“Hey, mee-ster! You wanna rehabilitate my see-ster?” Or, CURBING THE NURTURING IMPULSE

Tonight, I receive a late email from A.D., the new librarian at BSCC, a minimum-security prison a literal stone’s throw from Norfolk. This is Tuesday, which means she’s just finished her ABLE MINDS consequential thinking class, a course which she began about a month ago.

Her email is entitled “Did you ever cry….” And continues:

“…when you received your first ABLE MINDS’ essay? The inmates just handed in their first THINK FIRST homework assignment. I fully admit my eyes may be teary just a bit. Is that wrong?”

My reply:

You are such a girl.


You want the truth? I cry at this stuff all the time.

I’ve never cried at a written assignment. But I have cried at testimony. Recently a guy admitted to the class that he cannot consider himself the ‘Dad’ of his son, only his biological father, because the step-father has been raising the son for the past 21 years, and has earned the ‘Dad’ title.

I cry in class when I recount how my rage torments the people who love me. I carry their pain and confusion with me always, and it’s hard, really hard, to admit this to others. But my approach is that you cannot expect inmates to open up if you don’t share some pain of your own. So, they see me cry, and they hear me choke up, and they see my anguish.

I cry when we’re watching LOTR and Frodo says, “I wish none of this had happened. I wish the Ring had never come to me!” and Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not theirs to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Just remember — we are not here to rescue prisoners. We’re here to offer an approach to problem-solving that they’ve never seen –THINK FIRST — and urge them to put it into practice. The balancing act is never to let your natural compassion soften your heart to feel sorry for them. You don’t need to go that extra mile; in fact, it is dangerous to do so.

And the reason you don’t need to do so is that you have to prove to anyone that you ‘care.’ The fact that you’re offering the program and giving of yourself proves that you care. That’s all you have to do. And you’re doing it.

Welcome to correctional Librarianship.”

A.D.’s response:

“It’s great to hear that I’m not in the minority when it comes to this.

I really love the opportunity we have as librarians…not to change the world, but the ability to provide something for someone that just may help them.

I respect librarianship, but sometimes when I see a reference librarian annoyed by general reference questions, I just think to myself: They just don’t get it.”

A.D.’s last remark reminds me of a comment made by my prison mentor Stephen Mallinger after I completed my internship in correctional library management through the University of Pittsburgh. Mallinger had been the correctional Librarian at SCI-Pittsburgh for 13 years. After I had secured the Librarian position at MCI-Walpole, I received a congratulatory letter from Stephen in which he admonished:

“Remember, when it comes to inmates, your job and prison reputation are at once more important than their needs. You must curb your natural compassion, and let pragmatism rule you. It took me two years, but I discovered what became my operating credo about inmates:

The first year, you can’t do enough for them. The second year, you can’t do enough TO them.

Stephen had a good sense of humor. And–as usual–he was right.

At the end of that first year, after you’ve dealt with the 537th entitlement attitude of people who are in no position to dictate terms, your natural compassion begins to morph, slowly-but-surely, into callous indifference. And that’s the opposite end of the service spectrum that correctional employees must guard against.

What you hope to achieve is balance. You have to learn to let your head lead your heart.

In Corrections, you must stop thinking about caring and start thinking about doing your job. Your job is not to care; your job is to provide professional library services for the prison system. Once you realize that you work for the public and for Corrections, the rest naturally follows.

Library school teaches us that we work for the patron. But Corrections teaches us that we work to protect the public. And in our business, corrections trumps librarianship, just as it trumps psychology, case work, religion, drug treatment, and all other professions working in the prison. Security and the public must always come first.

So, as a correctional employee with expertise in librarianship, how do you best work to protect the public? You protect the public by providing prison program support and appropriate recreational reading material. You also offer rehabilitation programs and material and encourage inmates to use these to their best advantage.


Today I was invited to Walpole Public Library to pick n’ choose through library sale leftovers. They’re weeding like mad because they need to transfer their collection in December to their newly-built library just down the street.

Interesting side note: the town of Walpole repeatedly voted down the construction of a new library. Finally it was put through on a third referendum, passing by a 20-vote margin. Actually, the previous referendums failed by the same ultra-slim margin (Walpole has 31,000 residents), which I think emboldened those who supported the idea of a new public library in the town. The current building was built 100 years ago and, while it has strengths, they’re overshadowed by mildew, terrible parking, and poor visibility in the community.

