Sunday, June 29, 2014

The mean ones are my favorites!

Greetings and happy Sunday future prison librarians! This weekend I met a new friend while at outdoor yoga. We were chatting before the class started and it came up that I am a prison librarian and it turns out that during her attorney career she did criminal defense for a year so she is familiar with the types of people who are my patrons: "You either get the really nice and grateful ones or you get the super mean ones."
It is true, and there are an inordinate number of mean ones at my library. But early on in my career I decided that those would be my projects, and my goal was to, if not make them into nice ones, at least make them into tolerable ones so I could deal with them until they parolled or transferred to another facility. Plus, anyone can be nice to the nice ones and I like a good challenge.
My plan began very simply by making sure to smile, make eye contact and say hello to every person I saw in the library and out. Offender or not, most people have had it ingrained into them that the socially appropriate response when someone says hello is to say hello back. By quietly and unforcefully making it apparent that I am a pleasant person, I slowly began to realize my goal of making life in the library a lot easier on myself.
Another tactic I use is to make sure to walk around and make sure everyone is finding everything ok. Even if I had previously had an altercation with an offender, I made a special effort to talk to them in a non-threatening, I'm-here-to-help-you-with-your-information-needs way so that they would know that I didn't hold a grudge against them just because they were grumpy with me one time. This also helps model the behavior that I want to see from them which is a win-win. I believe the Dalai Lama said,  "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." Everyone has a bad day. When you work in prison, you absolutely can not go around burning bridges with everyone who annoys you. If you want to build professional collateral, show that you are the mature one who is willing to enforce good behavior and then move on once the bad behavior has stopped.
Another tool in my tool kit is a sense of humor. I think people respond much better to humor and when you can make them laugh they are more likely to pay attention to you. Now, not every situation is best handled this way (for example, seeing someone getting stabbed in the library would be a good example of where it would be better to not use humor) but if a patron is mad that they can't check out a book they found on the shelf because it's on hold for someone else, that would be a good way to diffuse it and move the conversation to something more positive.
I am pleased to report that some of my most annoying patrons when I first got there have become much more manageable and some even say "HI MS. LIBERRY LADY!" when they see me across the yard. When I tell them no yelling across the yard, they apologize and whisper it instead. It is very important to build good rapport with all patrons because you never know when the proverbial poop will hit the proverbial fan and you have to withdraw some of your professional collateral to save your life.
Until next time!

Friday, June 27, 2014

I don't need to have kids- I have 965 wayward daughters!

Greetings, future prison librarians! Today was a challenging day in prison because I felt more like a mom dealing with screaming rowdy kids than a librarian. This is definitely a good example of the need for gender-informed practices when dealing with offenders because library patrons in a male facility are rarely as high maintenance as the patrons in a female facility.
Thankfully, I have a great mom who used many exceptional child-rearing techniques on me that I can turn around and use on my library patrons. My favorite quote is "Bummer. What are you going to do about that?" because too often staff want to tell offenders the best way to handle things and fix their problems for them rather than letting people problem-solve for themselves. I get that, though. Clearly, we think, we are much more capable of making better decisions because we are in prison by choice rather than because we are bad. But, you really aren't doing anybody any favors if you constantly solve their problems for them.
Motivational interviewing is a good technique for helping people figure out solutions on their own that we are going to be using more and more in prison. (Interview tip: if you know what this means and can use it in your answer intelligently- interview bonus points!)
Sometimes in prison you have to act like a parent with people who are old enough to be your parents or even grand parents. I always find this a bit awkward and amusing at the same time, but if you remember that you are in the position of authority and are here to guide them to better life decision then age doesn't matter.
Being a good prison librarian and a good parent have a lot of the same requirements. You must be willing to set ground rules and consistently enforce them. You must have a sense of humor but don't ever laugh when your "kid" drops the F-bomb, even if they use it in the appropriate context because then they will do it all the time. You must be skilled at negotiating sibling rivalry. "I'm sure you two can work it out." and "I only want to hear about it if there's blood." are two good ones from my childhood haha. You must be good at creative problem solving because the minute you think you have it figured out, your "kids" will throw a curve ball. Also you want to raise your "kids" with loving kindness. This doesn't mean that you let them get away with everything, but rather that you are a benevolent leader who knows when to lay down the law yet is also kind because you never know what someone is dealing with on the inside.
Until next time!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Prison Library--What Does it REALLY Look Like?

