Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Thugs will be Thugs

The other day I was cataloging the book The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz.  I was flipping through it and was intrigued by the chapter on the perfect relationship.  According to the author, the perfect relationship is when you love and accept the other person unconditionally and don't keep trying to make them change.  The example he used was your relationship with a dog.  A dog is a dog, and you don't expect it to be a cat, because you know it is a dog.  You also don't try and change it into a cat because you know it will never be a cat.  AND, if you really would rather have a cat, you go out and get a cat.

Today, I was thinking about how this really applies to prison, and helps put things in perspective and allows you to keep your sanity.  As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, prison library patrons will look you in the eye and lie to your face.  That's just the way they are, because that is one of their coping mechanisms for dealing with the harsh reality that has been their life.  Somewhere along the line they were given the advice to "deny, deny, deny" anything where they could be implicated.  Personally, I used to have a huge problem with people telling me lies, especially when I knew they were lies.  It would make me so angry, and I would do all I could to get to the bottom of it.  But, I have now realized that if people are going to lie, they are going to lie and that is their shortcoming rather than a reflection on me.

So why should we continue to work as prison librarians, if people are the way they are and they're not going to change?  I was also pondering this question today, and I have decided that it is an issue of training.  What is child rearing, but training tiny humans to act in ways that are beneficial to society?  Unfortunately, some parents are more concerned with getting high than with training their children to become productive members of society.  Some people can overcome the lack of training and not end up in prison, but there are many who end up incarcerated.  Enter, the prison librarian.  We fill in for parents who were less than stellar by correcting poor behavior, rewarding good behavior, and steering people towards positive leisure time activities.  We also don't lie to them, we have no ulterior motives (other than to introduce them to good books muahahahahaha) and we expect them to speak proper English and not swear when they are in the library.  Basically, my job is to re-train my patrons and model the behavior that I expect of them.  But again, if they choose to continue on their own path, that is more a reflection on them because I can leave work every day knowing that I did all I could to better peoples' lives and one day it will get through.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Liberry Lady and the Case of the Bloody Book

One of the cardinal rules of prison is "If it's wet and it's not yours, don't touch it."  We have mentioned this before in this blog and today was a reminder of why it's true.  Today I was delivering books and a patron handed me a stack of returns.  He strategically handed them to me with the spine facing me so that I couldn't see the pages.  As I was placing them on the book cart, I happened to notice a large, dark stain on one of them.  The conversation went like this:

Me: "What happened to this book?"
Patron: "It was like that when I got it!"
Me: "No.  It wasn't.  We would not allow a book like this to circulate."
Patron: "Well, I didn't do it!"
Me: "Clearly, this is blood on this book."
Patron: "No it's not!"
Me: "Well then what is it?"
Patron: "I don't know."
Me: "Did you loan it to a friend?"
Patron: "No, I had it the whole time."

This back and forth is typical of library patrons in prison when they have damaged books.  Rarely does anyone admit that they damaged the book.  I can count on two fingers the number of times someone has admitted that they damaged a book in the four years I have been in prison.  This patron took it to a new level though because he wheeled his chair closer to me and proceeded to tell me how honest he is, and how last week he admitted that he had six books in his room even though we said he only had two checked out.  (*Note-this is a prime example of offender "honesty": telling you about how they did the right thing [letting us know when they had too many books] when they really did the wrong thing [stole them off the cart when we were busy helping other patrons.])  Then, when I told him that I appreciated his honesty in that situation but this is a completely different situation, he claimed that he shouldn't have to pay full price for a "used" book, and when I told him he was not paying for the book, but to think about it like restitution--if you break a window in prison, you pay to fix the window but you don't get to keep the broken glass.  To which he replied, "Yes you do!"  *facepalm*

I am tempted to take the book to the clinic and see if they can DNA test it, since everyone who comes through prison puts a DNA sample in the bank.  But I know that even if I showed him a report that said "THIS IS YOUR DNA" he would still deny it, because that's one thing to know about this patron group--they will look you in the eye and lie to your face.  If he had just said, "You know, I am a diabetic and sometimes my finger sticks bleed and I don't realize it.  I am really sorry I got blood on this book, what can I do to make it up to the library?"  I would probably have said, "You know, I appreciate your honesty, this time I will give you a warning and please be careful next time."  Honesty goes a long way with me.  I understand accidents happen when you're reading books.  I'm not immune- one time I got tomato from my salad on a book I was reading.  Granted, it was my book and not a library book but still.  When you're in prison, most books are not yours.  But the point is, accidents happen, and when patrons admit their mistakes I am more willing to work with them.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Team Library! We find pills!