I spent four hours in a basement storage room going through items which have been donated to the sale of the Friends of the Walpole Library. I end up packing and setting aside eight boxes of hardcover fiction/non-fiction. Also, with the help of Reference Librarian Warren Smith, I am able to pack about 150 educational video tapes. These tapes will see library use, and will also be used on the prison’s education video channel.

Always, always, always, there is that cultural technological lag between what happens in the free world and prisons. This is quite necessary for the security and orderly running of these institutions. Inmates are frequently caught with cell phones now, and have crashed computer networks in the law library and other areas.

3D_ScreamAn important distinction: we’re not talking about a technological disparity based on economics, the kind you may find between affluent and destitute communities. Rather, the focus must be on the clientele and where they are physically situated in life. We are not serving the general public, we’re not serving children, and we are not serving the corporate world or Academia. We’re serving social deviants in a prison. These are people who Society has agreed live life the wrong way. Technology in the hands of many of these folks is a dangerous thing, especially in the context of a medium- or maximum-security prison.

What you have to remember about corrections is that you must not offer technology or services simply because you can, or because it’s the latest thing – you offer a service in a certain medium based upon the security concerns of the prison and of the Department. Security is serious business in a prison. Security trumps everything. And so it should.

As 2012 looms large–and while the free world discards their DVDs in favor of 3D Blu-Ray technology–we are excited to be getting 150 video tapes for the correctional Library.

This donation is particularly timely, because the Administration recently approved the design and installation of a prison-wide DVD/video system operated from our School building (it used to be operated from the Gym, of all places, but has been transferred to us). The Superintendent has given the Library its own VHS channel, so now we need to feed the monster week in and week out.

The inmates will be clamoring for us to buy and borrow videos, and that can be a Jurassic pain in the ass. Seldom content with being gifted with something new and useful or diverting, inmates are always pushing. Prison administrators have to reign in this behavior, just as a parent would check a teenage driver drunk with his new-found autonomy. That’s why you must be circumspect before saying “Yes,” forever weighing the apparent benefits with the agenda behind the request.

Well, inmates always have an agenda. This is because many prisoners who participate in jailhouse politics are controlling personalities. They manipulated people on the Outside, got caught, and continue their manipulating ways Inside. Manipulators are tiresome people, and must be checked often.

We are, however, grateful. And my classifier, cataloger, and bibliopegist now have something to keep them busy for the next several days.

“I am a cunning linguist!” Or — WORDS MEAN THINGS

Tonight in the lending library we were discussing our Wednesday plan for processing the books I purchased last week from New England Mobile Book Fair. One clerk said he’d go up to the 2nd-floor balcony at 1PM and bring down one of the four boxes from that purchase that’re temporarily stored there.

Because I have a librarian’s meeting next door at the infamous Walpole State Prison, I reminded him of this by saying that I wouldn’t be in until 6PM because “I have to do Walpole.”

Instantly, another clerk chimes in: “Wow, that’s a lot of guys.”

Nothing like setting yourself up. “I have to do Walpole.” Right off the turnip truck.

I’m glad I surround myself with literate people who have a vulgar turn of mind. The fun we have….


(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….

“To tell you the truth, I never looked!” Or: THE ENTERTAINMENT VALUE OF IGNORANCE

Interlibrary loan clerk ‘Narc’ Moocher is a head case, not least of which because the eyes in his head are barely usable, requiring his constant use of thick-lensed glasses which are rumored to have been manufactured in the same optical plant as Mr. Hubble’s orbiting telescope.

Narc’s mind – if one may take that liberty – engages the world in a decidedly literal light. His operating credo for the whole of Creation and its creatures is this single, irreducible principle: ‘A thing must be black, or it must be white.’

Paradoxically, he is a man of keen thought and insight, often catching nuances in people and situations which elude mere mortals. This is why it’s curious to the point of irritation that frequently he’s capable of missing The Painfully and Mind-Bogglingly Obvious.

Narc has worked in the Norfolk library for eight years (in prison terms read: “Since the dawn of recorded history”). Eight years is a generous enough stretch to learn about certain library truisms, such as:

  • • Shelf list cards stick together during Inventory
  • • Patrons rarely know what they need
  • • When looking up the title of any library material, always truncate the lead preposition (e.g., A, An, and The)

The observable Universe has conspired against Narc in this regard, for certain of these facts have managed to escape his powers of apprehension, retention, or both. To wit: on this cold, sunny day, we are in my Lending Library office discussing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We get stumped trying to name all the lead male actors. Narc, sitting at his work desk, reaches for an out-dated copy of the Videohound Golden Movie Retriever and says, “I’ll find it.”