Greetings future prison librarians!  At the request of a loyal follower, this blog will be about what it actually looks like inside a prison library, at least, in my experience....

When I was hired as a prison librarian, it was the first job where I was employed for six weeks before I even saw what the library looked like.  My interview was conducted in the admin area, and then I was sent right to basic training, which was not held in the library.  Finally, I got to see the library on the "job shadow" day of basic training.  Unfortunately, my supervisor was on her weekend that day, so I sat in the library doing my best Billy Idol impression and singing "Shadow-ing my-sel-elf!" to the tune of "Dancing with Myself."  It was good times.  But, I digress.

When I finally did get to see the library, I was pretty impressed.  We have a fairly large space with a huge row of south-facing windows that let in a lot of natural light.  That probably explains why our multitude of plants are thriving.  That, and the fact that I am not responsible for their care and maintenance, because if it were up to me they would probably be dead since I am not that good at remembering to feed things that can't ask for it.  I guess doubly lucky for the plants, I have one library clerk who says she can hear them screaming when they are thirsty.  She is the best plant care-taker haha.  Also an interesting note-the plants that live in the 700 and 800 sections are thriving due to their proximity to the art and poetry books.  Conversely, the plants that live by the 300 section are rather thin and scraggly comparatively.  I guess they don't like true crime books.

In our library, we have fiction on one side, a huge horseshoe-shaped circulation desk in the middle and the non-fiction on the other side.  The back wall has our Reference section, as well as phone books, newspapers, and back issues of magazines.  We rely pretty heavily on print reference material and even though I have weeded a lot of it, we still have two full shelves of reference books.

While we do not have much wall space thanks to book shelves and windows, what wall space we do have is filled with offender art and various reading-related posters I have picked up for free at conferences.  My absolute favorite one is a poster with a smiling red fish on a black background that says "Reading Makes Me Happy."  On our magazine spinner one of the clerks made reproductions of the librarians out of construction paper by a sign that says "Ninja Librarians count pages.  Did you??" to help remind patrons to check all pages of magazines to avoid being charged for damages.  This sign cracks me up because the clerks decided that my favorite color is pink (another incorrect guess in the long line of things they try to figure out about me) but I let it go, so now I am a blond-ponytailed pink and black ninja.  Hey, whatever works to make our patrons remember to check for damage.

In our library we also have some audiovisual materials and we have two DVD players and TVs and four CD players for our patrons' use.  We have two stand-alone computers (not hooked up to the internet) so patrons can read prison rules and use CD-ROMs that come with library materials.  Music is hugely popular in our library and it is rare that all the CD players are not being used during a library hour.  We also have two OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogs for those of you who may not be familiar with the lingo) that allow patrons to search our catalog and place books on hold.  Finally, we have three clerk computers at the circulation desk, and sometimes we have patrons hop on the south one, not realizing that it is not for patron use.

There are approximately 8 stand-alone tables with four chairs each for patrons to use while they are there.  I have seen some prison libraries that have couches, but in a women's facility that would promote too much canoodling.  Our library shelves are approximately 1/2-3/4 full on any given day because we don't have enough books for our population size and we did a huge weed and have not yet been able to catalog all the backlog of new books due to being short-staffed.  Some other prison libraries I have seen have shelves that are overflowing.  It just all depends on the library staff and how much time and desire they have to weed their collection.  Mostly time. :-)

Now, in my opinion, I have one of the nicest prison libraries I have ever seen.  We are on the second floor of the programs building so we have a great view.  Not all prison libraries are like this, and if at all possible you should see if you can see the library prior to accepting the position.  Some of the other prison and jail libraries I have seen are in the basement with no windows, in inside areas with no outside view windows, or are so tiny that you can't move around without bumping into an offender which is problematic when there is a no-touching rule in prison.  Most of the libraries in my state are very nice, and the library staff do an awesome job making them warm and inviting spaces in a cold and oftentimes scary place.

I am interested in descriptions of prison libraries in other states, and I am sure the other readers would be interested in hearing them as well.  If you would like to describe your library for our readers, please feel free!  Until next time!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Things that sound completely normal in prison but make everyone else think "WHAT?!?!"

Greetings, future prison librarians!  Many professions have jargon that only people "in the know" can understand.  Prison is no different, however, what makes complete sense to us oftentimes has outsiders scratching their heads and thinking, "Did they just say what I THOUGHT they said???"

