WALE CONFERENCE – Institutional Library Services from the Prison Perspective pt. 2

WALE CONFERENCE – Institutional Library Services from the Prison Perspective pt. 2

My Work Day: I unlock the library and start turning it on, taking off my jacket and stuff to stay awhile, change the backup tape, put a new battery in the radio on my belt, type in passwords for the computers and the level of user, go unlock the book return box and switch bins.  When movement is called the crew will report in, I log the time and greet them, the talk dwells on whatever happened since the last we saw each other – dreams, visits, plans for today’s work and adjustments in operations. They check for overdues on hold, ILLs, and reserves against the incoming materials. The ILL clerk starts getting the outgoing ILLs bagged and addressed and all the paperwork pulled and the status changed. I look for incoming email, ILL requests and missions from headquarters. The new books are linked and finished processing, the Acquisitions Report checked against our version of reality – and there are too many missing book orders so a lot of typing is done to tell them so. I get to check every outgoing package for content address and then seal it up for shipping. After the morning work is done and Recall is called the crew leaves together and I take the mail and the distribution to the Communications Center and the Mailroom. Dropping off and picking up, some days there are three bins full with new book boxes and some days only half a bin without the newspapers.
Lunch is alone, in the quiet of the library with a new magazine to browse in front of me, the pickle, sandwich and apple don’t take long and I am up and breaking down the mail, newspapers, magazines, and opening incoming ILLs, ours returning or those requested. I go online the log in the reception, print a sheet for the item and give them to the ILL clerk. The crew starts to trickle back in after their lunch, which was not much better than mine but in the company of their peers, under the watch of the Corrections Officers. The book return box is emptied again and the library prepares for the influx of patrons.
I register new patrons, the Chain came in yesterday and the new guys start showing up, I look for information, find books that are asked for and show my clerks how to find Labor Unions in the Yellow pages. The library is humming, actually it is closer to a low roar, but it is a mellow roar not an angry one. Different groups at different tables, the Corrections Officer that monitored the movement into the library cut it off at forty, and sent about twenty inmates away. As the other recreation or education services are cut or closed because of staffing problems or weather the library becomes much bigger an event in the inmates’ choices for time well spent.
We are open for three periods this afternoon, from 12:40 to 3:45 and the time flies, I am not finished when Recall is sounded and everyone moves out. The crew tells me to have a great weekend and they will see me on Monday.  I turn all the computers off, put the radio and certain keys away, I finish typing the missing books on my response to the November report and email it to headquarters and log off the computer.

When I give briefings to visitors to the library I am often asked ‘what do they read?’ and the cheap throw away answer is ‘True Crime, of course’. The truth is that ‘they’ (the inmates) read everything that you do, except they can’t go online and the Department of Corrections has a list of books and types of information that would be bad to have them read while in prison, mostly about security issues. I think the more important question is ‘what do they steal from the library?’

I mostly think that only stupid people steal from a free library inside a prison fence where they can never get it outside. But to what they steal, they start with stealing the sports section of the newspapers, for betting on fantasy football or other real events. They steal the colored pictures of beautiful models digitally enhanced, if not also under a plastic surgeon’s care. Those things are easy to hide and pull out when one has forgotten what their sexual desires were focused on. Some of the fancies are a bit stranger but I have purposely missed mentioning those.

The theft that is costly is of books, ‘the self-weeding collection’ as we in the prison libraries understand it, and the most popular ones are the ones that give them POWER. Robert Greene puts together a book, titled “The 48 Laws of Power” and it is immediately stolen. Yes, we do have a 3M security system and all the books are sensitized and how long do you think it takes them to figure it out? However it happens, the book is now gone, and we buy a replacement. Robert Greene comes out with another title “The Art of Seduction”, and it is immediately stolen and I buy a replacement. Do you see the pattern here? He has a third book “33 Stategies of War” and we haven’t seen it since the second circulation. I am buying all three in paperback and will read them for they do have some excellent information that I have gleaned from a life time of reading, and Robert Greene found the same and put it together nicely. I expect they will also be stolen, for the inmates that steal from our libraries inside of prison have lost everything, feel no control of their lives and are afraid of most people and things around them. So they steal what they hope will make them stronger, and then don’t read it, just hide it and hug it for warmth and feel it makes them a player again.

Kind of like those self improvement books, how to build one’s abs – you can buy five or six of them – but until you start curling your body and flexing the core and working tirelessly in motion the abs don’t change – not from hugging those books or putting them on the shelves, they must be read, practiced and re-read and understood. But then I did mention what kind of people steal books, didn’t I? Luckily most inmates just check the books out and return them very late, overdues abound, for inmates have a personal time that doesn’t match the date due stamp – not very fair, most books come in on time or are re-newed, circulation is about seven thousand items per month, and I only have to replace the stuff that wears out or is lost. I only have about twenty books ‘missing’ in action a month. Write another one, Robert Greene.

The segregation unit houses those inmates that have to be apart from the rest, and for twenty-three hours a day they are alone with their cell and two paperback books. So the library provides two thick paperbacks a week for them to read. My recommendations are: Border Triology, Killer Angels, Gates of Fire, A Soldier of the Great War, King Hereafter, Eisenhorn, Wheel of Time, Dune, Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, Lonesome Dove, Honor Harrington, Wars of Light and Shadow. Those that are part of a series are only a problem if the author dies with the series unfinished, if they don’t write faster and publish more it could happen. Still there are patrons from Seg that only want magazines with lots of pictures, I provide those also. When you have nothing to do, reading is a great way to escape from your solitude. I have read those titles so I must share the way out.

I have three inmate library clerks to train of four positions, and it is amazing how little they know about work and life and the library. I have had much success training real workers in the past, they understand work and what kind isn’t a problem, for all real work is similar. If I get someone with good life skills I can train them also, great attitude and harmony with the lesser universe and work is just a different instrument to play on and they dance through our work day. I could blame lack of library knowledge on the school system, television or credit cards and book stores — but it could be they just shouldn’t be library clerks if they were never real library patrons – how much customer service can you explain to someone that has never been a customer?

Less than a week on the job and they already want the library to be run differently, they want more creative time, they want to expound on their previous job and how wonderful they did there, they are becoming afraid to ask questions of me (have I been biting their heads off, or just am snappy having little tolerance for stupidity). I emphasized that they must look at the computer screen as they scan barcodes, and make sure they are doing what they think they should. But they know everything about computers and it doesn’t look cool to keep looking at work instead of holding a wonderful conversation. They don’t understand they have so much more to learn, that fellow needs more time shelf reading and shelving. There is one advantage in their slow work habits, they can’t get ahead of me, even when they try they are falling behind the power curve – it is all mine. The experienced clerk and I laugh a lot about the new guys, but then we keep hoping tomorrow they will be a bit better and learn another lesson or two. We are making them earn that forty-two cents an hour, shouldn’t I get some extra compensation, too?

I give all the assistance I can in each patron’s search for truth and its roots. The prison has taken most of their identity away and stuffed them in white t-shirts and khaki pants. All alone they have little power, together with a tradition and a history they become greater than just felons. They know that they can’t be Americans any more, they have no Rights when they leave the Corrections system, as former felons they can’t have weapons, can’t serve in office nor vote. Unless their civil rights are restored – the law makes a felon a permanent lower class in America.

The only way I can make a big difference in the prison is with a respectful, challenging but helpful education of the inmate into what is in the library, what we can bring into the library and what he can do with his new knowledge. He has to do all the work, and he has to survive and he has to spread the word about what he has found. I always like one old hand inmate leading a new guy from the incoming chain around to get registered and shown where the good books are, another one for our side.

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