We continue talking. Minutes pass. Narc’s still looking. Narc appears to be floundering in this book, whose entries are arranged alphabetically. I also notice that, rather than searching toward the front of the book, he’s somewhere toward the back. I sidle over to him: “What’s wrong?”

“It’s not in here.”
“Of course it’s in there. It’s a world-famous movie.”
“I’m tellin’ ya, it’s not where it’s supposed to be.”
I look over his shoulder at the page he’s on. I see the entry Thelma and Louise. “Narc, you’re in the T’s.”
“I know.”
“You should be in the G’s.” Some clerks stop talking and turn toward us.
“No. I’m lookin’ for the title.”

The horror of what’s happening strikes me.

“The title begins with ‘G’,” I say softly.
“No, it doesn’t. It starts with ‘T’.” Utter silence in the room.
“You’re looking under ‘The’?”

The other clerks hear this. The other clerks laugh. The other clerks laugh a boisterous, derisive laughter of which we’re assured Hell is filled. Some clerks laugh until tears stream down their pained, weathered faces. I’m laughing, too.

Even Narc smiles. “Yeah, keep laughin’, you fuckin jerks.” More laughter. “It’s the first word of the title! Go blow yourselves!” This sets us off again.

Steven, my typewriter clerk–-This years’ hands-down winner of the library’s “Little Sammy Sunshine” award-–points an accusatory finger at me and shouts, “This is your fault, ‘cause you hired him!” Jailhouse logic is, at once, bemusing and tiresome.

While this gale of unholy merriment at another’s expense continues, I explain to Narc how many book, play, and movie titles begin with A, An, and The, and the necessity for truncation. Narc says he never knew this, and I feel bad that it never occurred to me that he needed to be told. My first impression (How stupid can he be?) has now tempered to compassion (Not everyone knows the same things), and I realize that I’m just as much an intellectual snob as these other chuckle-heads in the room. It’s a self-revelatory moment that I’d do well to heed.

Of course, someone mentions ‘The’ at least once a week; sometimes, twice a day. It’s not fair. In addition, it’s juvenile, immature, and mean. And that’s why it’s funny.

And these days, Narc joins in the laughter. Narc’s sense of humor pivots on the self-deprecatory, smacking himself down before the world can land one, a kind of emotional self-preservation that has stood him in good stead for many many incarcerated moons.

But we’ll still bust his balls about this. Probably forever. I think of it as “THE CASE OF THE PERILOUS PREPOSITION.”

File under: ‘The.’

(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.


I sometimes forget I’m in jail.

In the free world, we naturally and necessarily place trust in the people we work with. We study the character of each, and we trust one more over the other, as Time and discernment help to reveal the true selves of these relative strangers.

Corrections tells you to be wary of inmates. You sometimes hear that you can’t trust any of them. You sometimes hear that you can’t let your guard down. You sometimes hear that inmates are like children, and will get away with anything they can get away with.

And then corrections tells you: “Here’re the prison’s libraries, here’re the services we want you to provide, and here’re the inmates who are going to help you.”

“But you just told me I can’t trust them….”

“Well — let’s say that you shouldn’t. This is jail, not Yale.”

“But I’m the only professional you have supervising them — I can’t be everywhere at once. i HAVE to trust them.”

“Just do the best you can.”

What follows is an account of what can happen while you’re busy doing the best you can.

I rely on 19 paid library clerks to help run library services in a population law library, a population lending library, a segregation unit law library, and services to the Hospital Services Unit as well. I also have classroom assistants for a law clerk training program, a book discussion group, and a literature-based consequential thinking seminar. That’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of clerks to supervise. As you can imagine, I can’t be everywhere at once. Because of that, I have to place an extraordinary level of trust in the library clerks who work for me. At times, that extraordinary level of trust is betrayed. That happened recently, when I had to fire a clerk for using his clerk computer to write his legal work.

Well, he shouldn’t do that, you see. This is because the computer he’s been entrusted with is for library work only. Well, you gotta have SOME limits, and that statement certainly rings true in a prison. The morality of some men become warped and perverted to the point where they actually believe that if there is no written rule prohibiting a specific act, then they are free to do it! Strange and dangerous thinking for an adult to travel through life with. Why, that kind of thinking could land you in prison!