Since the radio is our main mode of communication in prison, that is usually where you will hear these things.  Since it is frowned upon to use unnecessary words on the radio, I will provide the examples, as well as a translation so that when you hear it, you will not have to say "10-9?"  (Note: 10-9 means "Please repeat, I did not hear and/or understand what you just said."  Often asked with the inflection going up at the end of the nine to denote a question.)

Example 1:
"Unit 6, push your offenders down the stairs."
In our facility, Unit 6 is an upstairs unit, so to get the offenders out into the yard they need to go down the stairs.  There is no literal pushing here, but you do encourage them to go out the door, so I think that is where that phrase came from.

Example 2:
"Unit 2, we need your body to feed."
No, this is not a reference to cannibalism, but merely a request to have another officer posted in the dining hall (sometimes referred to as the chow hall in the pre-warm and fuzzy DOC) to monitor the meal service to discourage behavior like stabbing your tablemate with a spork-shank and also to assist in life-saving maneuvers like the Heimlich.

Example 3:
"I need someone to report to the clinic to sit on this offender."  Also sometimes heard as "I was on hospital duty sitting on two offenders."
Basically in this case "sitting on" an offender is a fancy way of saying you are babysitting people because you are just supposed to watch them to make sure they don't go anywhere or do anything stupid.  The visual image always makes me chuckle though every time I hear it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

It's all about your perspective...

Lately we have been having a ridiculous amount of trouble getting the local paper delivered to work.  Apparently the delivery person decided that he was not a good fit for the position so we have been having an assortment of substitutes, who sometimes bring the paper and sometimes not.

The other day I walked into work expecting no papers again, and the lobby officer asked me "Would you like the good news?" in a somber tone that, to me, immediately meant any good news would be followed by some crushing bad news.  "Sure," I replied skeptically. 

"The newspapers arrived at 6:29 this morning."  
"WHAT?!?!  That's great news!!!  What's the bad news?"
"There is no bad news," he said, "that's why I said 'Do you want the good news?'"

This exchange made me smile, because clearly you can never assume with some people.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On Common Courtesy

I have a new minion, whom I love.  She is actually an intern.  I shall call her Min-tern. Min-tern has been working with me for a little over a week now and she is fitting into prison life perfectly.  Today as we were walking out, she to leave, me to drop off mail we were saying goodbye to each other and it went something like this:

Me: "Have a lovely afternoon!"
Min-tern: "Thank you and I hope you do as well!"
Me: "Thank you, I am sure I will!"
Min-tern: "I love that we are so polite!"
Me: "Our mothers raised us right!"

Now, in addition to having the Best Moms, the politeness of this exchange could also be due to the fact that Min-tern and I were both in the Bartending Brotherhood, where one uses courtesy to both build rapport with customers and ensure good tips.  Generally, I try and be courteous to everyone I encounter in prison because that is just good practice for life, but unfortunately, not everyone shares the same view point.

A little later in the afternoon, I was calling the units to notify them of library closures this evening and normally my conversations go like this:

Me: "Hello!  It's me in the library!"
Unit Staff: "Hello Me in the Library!  How are you today?"
Me: "I am lovely, and yourself?"
Unit Staff: "Fine, thank you.  How may I help you today?"
I can then impart my message, ask my question, or take care of any business I need to and everyone is happy.  However, future prison librarians, not everyone has such great phone etiquette unfortunately.  Today my conversation went more like this:

Me: "Hello!  It's me in the library!"
Unit Staff: ".... AND?"
Me: "Uh, um, I was just calling to let you know the library is closed tonight."
Unit Staff: "K." *CLICK*

Now, maybe they were crazy busy in the unit and didn't have time for niceties.  I try and give people the benefit of the doubt because you never know what battles people are fighting, sometimes literally.  It could also be that with the para-military mentality in prison, people don't believe in wasting words.  Just give them the message and let them get on with their mission.  I don't know.  They could also just be jerks haha.  But the takeaway lesson today my future prison librarians, is that even if people don't return it (and frequently they won't) common courtesy goes a long way towards building good rapport with your fellow human beings, especially in prison.  Until next time!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

