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"Norfolk Prison Colony's library was one of its outstanding features. A millionaire named Parkhurst had willed his library there; he had probably been interested in the rehabilitation program. History and religions were his special interests. Thousands of his books were on the shelves, and in the back were boxes and crates full, for which there wasn't space on the shelves. At Norfolk, we could actually go into the library, with permission -- walk up and down the shelves, pick books. There were hundreds of old volumes, some of them probably quite rare. I read aimlessly, until I learned to read selectively, with a purpose." -- The Autobiography of Malcolm X, chapter 10, "Satan"

"As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was a heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, an inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books.... No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand." -- The Autobiography of Malcolm X, chapter 11, "Saved "

I could say wonderful things about Malcolm X, and they would be true. I could say terrible things about Malcolm X, and they would be true, too. Malcolm X could probably say some pretty terrible things about me (I'm white, Jewish, and female, to begin with). But it would be difficult to deny that he had powerful and positive effects on the course of American history.

It was a heady feeling this afternoon to stand in the unexpectedly lovely prison library where Malcolm X began the process of educating himself from thug to political leader. At their best, this is the promise of prison libraries. I don't agree with everything he taught and advocated (see above, Re: white, Jewish, female). But at the Norfolk prison library, a man who preyed on others and was the victim of a system he didn't understand learned to think of others and manipulate the system for empowerment. Because of what he learned in the library and classrooms of Norfolk (and because of what he did with Elijah Muhammad's faith), Malcolm X not only replaced a life of crime with a life of political action, but encouraged thousands of others to do the same.

This isn't a post about Malcolm X. This is a post about prison libraries.

William Mongelli, the librarian, showed us around, along with an extremely friendly and informative officer whose name I've forgotten. We saw the library in the segregation unit first. This is strictly a law library, and is in the process of being replaced with computer access (West software on disk, not Internet, for obvious reasons) because the inmates in the segregation unit are likely to hide contraband in the cracks of bookshelves, in the pages of books, and in books' spines. Even inmates in segregation have the right under federal and state law to have access to the courts, a right which is guaranteed through law library access. A couple of the correctional officers complained that the inmates primarily used this access to file frivolous lawsuits. [1] I have no problem with the use of the law library for frivolous lawsuits, not least because for every hundred frivolous lawsuits the state helps fund, even one legitimate one makes it worthwhile that the inmates are guaranteed the access. I was extremely impressed by the correctional officers' and librarian's descriptions of the inmates' law library usage. It seems that many of the inmates can find their ways around law libraries better than most of the library students. The ability to read and cite case law is not a trivial one, and one of the correctional officers told us of an inmate who, upon release, was hired by his lawyer because of the skills he had gained in prepping for his own defense.

The general prison library isn't restricted to law materials. There's a general fiction section, which the librarian explains he doesn't much thought into developing, instead just following the guidelines of the SEMLS library network. [2] It's not bad -- I've seen small public libraries with worse collections. There were authors who clearly got heavy circulation (Anne Rice, Stephen King, Tom Clancy) and authors with lighter circulation, if any (Naomi Kritzer, Emma Bull, and can you tell I was focusing on the science-fiction shelves?). The general collection is primarily focused on self-help books: diet, addiction, family crises. Certain collections were under lock and key, although the materials in those collections were readily available for check out, and were only locked up to prevent theft. The librarian did not always know why these materials -- Spanish-language books, African-American history, course materials, easy readers (Goosebumps, mostly), and reference materials -- were prone to theft.

The first message of prison collection development, we learned, was "do no harm". No books about escaping, bomb making, identity theft. Interestingly, they have very limited medical collections, because they don't want the patrons having too much information available to argue with the contracted medical staff (and unlike the law library, medical information is not legislatively required). The second message was "support the curricula of the classes taught in the prison". MCI Norfolk, incidentally, not only provides ESL, GED, and vocational training, but brings in a Boston University professor to help inmates gain college degrees. Some of the guards disapproved of this; I don't. The third message was "support the rehabilitative goals of the Department of Corrections". The librarian has interpreted this set of goals somewhat broadly, and has an admirable small collection. His staff of catalogers, bookbinders, and clerks comes entirely from the inmate population. Lifers, mostly, we were told. (Lifers, it was explained, are often model prisoners. This is their home, after all, and they'd like to keep it nice and privelege-full.)

The law library is architecturally rather lovely. A midsize two-story room, it fits in architecturally with the collegiate feel of the MCI Norfolk campus. (A number of my fellow students, when we were shown the attractive grounds, impressive gym, and intramural softball schedule, commented gleefully that it was "just like a college!" I did not answer aloud that you can leave college. There were many things I did not say aloud, at this point. But I thought them. Oh, yes.) A few colonial-esque (art? not my forté) paintings, done by former inmates, clash rather with the inanely humorous posters put up by the current librarian. This is the room that was the general library during Malcolm X's tenure.

All in all, an enlightening tour.

1. A quick Google search verifies that the librarian at Norfolk has been personally named in at least one suit on the grounds that among the other privileges denied to an inmate under disciplinary action were library privileges. The suit was found to be baseless.
2. When I asked why there were materials I generally associated with women readers in the location I associated with testosterone (Jayne Ann Krentz, Jean M. Auel), he mentioned that they have several transgendered inmates. Can you imagine the creeping horror that must come from being a transgendered MTF inmate in a men's prison? *shudder*

Date: 2005-05-11 02:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This program ( is SLIS's longest-lasting, and for good reason. I didn't do nearly enough for it while I was there, but I surely do admire it, and I hope it continues for a long, long time.

Date: 2005-05-11 06:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That's fascinating! Something you might not know about me is that I've had a prison fascination for a long time, and it's occured to me that I might want to try being a prison librarian at some point. How did you get this tour?

he mentioned that they have several transgendered inmates.

Oh. My. God. I feel like that's a novel or movie (or non-fiction work) that needs to exist, but I am not one-fifth the writer required to do it justice. [ profile] mildmannered?
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