So one recent afternoon, I entered one of the offices just off the lending library floor and caught site of my computer programmer (he builds databases in Access) with paperwork spread out over his desk, and he’s typing on his computer. I say: “What are you doing, George?”

George looks up from the screen and says, “My legal work?”

Now understand — this is happening in the same month precisely one calendar year ago when all 19 of my clerks were fired after it was discovered that some of them were — among other things — using their clerk computers to make greeting cards and writing college papers. This fellow George here was in that number. He didn’t have his job returned to him until four months later. But now, one year later, he’s at it again.

I said to George, “For God’s sake, George, been there, done that, remember? You’re not allowed to do personal work on these machines. Stop what you’re doing.” Then I walked back to my law library office.

Notice I didn’t stand there until I made sure that he made a move. That’s because, even given the circumstances, I put trust in him that he’d do what I directed him to do. This is because of the character I know him to have. Yes, he’s just been pinched for breaking the rules. But he’s worked in the library for seven years, and in that time he’s succeeded in heeding the rules. That’s the character I’m drawing from.

I have a friend who is a recreation officer assigned to provide security in the library of the Walpole State Prison. He once admonished me thus: “Billy, you and a con can be golden for five years. But the first time you have to tell him ‘No,’ he’s a different person.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly the situation here, but it bears repeating. The situation here was born of selfishness. This clerk decided that his desire to use a word processor on his work computer to complete his legal writing outweighed his chances of getting caught, losing his job, and damaging his credibility with me. All this I found out only because I brought him into my office later that evening and asked him just what the hell he meant by throwing a good job away?

When this kind of thing happens, it’s hard not to take it as a personal betrayal. In his case, I had him working for me for seven (7) years. Seven years is a long time to hold a job in jail. What it tells the Administration is that you’re very well satisfied with the job performance of this individual. And this certainly was true. The man did much good for his library in that time, so much that, hours after this first happened, I had to sit still and imagine library services without him. I actually considered turning a blind eye so I could keep him. Because of his past work, peaceful demeanor, good sense of humor, and ability to forgive my many faults, this was one of the toughest decisions I’ve made in recent years.

But good sense outweighed sentimentality. If last year hadn’t happened, MAYBE the blind eye could’ve been justified. But not this time. He was suspended. I wrote an Incident report. The Administration read it & asked me to write a Disciplinary report, which I did. The man had his hearing, during which he pled guilty. And one of his sanctions is that he lost his library clerk job.

Trust had been betrayed. I made that clear to him in our talk. He actually felt shamed by what he’d done.  But his earlier choice was to take the chance that I wouldn’t catch him, and would never know that trust had been betrayed.

They say, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

When it comes to trust — do those words ring true?

COME ON, CONVICTS: On the Cosby path from prisoners to citizens

“Can we all get along?”

Tuesday night at the MCI-Norfolk lending library, and my book discussion group has just set back the cause of brotherly love and acceptance at least 60 years.

This summer, at the behest of the Correctional Education Association, prison librarians and educators around the country have been invited to offer a discussion group on Bill Cosby’s book called Come On, People: On the Path  From Victims to Victors. This invitation, our Department librarians are told, comes from William Henry Cosby, Jr. himself.

Having read the book, and having been Norfolk’s librarian for the past 18 years, I know several inmates champing at the proverbial bit to kick in their two cents. I decide to hand-pick the participants, a technique I’ve used unflinchingly for other DOC library courses, because it’s guaranteed to set the fur flying.

But walking into the library from a back office to start the class, I feel like I’m suddenly the focus of a Punk’d episode. All people of color are seated on one side of the room. All whites are seated on the other. It’s as if a racist Moses has tapped his staff onto the freshly-buffed linoleum and parted the group along color lines. Straight down the middle.

I work in an adult male medium-security prison. I have heard the vulgar and obscene language of convicted felons all the livelong day for months, years, and decades. I, myself, am a vulgar man, choosing the vernacular and worse more often than not to express my innermost feelings. Having said that, I still won’t spell out what I said to the group, but will edit the offensive part of the sentence and leave it to the reader’s own imagination to sort out. I said:

“You gotta be sh***ing me.”

In my feeble defense, I was so stunned, that’s all I could think of to say.