In prison, watch out for helicopters

Three Canadian Prisoners Escaped Saturday When A Helicopter Swooped Down And Picked Them Up
Good evening, future prison librarians! Just perusing Buzz Feed before bed and I saw this interesting piece out of Canada, eh.  One thing to know, when you are working in prison and you see a helicopter hovering dangerously close to the yard, SOUND THE ALARM like Nicki Minaj.  Helicopters and prison never end well for the prison officials because then we have to explain how we let some people escape and that's always awkward.
This article says it has happened twice in Canada, eh now but I know for sure it has also happened in other countries, like America.  Our emergency response plan also has a section on what to do if you see offenders escaping via this route.  However, personally the only attempted escape I have ever seen is someone trying to climb the trash gate.  At first glance, this may have seemed like a good idea, but I am sure upon seeing the not one, but two razor wire fences on the other side (that everyone knows about) the offender realized they wouldn't get too far and gave up. Congratulations, now not only do you look not that bright but you now have 2 more years added to your sentence.
Anyway, hopefully you never have to deal with this situation but just be careful and always watch the skies.  Until next time!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Judging a Book by it's Cover, or, Reader's Advisory!

Reader's Advisory is my Number One Favorite Library Job.  I love, Love, LOVE getting paid to tell people what to read.  Now, to be a good reader's advisor, you do not have to read all the things.  On the contrary, I read very few things if it is not smut that I am "checking for compatibility with selection criteria."  But, everyone always skips the other librarians and comes to me when they need help finding urban fiction because "I am the only one who knows where to find them."  Now, this is not true.  Both of my minions are very capable librarians completely able to show patrons how to search for "urban fiction" on the OPAC and see what's available for hold and what's on the shelf.  But I think they kind of view me as magic when I can walk them around the shelves and pull off 10 different books that "If you like Triple Crown, you might like this one too."

Finding urban fiction on the shelf is actually very easy, and I mean this with the utmost professionalism and not-racism, but to find urban fiction books, look for the ones with African American people on the cover.  This was the first genre I learned in prison, because it is the most-often requested, and that was literally how I found the books for the first few months I worked there.

Now I have gotten more savvy, and I also use it as an opportunity to introduce people to the literary classics of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as more modern works like The Help.  I also like to steer them towards non-fiction like Maya Angelou and the Autobiography of Malcolm X, as well as the slave narratives.  Prison Librarian: subversively opening minds since 2009.  Muahahahahahahahahahahaha!

I think I like reader's advisory so much too because there's no pressure.  We are not at one of the giant book stores where people most likely are not going to buy all 10 books you recommend.  I love to go around and hand people 6-7 choices and say "Now, whichever ones you don't want please put on that cart and we will put away for you, and no hard feelings."  My favorite is when they reply "Aw man!  But they ALL LOOK SO GOOD!"  I know they do.  It's because reading is awesome.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

You Don't Know Me! I Do What I Want!*

Greetings, dear readers!  I feel like I have been saying this at work a lot lately, so I am going to explain how I got to this point of doing what I want.

*To get to the point of doing whatever you want in prison, you need to build the professional collateral with your fellow staff and most importantly your chain of command, as well as anyone and everyone who could ever possibly be in your chain of command.  Which could literally be everyone.

To build professional collateral, consider following the following steps:

1. Be nice to people.  Yes, a lot of people won't be nice to you because they think you are a chocolate heart who is just there to give offenders stuff they shouldn't have.  Don't let the haters spew their haterade all over your game.  Heap coals of fire upon their heads by being so nice, and so helpful, and so polite that they can not say a negative word against you.

2. Always be willing to jump in and get dirty to help out where needed.  Pair up with officers or other blue staff so they can see how awesome you are.  You get to learn a new job and help with facility security and BONUS also do some library outreach!

3. Pick your battles.  Learn what's important to your chain of command, and be mindful of that when you are making decisions.  Does your major always want to know what other facilities are doing certain things when you just want to be a trailblazer and who cares who else does it already?  Think about how important it really is, do some research and present your plan in terms they can understand.  Are you the only facility to do something, AND it is a drastic change from the status quo?  Might be an issue to consider picking your battle and putting it on the back burner until there is someone more amenable in your chain of command.

