Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian – Avi Steinberg (2010)

Another fun non-fiction read (seem to be on an NF kick right now)… This one recounts the “adventures of an accidental prison librarian” (cue: subtitle) and is the true story of how a mid-twenties recent college grad ended up in South Bay Prison in Boston as a librarian and as a creative writing teacher.  Steinberg is a former Orthodox Jew and had studied the Torah very seriously during his teens. It was only recently that he had dropped out yeshiva (sort of Rabbi University, I think), and saw this opportunity. He had been writing obituaries for a Boston newspaper and was ready for something different. Despite his complete lack of experience, his willingness and openness helped to get him the job.

Steinberg is a good writer and this book is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on several rather serious issues: the role of prisons in the US, the role of libraries in prisons, the ongoing tension between the correction officers and the staff (he was staff), and then the ongoing tensions between the inmates and the professional staff. It was a lot more than just about a library, and so this was an added bonus.

Initially, I was not that looking forward to the book as I thought it was going to be all Philip Roth-y, but Steinberg is funny and self-deprecating plus he worked an interesting job which gave him lots to say and think about. For example, during his tenure as prison librarian, he works quite closely with some of the prisoners and struggles to maintain the boundaries with them despite counting some of them as friends. However, as he mentions, it’s very difficult to be kind in prison, and he has to learn the hard way about some of his inmate workers despite how charming they could be. (Some were con men, after all.)

So – through the course of the book, you meet up with CC Too Sweet, a pimp who is working hard to write his autobiography and needs Steinberg’s editing help and support; Jessica, a mother who is in the same prison as her abandoned son and who she has not met for years but can watch in the exercise yard. And Chudbury, the “former” gangster who wants to have his own Urban Cooking show…

Trust is in short supply and Steinberg wants to believe the best about these guys, that they can change and that they are sincere about it, but it’s difficult to know for certain. It’s not only the inmates that he has to look out for – there are territorial scuffles with the corrections officers and always the overarching worry of an inmate having a beef with him over something minor and accusing him of breaking a rule (such as giving him contraband or much worse). It’s a wild animal world to deal with, and Steinberg has arrived from an Ivy League background little prepared for this very Dog-Eat-Dog behavior.

Even such a simple thing as using names was fraught with difficulties. Staff were not to use the street names of the inmates (even though that was what everyone called them) – only their “gov names” – and to do so would blur the boundaries too much. Prison is a free market for nearly anything, and the prison library is the only place where there is a free exchange of goods (books). However, even then the inmates could turn it into a commodity by checking out a popular book and then auctioning reading time off to the other inmates who were also wanting to read the book. It was never ending.

The job was also hard for Steinberg – he would meet released inmates out in the streets when he was not at work – how to handle that? He got mugged by a former inmate, and was asked for a cup of coffee by a non-reformed pimp and his girl.,. There is no way to stay neutral on some of these issues and so Steinberg found the work to be hard and never-ending.

However, he also taught some creative writing classes which, although not a smashing success were not too bad, and enabled him to get to know some of the inmates in a different manner. But again, the boundaries were blurry and difficult sometimes.

This was a much much better book than I had anticipated – and I was impressed with the depth of thought that this young author presented in his writing. There was a little too much self-analyzing in it at times, and rather a stretch to link his struggles of understanding his difficult grandma with the behavior of one of the inmates, but overall this was a provocative and very interesting about crime, prison and the role of society.

Good one.

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