After about 5 mind-reeling seconds, my tongue un-sticks itself from the roof of my mouth. “Racial segregation’s alive and well in 2009! Didn’t the Civil War take care of all this? Remember hundreds of marchers scuffing up thousands of pairs of shoes so that this would become a shameful, distant memory? This is a joke, right? This is a set-up?”

Now, this class of men—and by now it’s evident that they have no idea what they’ve done—begin to look around the room at themselves. Some begin to chuckle.

One participant—a black man in his late 50’s whom we’ll call Ben—laughs and says, “Man, I didn’t even notice we did this until you called us out.”

A 50-something white man we’ll call Adam then jokes, “I guess Abraham, Martin, and John are looking down on us with scorn and condemnation.”

“How shameful is this?” I continue, “We’ve gathered as concerned Americans to discuss Cosby’s suggestions on helping our young Black males, and you guys can’t set aside your jailhouse racism for two hours?” No one here can give a plausible reason for why these 13 intelligent, educated men have arranged themselves thus. It was unconsciously done, they assure me.

“Now that the unconscious problem’s identified, will you please consciously mingle?” Nervous laughter. Nobody moves. “I’ll put it this way,” I said, folding my arms. “I won’t teach a class that looks like passengers in a 1964 Selma, Alabama bus.”

One of the participants on the ‘black’ side laughs, gets up, and takes a seat on the ‘white’ side of the room. “There!” he smiles. “Happy now?”

I am unimpressed. “Is this it? One measly concession to the cause of racial harmony?” I said, sitting down to my table in front of the room and picking up my Instructor’s copy. “No wonder Cosby has to keep writing these books.”

Black Rage at a Black Man

Each prisoner has been given a copy of the book to read ahead of time. It’s quickly evident that everyone has done their homework, because once these men start voicing their opinions, the criticisms come fast and furious. Everyone in the room has an opinion about the book, and most of what they feel is negative rather than constructive. I’m actually flummoxed when the arguments against Cosby’s ideas morph into attacks on his motives for writing the book, and even on his good character. These attacks take varied and creative forms:

  • “Cosby’s a billionaire and out of touch with American blacks.”
  • “Universities send their graduates into the world with an institutionalized point-of-view. Cosby is a product of that system.”
  • “There’s a generation gap with Cosby.”
  • “Cosby’s a comedian. He’s not a sociologist. “
  • For a guy who writes about family and fatherhood while he’s cheating on his wife – who’s he to be telling me how to live?”
  • “He’s well-intentioned, but he doesn’t get why kids act like they do.”
  • “He’s back-pedaling from some inflammatory statements he caught hell for. This book is his attempt to clean some of that up.”

The arguments are familiar—clichéd, actually. The themes boil down to:

  • The man’s educated, which disqualifies him from talking about the ‘hood
  • The man doesn’t have the right education
  • The man’s a hypocrite
  • The man’s too old
  • The man’s too rich
  • The man’s a sell-out/ an Oreo/ not Black enough
  • He’s only Bill Cosby

It’s very tempting to write off the negative diatribes of this group as just so much incarcerated sour grapes. Keep in mind that many of the men in this room have contributed to the problems with which Cosby is concerned.  Because of their imprisonment, this discussion with these men of a book identifying problems with Black America and offering solutions feels, at times, like nothing more than criminals belittling and shouting down any honest, earnest attempt to identify their criminality and refocus their lives. As the discussion continues, I begin to notice with some alarm that some folks in this room are not simply in disagreement with Cosby—they are angry with him.

Since I don’t see the need or justification for this anger, I call them on it.

Ben raises his hand.

“When I lived at home, I used to bring my friends in the house, and some of them were hoodlums. My mother would walk in the door, see me with these hoods in the living room, and go off on us: “Why are these SOBs in my house? Get these people out of here, now! And don’t bring them back!” My father used a different approach. He’d open the living room door, beckon me with his finger, and say “Lemme see you a minute?” When I got to him he’d say, “Get those hoodlums outta my living room.” Different approaches, same results. But with my father, my friends had a chance to leave with dignity. And I didn’t have to be embarrassed in front of the people I rolled with.

He takes a breath.

“Cosby makes the same mistake my mother made. He’s airing our dirty laundry in public. He should’ve taken a page out of Farrakhan’s game plan and kept this stuff behind closed doors. Instead, he writes a book for the whole world to read that tells me “You’re effing up, it’s all your fault, and now I have to straighten your mess out ‘cause you’re too dumb to figure it out yourselves.” That’s not only embarrassing for us, but degrading. He should know better than that.”