One of the perks of being a prison librarian is that you are never bored at work.  And if you find yourself beginning to get bored, administration will shake things up a bit by holding a facility shakedown.  Facility shakedowns are fun!  We get the Emergency Response Team out with their camo and low-lethal weapons and everyone from case managers to kitchen staff to teachers to (you guessed it) librarians gets to go to the housing units and go through everyone's stuff with a fine-tooth comb to look for such fun things as shanks, drugs, sex toys, tattooing equipment and other various nuisance contraband and overdue library books.  (Mainly I am the only one looking for that last thing, but I have a partnership with the Lt. in charge of scheduling those things so next time EVERYONE is going to look for library books that are overdue!  Woohoo the power of prison networking!)

One day during a facility shakedown, I got paired with the Law Librarian to do shakes.  As we donned our gloves and received our shakedown slips, I said "They better watch out!  Team Library is in the house!" and we headed off to our first cell.  We got through the foot lockers and clothing without finding anything and then we moved on to the desk area.  One of the offenders had a bottle of fiber pills that still had the cotton in it, even though the pills were almost expired.  Being the awesome shakers that we are, Team Library used the offender's pen to pull the cotton out of the bottle and what did we find but a bunch of brown fiber pills and 5 white pills.  "One of these things is not like the other!  One of these things just doesn't belong!" I sang from Sesame Street, thereby identifying myself as a member of the Millennial Generation.  That ended our shakedowns for the day because after we finished that cell we were excused to go to Medical to have the pills identified.

Although the pills turned out to be prescription pills that she didn't have a prescription for, rather than oh, ecstasy or something like that, we were still Team Badass of the Day.  We determined that our new motto would be "Team Library!  We find pills!" and from then on it was.  Since that day we have had a few more shakedowns, but Team Library has only found boring things, like nude pictures of offenders that they send to each other (let me tell you how awkward it is to see nude pictures of library regulars...yikes!) and mysterious liquids in bottles that don't belong.  Oh, I guess one time we did find the ingredients for prison hooch--bread, oranges, and sugar.  They keep it under their bed until it ferments and then drink it to get drunk, even though I hear it smells disgusting and tastes even worse.

I can't wait to see what we find at the next facility shakedown!  I'm starting to get bored and caught up with work so I am sure it will be any day now.

Monday, July 15, 2013

And now let me introduce you to Mr. Dr. Street Thug Hustler

Every once in a while, I meet patrons and they are so...interesting...that I just have to shake my head.  One such patron could probably be the topic of an entire blog, but since we only deliver to his unit once a week, I will leave that blog to him about himself when he gets out.

Usually, every time we see this patron he ignores us because he was mad that we couldn't answer his information request for free money for felons.  Now, future prison librarians, this is the #1 urban legend in prison.  For some reason, felons have gotten it in their head that just because they are felons, there is all this free money for them out there when they get out to "help them get back on their feet."  Now, there are many social welfare agencies that help ex-offenders, but they are convinced that they can just write to an organization and get a check, if only we would get them the address.  My thoughts on this are, "I am a law-abiding citizen who pays my taxes, yet there is no free money for me.  Why should you, a convicted felon who can't follow the rules of society, just be handed tons of free money upon release from prison simply because you were in prison?"

But I digress...

So the other day, I guess this patron decided he didn't hate us anymore because he was very chatty about every topic under the sun.  As we were handing out books, he asked, "So. Did you have to go to some sort of liiiiiiiiiiiiieberry school to get this gig?"  "I have a Master's degree," I replied.  "Ha," he retorted, "I gots a degree too!"  "Oh really?" I played along, "What's that?"  "I have a DOCTORATE in STREETOLOGY!"

He then proceeded to give me a 30 minute sociology lesson and breakdown of street life.  I wish I had a recorder so I could transcribe it verbatim because it was HILARIOUS!  Since we are not in the practice of recording our patron's conversations though, all I remember was that where he came from "Pimps wear size 8 dresses and size 6 shoes!" because apparently in his 'hood all pimps are women.  Or maybe cross-dressers.  He also explained the difference between thugs and hustlers (hustlers are still climbing up the gangster social ladder, whereas thugs are near the top) and told me all about his plan to "find a lady who needs to pay off her bills and form a mutually-beneficial partnership with her so they can make tons of money."  (Sounds like prostitution to me I said, oh no, not at all he said.)  Sometimes I like to ask patrons questions about what they're talking about to find out more information, but I think this patron thought my questions meant that I was interested in living this "thug life" but I corrected him and said "Oh no, my interest is purely anthropological."  To which he replied, "Now don't go using all those big words with me!"  To which we handed him a dictionary.

