxes of books from a book buy that took me three separate trips to finalize at a local store called the Shire Bookshop. I had $2,500 to spend, which goes a very long way at this wonderful store.


So, two of my clerks are receiving books and checking off titles from the packing list I generated on my laptop while working at the store. When they’re through, they report that 80 titles are missing. I check the titles against the packing list; sure enough, they ain’t lyin’. Now I know that I packed these books and put them aside, yet they’re not here. I only recall packing eight boxes of books, and eight boxes of books is what we’ve received. Now the clerks start ragging me:

“Someone managed to lose 80 books all by himself!”

“Would he lose his head if it wasn’t attached?”

“I may be a scumbag convict, but at least I can f**king COUNT…” And on and on and on and on and on and on and on.

I called the store. I tell my tale. They say “Hold, please.” They take a look. They find an additional four (4) boxes of books that I’d packed and set aside on some wooden pallets at the back of the store. In my defense, these boxes had been covered with a plastic tarpaulin and therefore were hidden from view.

I won’t live this down. Ever. Each time that I announce a future book buy, it’ll be:

“Do you remember how to get there?”

“After you box the books, remember you have to pay for them.”

“Maybe we should pin the prison address to his coat so he can find his way back?”

“Take me with you–I’ll make sure those books get here!” Helpful stuff like that.


In the free world, humor is seen as a delightful diversion; in jail, it’s a vital coping mechanism. By encouraging healthful, nondestructive humor, the Librarian can help the incarcerated in their unstructured socialization efforts. It’s certainly socially acceptable to share a laugh, particularly when the level of intimacy is high and the comments take on the form of good-natured teasing.

Some correctional employees object to allowing themselves to be the butt of inmate jokes; they believe it’s beneath their dignity as a member of staff to permit their inmate workers to make sport of them. Well, I don’t agree. Even if I did, it would matter not one jot, because I make lots of mistakes. Noticeable ones. Public ones. To pretend that I didn’t and then attempt to carry on a facade of false dignity and stature would be funnier and more entertaining than the brief comments made at my expense. I think, if you’re lucky, prison teaches you that most things aren’t as serious as they appear. Someone (probably a Greek Stoic) said, “Laugh at yourself: you’ll have a constant source of amusement.” That’s I’m talkin’ ’bout: humility — and mental health — through humor.

Studies the world over are discovering the physiological as well as emotional benefits to good, solid belly laughter. Take advantage of each chance you have of sharing humor with your inmate staff, the library users, your boss, and fellow employees. Why? It’s for your own good, as well as theirs.