“Perhaps, like me,” I say, “He knows you’re adults, and that you can take it. You’re not children anymore, when Mommy and Daddy had to couch things a certain way in order to cut through your teenage belligerence. Cosby actually respects you, and wants you to respect yourselves and each other. He treats you like the men that you are, instead of the boys that you used to be. And by the way, when innocent people of all colors are being anonymously murdered by stray bullets being shot from moving cars, the problem becomes greater than the ‘It’s our house’ mentality.”

“Aw man, you sound just like Cosby,” someone says.

“How does Cosby sound?” I ask.

“White!” someone else says. Some of the class laughs in agreement. Racism is a natural jailhouse inclination.

“Really? And why should showing care and concern for black Americans sound “white” to your ears and minds?”

Ben sits up straight in his chair.

“If we as black America decide to get together, to organize our communities, to create another Panthers, the Powers That Be shout “No, no, no!” and won’t allow it. But responsibility for what’s gone wrong in our neighborhoods has also to be accepted by the whole of America, the power structure as well as the black community. Cosby’s part of the power structure. If Cosby was sitting with the brothers on this side of the room when we decided to organize, he’d be the first to break ranks with us, because his education and life experiences would send him to the other side of this room.”

You Did It, But It’s My Fault Too!

What about the ‘white’ side of this room? I ask Tim, a fellow who’s participated well in several of my other courses to share his impressions of the book. Tim says:

“I couldn’t relate to any of it. It was written for someone other than me. Reading this was like listening to a couple in the next room arguing over something in a foreign language.”

This statement was then examined by the group.  When I say “examined,” I don’t mean to imply that people took these comments to task directly, or that anyone else commented immediately after the speaker was finished. Rather, a strange, slow metamorphosis occurred between the time these words were spoken and the discussion’s end two hours later. The progression followed along these lines:

“Aren’t these problems kind of like what we go through growing up, no matter what your color or race?”

“Except for the racism, I think all men in this prison can relate to many of the same problems of poor black young men.”

“ Anyone who grew up poor in America can relate to unsafe neighborhoods, crime in the street, bad education, bad home life. We’re all Americans, and this is an American problem.”

“These problems ultimately affect us all. We’re all responsible for what’s wrong, not just the young poor American black man.”

Freddie says, “We need to get black America back on its feet and be self-sustaining. And c’mon, Cosby ain’t the first to deliver this message, there’s Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates and W.E.B. Dubois and Cynthia Dolores Tucker and all the others. In this book, Cosby uses our past on purpose, starting with the 1950’s, to illustrate the progression of this social tragedy, our American tragedy.”

Although we began the evening with the view that only poor young African-American men could begin to relate to the book’s message of urgency and hope, we ended the night on the most clichéd of all imaginable liberal creeds: ‘We are all responsible.’

Not everyone in this group left the room with that opinion, of course. Some men attempted to keep the focus on the very real problems of the street, and on some of Cosby’s solutions.  Glenn says, “But we must admit that a lot of what he says hits home – we have opportunities today that he didn’t have back in his day.”

“What has Bill ever done for us?”

“Well, it’s about time!” I interject. “Here’s a question for you – what did Bill Cosby do in the 60’s and 70’s to help the Civil Rights movement?”

Only two of the black gentlemen in this group of thirteen are older than 50. These men have very different responses.

Ben says “Yeah, I was in my teen in the 60’s. Other than him making comedy records, I don’t recall him marching or going to jail for any of us. Martin did more for us than he ever did. While Malcolm and Martin and Elijah Muhammad were standing up, Bill was busy making money.”

The other man, whom we’ll call Abdul, patiently listened then said, “I myself was a teen in the 60’s. I do remember Cosby coming out and doing things. I remember Cosby saying things. I remember, too, that standup comedy was a Jewish male or a white male profession, and I remember when you never saw one of us on TV. You know who changed all that? Bill Cosby. Cosby came on TV, Cosby went onstage. And not as some Steppin Fetchit caricature, but as an intelligent secret agent, and as an intelligent funny black man who was just standing up there being himself. That’s the first time I ever saw that. Cosby broke that ground.”

Because I have a comedy album collection at home numbering in the thousands, it occurs to me to interject this notion: “When Bill Cosby worked onstage, his audiences were predominantly white. And Bill made these white people laugh, which meant they enjoyed themselves. So these white people would come back, slap their money down, maybe even bring a white friend along.