Now, after we left the unit when we completed our deliveries, I thought, oh, I'll go write a Prison Laugh o' the Day about that conversation and be done with it but that was not to be.  The next week, I had to go do deliveries by myself, and when I was there, Mr. Dr. Street Thug Hustler came up and said "My case manager said I need to holler at you, because you gots to give me the governor's application for clemency!  I gots to get out of here so I can go make some more money and drive my Cadillacs!  Do you like Cadillacs?"    Whenever patrons ask me personal questions, I usually answer with "No" to give them the opportunity to drop it before I have to lecture them about appropriate conversations with staff, but he was not so easily dissuaded.  He followed with "Well what kind of cars DO you like?" at which point I said "I do not talk about my personal life at work."  That ended it for the day, but I am interested to see what he comes up with next time.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Batting .1000 in the library

Lest any potential prison librarians be scared off by the crazy stories in this blog, I figured I should take a moment to talk about all the positive things that happen in the prison library.  One of my favorite stories happened a few months ago, and every time I think about it, I am reminded of why I am in this profession.

There is a patron who frequently comes to the library and checks out lots of books every time she's there.  One day she came up to me and said, "GUESS WHAT??"  "What?" I replied.  "When I got here, they tested me at a first grade reading level, and NOW I am at a college reading level!!!"  To have a relatively new patron increase her reading level that much in such a short time is amazing, not to mention heartwarming.  Too often, patrons are just interested in pulling shenanigans in the library, so it is nice to see one who is utilizing her time wisely to better herself while she is incarcerated.  Without all the awesome books we have in the library, she may not have been able to increase her reading level so exponentially.

Frequently, I have days where everything just seems to fall into place.  The patrons are well-behaved, and I am able to meet everyone's information needs quickly and to their satisfaction with resources that are readily available.  I love being able to connect patrons with new authors and my ultimate favorite question I get in the library is "Can you help me find something good to read?"  YES!!!  Then I take them around the shelves and pull books off and they head to the table with an armful of books and an exclamation of "Aw man, why can I only have five, there's so many good ones here!"

Not all days are this good, but the good days happen frequently enough to keep me coming back, and to mitigate the bad days when they happen.  So never fear, prison-librarians-to-be, because the good days are out there and once you start to get into the swing of things they will out-number the bad days.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Getting freaky in the stacks

Greetings potential prison librarians!  I was re-reading some of my blog posts, and I have an update to the Hey Stop Touching Her post.  Remember when I said I had never witnessed anyone getting freaky in the stacks?  Well, don't worry, I still haven't actually burned my retinas off with that yet, but there was a dildo found in the library.  YIKES!

For the first three and three quarters years that I worked in prison, I always heard, "Oh yeah, they always have sex in the library."  I would think, "Not in MY library!"  Well, little did I know...  One evening there were two patrons in the library and I thought, "Hmm, those two are looking a little chummy!" but then I got distracted helping other patrons with their information requests and I wasn't able to keep as close an eye on them as possible.

Fast forward to the next day, and I walked into prison and was greeted by the lobby officer saying, "Guess what WE found in the library this morning?"  Naturally, a shank was my first thought, but she said "A DILDO!"  I was grossed out and confused, because they were super sneaky, I had no idea that was going on.  I went and checked the cameras and couldn't see anything, and at that point I hadn't put two and two together to know whose it was.  But, later that day, we had our library drop-in and those same two who were so friendly the night before came in together but with library notices that were addressed to them in different pods of their unit.  As soon as I saw that, it immediately clicked an I knew who the culprits were.

After writing up the offenders and sending them back to their unit separately, I was updating the officers on the status of the situation and I asked how do they even make a prison dildo anyway.

Officer #1: "Well, this one was made out of paper mache newspaper, broken hangers, and saran wrap."
Me: "Well, they are nothing if not creative here!"
Officer #2: "You know, if they were better at paper mache, they wouldn't have needed the hangers!"

Sunday, July 7, 2013

On the issue of Constitutional rights in prison

The other day a patron came up to me in the library and asked if I could help her find a copy of the constitution.  Since our most accessible copy is in the volume of the encyclopedia that is currently under review, I preformed a reference interview on her to see if there was another way I could meet her information need while she was in the library.