4. Always give 100%.  If your colleagues see your positive attitude, willingness to help, ability to follow policy, you showing up to work every day, AND on time, you will look really good in an environment where "banging off" is a common occurrence to just get an extra day off and use sick time rather than vacation time.
5. Be personable.  This is different from being nice, in that you can be nice, but people still might not take notice if you are not personable as well.  This includes being engaging, making people laugh, caring about what people are saying to you, and making an impression on everyone you interact with.  I think a lot of times introverts are drawn to librarianship, and being an introvert is not a bad thing, by any means.  But in prison, you are always on stage, and if being in front of people and interacting with people makes you uncomfortable or awkward, maybe you would want to consider a cataloging or IT position.  Being personable also means talking to people with nice tones, and not talking down to them or yelling at them about things.  I like to think of everyone as my customer at my bar.  Even though they don't pay me with tips anymore, I still treat them like they do and everyone is happy.  Snotty bartenders = no tips.  Snotty prison librarians = probably not many people would lift a finger if you were being assaulted in the library.

6. Give it time.  You can't just come waltzing in and expect everyone to know how awesome you are just because you are the librarian.  Getting to the point of doing what you want takes time, I think I put in about 4 years of time before I really became able to do what I wanted more often than not.

7. Have humility.  Sometimes, being able to do whatever you want goes to your head and you might do some things that don't work out as planned.  Be willing to take responsibility for your actions, and apologize if necessary.  Use everything as a learning experience and possibly your next time of doing what you want will work out better.

8. Have a sense of humor.  People like to hang around with people who make them laugh.  I started out saying "I do what I want!" as a joke a little bit before I actually started doing what I wanted to get people used to the idea.  I said "I do what I want!" and then did what they wanted.  Maybe a little tricky... I just like to look at it as my personality.  I like to exaggerate to make a point.  People now understand and appreciate that because I make it funny.  Maybe it's all just a part of my evil plan to take over the world.  Who knows. :-)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Success Through Attrition

I contribute my success in prison to two things:
1. Being awesome
2. Being in the right place at the right time

When I moved back to the great state I call home, I was working as a bartender again and my BFF said "Hey, you should TOTALLY apply for this job!  I see it open ALL THE TIME!"  "Ok," I thought, "I will apply to feel like I am doing something to further my librarian career because I will NEVER get it."  Well little did I know, I was hired as one of two Library Staff because the library recently had a retirement, a promotion, and a moving-to-another-state quitting.  I was the low man on the totem pole throughout basic training but I didn't care because I was so excited to have a library job.  Who cared that my days off were Wed/Thurs, I was WORKING IN MY FIELD.

Fast forward through BT and arrive at Day 3 on the job.  My colleague decided she was actually not a good fit for prison so all of a sudden I was the Number 1 Minion.  My days off were still Wed/Thurs, but now as soon as the next person got hired I would have seniority.  It was going to be great!  Until it took a year to hire someone.  BUT, that actually worked out well in the end because I learned to run EVERYTHING in the library and to do it short-staffed, which unfortunately is an all too common scenario in prison libraries because the bureaucracy makes it so hard to hire people.

The next minion hired was, alas, also not a good fit.  She lasted a couple months.  There we were, back to square one, me still with Wed/Thur off.  Finally, another year after THAT, we hired Minion Number 2, who, thankfully is still employed with us and is an awesome minion.  (Note to self-have a blog called Tips for Being a Good Minion...)  But, as luck would have it, right around the time we hired Minion Number 2 (who has since promoted to Minion Number 1) our Greatest Consultant Boss decided to pursue a career in a different field, which required her to step down as the Greatest Consultant Boss.  While we mourned her passing out of the library field, it actually opened up a golden opportunity for my boss to promote.  She got the position and suddenly, there was a promotion available for me!  (Note-I had to fight TOOTH AND NAIL to get this position.  I had to just say, look, let me take the test.  If I don't pass, I will let it go.  And guess who was the NUMBER ONE SCORE......... ME!  But, all's well that ends well.  Happy two year boss anniversary to me.  Ha!)

So here we are, I have now been the boss for two years, thanks to the perfectly-timed retirements and promotions.  I also just had my 5 year anniversary in prison, which means I am now vested in my retirement (yay) and earning 10 hours of vacation a month (SUPER HAPPY YAY!) which makes it a little harder to leave, because starting over anywhere would cause me to lose those hard-earned benefits.  I think that's how they get you...

So, future prison librarians, keep this in mind: it's a little bit what you know, a lot who you know, and the majority being in the right place at the right time and having put in enough blood, sweat and tears (but not tears in front of the offenders, wait until you get to the lobby to cry) to show people that you are the best and most awesome choice for the promotion.  Until next time!