“But it’s the way he got these white folks to laugh that elevated his work above mere entertainment. Recall that this wasn’t a guy who, like Dick Gregory, was talking specifically about the race problem. Cosby tried something different. Cosby talked about wives and husbands trying to live together in something approaching peace and harmony, he talked about parents and the monumental task of trying to raise their children without giving into the impulse to kill them, he talked about the human creature’s uncertain and comical relationship with his unseen Creator, and the tribulations of just being a kid growing up. No one in the civil rights movement had thought to do this before. Cosby did.

“I agree,” says Abdul, “Bill showed white and black America what they had in common. Night after night, his message to each white person in those seats was “We’re the same, and your laughter proves it. You couldn’t laugh at this if you couldn’t relate to it.” With Cosby up onstage it was a little victory for civil rights, because each time a white person laughed, it brought a few of them closer to the idea that black people are OK and should be accepted. And when you consider the turbulent time in which he worked, you gotta admit–the man had guts.”

Silence. Somebody dropped a pin. We all heard it hit the floor.

A young man named Glenn says to Abdul, “You sayin’ a comedian doing a stage routine is the same thing as protesters getting bitten by dogs and squirted with hoses?”

“I’m saying that their sacrifices would have had less of an impact on the conscience of white America if they weren’t also hearing Cosby’s message in nightclubs, listening to his records in their living rooms, and choosing to watch him on their TVs.”

Sympathy for Uncle Tom

Next to speak is a man whom we’ll call Teddy. Teddy helps me facilitate these discussions, he’s a recent graduate of Boston University’s outreach to prisoners program, and is a human being who feels so acutely for his fellowmen that we have to take a Brillo pad to the linoleum to scour out the crimson stains from his perpetually-bleeding heart. After raising his hand, Teddy opens a new line of inquiry:

“I had conversation with a black man in my housing Unit, a man who has very strong opinions about what society has done to American blacks. After I was finished with Cosby’s book he asked to read it. When he was finished, I asked him his impressions. He says he feels in some respects that Cosby is an ‘Uncle Tom.’ Does anyone have any feelings on that perspective?”

Abdul does.

“Don’t use the term ‘Uncle Tom’ until you have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this book, Uncle Tom gets whipped face-first because he refuses to tell the slave master where two slaves have fled. Simon Lagree whips him to death. Uncle Tom was a great hero of that novel, and the novel was important for its time. ‘Uncle Tom’ as it’s used in our popular culture is a perversion of the original meaning. I would advise your friend in the Unit to be careful to use words and phrases correctly. Words represent you.”

Teddy smiles.

Abdul continues. “I have a question for this group, because I’ve heard a lot of negativity tonight about this,” he says, holding up his copy of the book. “My question to you is: Is Cosby right?”

There is a general murmur of assent throughout the room that he is.

“OK. Now – Is Cosby’s book a blueprint for solving these problems?”

There is a general howl of disagreement that it isn’t.

“OK, so it’s not the problems he’s identified, it’s the solutions he’s presented that you can’t agree with. OK. But here’s something that we must agree on—if we as black men don’t understand that we’re in trouble, if we don’t get that our neighborhoods are crumbling, if we don’t lead the way and do something to stop it—what will be the outcome?”


“As long as fathers keep going to jail, kids will turn to the streets,” Abdul concludes. “Why? Because the father’s not there to watch TV with his kids, the father’s not there to listen to rap music with his kids, the father’s not there to teach the kids why the ‘N’ word is degrading and hateful and hurtful. Kids miss that male guidance. Nothing can replace that.”

And a Child Shall Lead Them

Now a latino named Miguel sits up and raises his hand. All of 23 years old, Miguel grew up in Boston’s south end knowing poverty, racism, crime, a one-parent family, and street life. Since coming to prison, Miguel has turned himself around, parlaying his thug existence for a Boston University degree.  But right now, Abdul has lit a fire under him and he cannot sit still.

“I’ve been listening to people here, especially the OG’s, and I gotta say something to them. Here you sit, your second and third prison terms, a lot of you. Exactly who is raising your children? You talk about how important it is to be there for them, but you’re talking about it while you sit in jail.”

Gregg says, “Hold up, young brother. You don’t know all the facts. Don’t go judging what you don’t know.”

Miguel continues. “You’re here, not there– right or wrong?”