Me: "So, what is it about the Constitution that you are interested in?"
Patron: "I wanna know what my RIGHTS are!"
Me: "Ok, any rights in particular?"
Patron: "No, I want to know ALL of them!"
Me: *because this is usually the only thing that makes them interested in the Constitution* "Hmm, is it because you think those rights are being violated?"
Patron: "Yup!"
Me: "By someone in here?"
Patron: "Yup!"
Me: "A staff member, or a fellow offender?"
Patron: "Everyone!!!"

I ended up directing her to the computer where we keep all the prison rules and showing her the index so she could look up the rules that would apply to her specific situation, and then when I followed up with her later that hour I asked her if she found everything she was looking for, to which she replied, "Yeah I did, and then some, thank you so much!"

Now, I love helping people find information, and I know that I banked some professional collateral with this patron because I didn't just tell her to suck it up with the alleged poor treatment because she's in prison like many people do.  BUT, it is hard for me sometimes because what I really want to do is lecture her on a.) why are you waiting until now to learn what your rights are and b.) why don't we have a talk about what some of your RESPONSIBILITIES are before we get into how everybody done you wrong.

The sense of entitlement in prison is astronomical.  Everybody cries foul when they feel like their rights are being violated, or like they are not being treated fairly, but given the opportunity they will walk all over someone else's rights if they think it would benefit them.  So, potential prison librarian, keep that in mind when you are working with your patron population on the inside.  Treat everyone with respect and sometimes it will be returned and bank your professional collateral so if you ever need it, you will have patrons standing guard at the library door to instruct the riot to burn elsewhere.  But don't ever think that if your back is turned, they won't take that opportunity to steal the dream book off the reference shelf and leave it in the offender bathroom.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Censorship Ridiculousness

And now, for some real life examples of censorship issues I have faced in prison:

1. The C volume of the encyclopedia.  This is due to the article about creating codes that a staff member wanted removed because "They could use it to create more sophisticated codes!"  Here's the thing about that--we don't censor something based on what someone might do with it.  If they are creative enough to create their own little gangster code, they are going to do it anyway, and if they are dumb enough to use the code in the encyclopedia, then you already have that code.  This is actually still an ongoing thing, so we do not have the C volume back on the shelves yet, but I can not see how any reasonable person would make us take it off the shelves permanently.  However, I should not say anything because you never know.

2. True crime books about patrons that live in the facility.  Step right up folks, and read about what your cellie did!  Seriously though, we have had two patrons request that "their" book not be in the facility.  One is gone now, and after she left we decided that her book did not violate the rules, and the other one is still there.  After we had a discussion with the second patron about her concerns, she came to the conclusion that there was no reason for it not to be included.  That's one thing about our book challenges, a lot of times, people just want to be heard and if you address their concerns and explain why the book is going to remain, they will be mollified and it will not be an issue anymore.  Of course, everyone else will want to read it, because they are all nosy but hey, if you don't want a true crime book written about your crime-DON'T DO IT.

3. A book with a recipe for dandelion wine and beer.  This one is pretty self-explanatory though, because in the rules it states that they can not have detailed instructions for making intoxicants.  Whether or not they have the high capacity boiler and hydrothermometer and gasketometer is irrelevant, and thus the recipe must not be allowed in.

4.  Speaking of recipes, I held a recipe contest for patrons with the only requirement being that they use stuff that they can buy on canteen. (i.e. no "2 eggs, stolen from kitchen.")  My first and second level bosses thought it was a great idea, but the next level boss nixed it saying it would lead to more bartering.  Again, censorship based on what people might do.  So the lesson learned from that was take the idea further up the chain of command or risk disappointment when attempting something of this magnitude.

5.  A book on ninja mind control was questioned, because it might lead to offenders taking over the minds of the officers.  Seriously.  This reminds me of the Robert Greene books (which, unfortunately, are banned in many DOCs, but not ours thankfully.)  Upper administration is concerned that he teaches offenders how to manipulate people, which is true, but even Greene says all staff have to do is read the books too and they will know all the tricks.  But wait...that would make sense and it's just easier to ban them.

My favorite comparison that I love to tell people who want to ban something is this:
"Banning that book would be like banning a book on astral projection because it is escape paraphernalia!"

Friday, July 5, 2013

OMG NEW BOOKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In the world of Prison, everything is routine.  Wake up at the same time every day.  Eat chow at the same time every day.  Count time, four times a day.  Movement is at the same time every day.*  Visit the library, sleep, repeat.  This is why when  we get new books, you would think it is a milestone birthday, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Purim, 4th of July, Boxing Day AND Canada Day rolled into one.  Our patrons are so excited and new books rarely last on the shelves more than 30 seconds after I take them to the shelving cart.  Envision, if you will, piranhas eating a something, and you will see what happens every time I put out new books.