“That’s not the whole story,” Gregg shouts back.

“Right or wrong?”

Gregg sighs and turns his head.

“Kids need that male guidance, “Miguel continues. “They need limits, discipline. They need you at their bedside for that hug and good-night kiss, they need you for answers when life gets too hard, they need you to keep them from running to the streets. They don’t need your jailhouse letters, or copies of your program certificates, or promises over the phone. They need a father, and they need him there, not here. I never knew my father. I know what I’m talking about. I ran to the street because there was no man in my way to say ‘No.’ Now ‘cause my father wasn’t there, here I am sittin’ in jail with you.”

“You were the one who chose the street over your mother and family,” Gregg says. “Nobody shoved you out the door; you went willingly. Shoulder some of that blame, little man. You didn’t suddenly just wake up in a cell not knowing how you got here. You chose this.”

“Definitely. All my friends were doin’ it, so I wanted it, too. But if Pops had been around, maybe I wouldn’t have followed the crowd so easily. You only know what you see. When everyone’s doing it, how can you know it’s wrong?”

A man whose jailhouse nickname is ‘New York’ says, “Peer pressure has a lot to do with why these things happen to us. I had to throw away good grades and an education because my parents had an accent which I got teased for, and my friends thought that school was dumb. My dad always told me that I was destined for great things and I could be whatever I wanted to be. The street took away all that.”

“Learned behavior is at the root of these problems,” interjects Tim. “Kids imitate what they see, even if what they see is wrong. Learned behavior is a trap, because you can’t see the choices, the alternatives.” He pauses, and then adds:  “A man falls back on what he knows.”

Freddie says, “Many young minorities have been disconnected from the struggle. They’ve simply lost their way. Cosby is saying, ‘The fledgling needs someone to guide him.’ He’s saying that you should be raised to be functional in society. There’s a place for Ebonics, for example, but it’s when you’re with your posse, not when you’re sitting in the classroom trying to learn.”

Big Poppa

Adam smiles.

“Raising kids to be functional is how I saw the whole tone of the book, in light of the age of the author and the young men he’s targeted. The book is a conversation between a grandfather and his grandson. He’s giving the grandson life instruction—how to speak, how to dress, how to choose what to listen to and what to watch, how to act around your elders, even hygiene advice. And this advice is given so that the grandson can avoid all the evil social traps that the culture lays for young black men who may not understand what they’re up against. It’s good advice, given in love, and he certainly meant well.”

On hearing the words “meant well,” Ben rankles. “Yeah, well, you know, ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ Do y’all remember the Cosby episode about him meeting his daughter’s fiancée for the first time, and he don’t like the guy?” Cosby tries explaining to the man that it’s not him per se that he doesn’t like, it’s the way he’s being presented to him by the daughter. To illustrate to the young man the way he feels, Cosby asks the young man to imagine his favorite meal with all the trimmings, and then asks him to imagine that wonderful tasty meal being handed to him on the dirty lid of a garbage can.”

Many people in the room begin to smile, and comments like “I remember that show!” and “That’s my favorite episode!” are heard.

“Well, Cosby’s point is that if his daughter had introduced the fiancée in a more palatable manner, then the parents could’ve more easily accepted him. It’s all in the presentation. That’s how I feel about this book. If Cosby had kept it between us and him, and if he wasn’t preaching to these young bangers like he’s some almighty savior on a soapbox, the message would have a chance of getting through to them.”

“All grandfathers come at you from a superior vantage,” Adam says. “It’s the natural scheme of things: they have wisdom that you don’t have, but that you need. We’re taught to respect our elders, and we respect them by listening to their advice. If we love them, we honor them by applying what they know to our own lives.”

Like a Motherless Child

Right about now I’m reminded of the adage, ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’

I stand up. “This is how I see it. Out of concern for their future, William Henry Cosby, Jr. has stuck his neck out for the thousandth time for his troubled people. He’s not only trying to wake them up, he’s also giving them solutions. I’d say the book is an act of love, and of hope. Anyone agree?”

General murmurs.

“So now you’re gonna buy Bill a ‘Thinking of You’ card in the canteen, sign it and send it to his agent?”

General laughter.

Ben says, “For two years he organized all those Call-Outs. What I’d like to see is Cosby willing to come into these joints and debate those of us who have problems with his style of communication.”

Maybe someday he will.

Then again, maybe he knows already what he’ll hear.