Now, selecting materials for the library is not as easy as you might think.  We have extremely limited budgets as well as selection criteria that say what we can and can't order.  For example-we can't have items that are PRIMARILY DEVOTED TO being sexually explicit (penetration with animate or inanimate objects, sadism, masochism, pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia, etc.) but they are allowed to have sex in them, as long as there is a story line to tie the sex together.  More examples-Laurell K. Hamilton-allowed in.  50 Shades of Grey-not allowed in.  Although somehow, many copies snuck through the mail room before it was discovered what that book really was because the mail room just looks for pictures and ignores words.  So when we were doing reader's advisory practice with the clerks and one said she was reading 50 Shades, I just said hmmmmmmmmmm because hey, they didn't get it from me.

On a tangent, this in an interesting conundrum of library privacy in a prison.  In a public library, a patron reads 50 Shades of Grey, no big deal.  In a prison, it is a big deal since it violates the rules.  So here's how I handled it-I am going to respect her right to library privacy and patron confidentiality, but if I am shaking down her room and I find the book, I will take it.  This is a good example of the kinds of moral questions you will face as a prison librarian.  If you are hard-core radical militant librarian-type who can not bear to censor books for any reason, even the "safety and security of the facility" then you may want to consider other types of librarianship.  OR, come on into prison and fight the good fight every day, just be prepared to have lots of enemies.  Unless you can do it in a nice way, which is a topic for a future blog.

So, back to new books.  One of the most rewarding parts of my job (and #2 favorite librarian duty) is collection development.  (My #1 favorite librarian job is reader's advisory.)  It is so awesome to hear multiple patrons exclaim how happy they are over the new books we got.  (I do not take their comments personally though because "OH MS.__ YOU ARE THE BEST LIBRARIAN EVER!!!" is probably someone trying to groom you, rather than a heartfelt expression of joy over the new books.)  But, when they're reading they're not rioting so I do my darndest to use my limited resources to get them stuff that will keep them busy and out of housing staff's hair.

*Except lately, it seems like it's always 5-15 minutes late, which is very aggravating to someone on as tight of a schedule as we are.  It's your ONE JOB to call movement on the hour every hour.  How hard is it?  Except one day I did see this individual sleeping in the Mail Room so maybe that explains it...

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Weeding, canine style

As any librarian knows, weeding the library collection, or pulling books off the shelves that are nasty, outdated, missing pages, etc. is something that every library must do to offer patrons the best information possible.  Here at my library, we know it's something that needs to be done but we don't always have time to do it.  Luckily, we have the canine program...

One day a handler came to the library with a new dog she was training.  They were over in the 600's (we still use Dewey) and I wasn't really paying attention until I heard "AUUUUGHT!!!!  NO!  BAD!"  I looked over and the trainer was frantically trying to clean something up with a towel.  I went over to investigate and it turned out, her dog had peed all over an entire row of books on the bottom shelf.  Because I have seen it all and nothing fazes me anymore, I asked the trainer if she needed to take the dog outside, and as she was exiting I called the clerks over, gave them gloves and had them bag up the pee books.

After we cleaned the shelves and carpet as best we could, I assessed the damages.  20 books had been affected, but miraculously, all but one should have been weeded anyway because they were fad diet books from the late 1990's.

The next time I saw that patron she said "I am so sorry about my dog, I am never bringing another dog to the library again."  "No worries at all," I told her, "because your dog just completed a weeding project for us, and he's hired!"

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Escaped Convict Circle of Life

This post was inspired by one of my old library clerks.  She was working there when I first came to prison, and she was a great clerk.  She knew the job really well and was very polite and got along with everyone.  One day, she made parole and we said goodbye and I told her, "I hope to never see you again soon!" and she was off on her merry way.

Well, fast forward to this year's Ride the Rockies which went through a town known for its prisons.  Naturally, being a prison librarian I made HB and my other friend go with me to the Prison Museum where they had an exhibit dedicated to escaped convicts.  Upon looking at the Wall o' Shame, I noticed one face that looked very familiar.  "Hey!  I know this one!  She was one of my clerks!" I said, to the amusement and amazement of my travel companions.

In this small world of ours, wouldn't you know that the day I got back, I hear from one of my minions that they tried to hire a new clerk who got picked up for a different job instead.  When I asked what was her name, IT WAS THE SAME CLERK, trying to get her old job back.  

Some call it recidivism.  I call it just being too darn awesome at my job that they can't stay away.