I know that might sound weird, especially for those who don’t know I worked in a jail library for 19 years. Jail was not always an easy place to work. Many days could be very stressful. I spent a lot of time trying to get out and was relieved when I was finally transferred. There are things I miss about it, though.
I worked Monday through Friday and 8-4 when I was at the jail. No weekend work.
I worked alone. I could do things my way and not deal with anyone else doing it wrong.
I worked alone so my day didn’t depend upon others actually showing up for work.
I worked alone so there was no one around to micromanage me.
I worked alone so I could go on vacation or call out sick without worrying about my absence creating work for others.
I could have problem customers removed from the library.
Customers were only allowed in the library for an hour and then they had to leave.
I worked alone. Have I mentioned that? I love some of my coworkers, but working alone can be very nice.
I was invisible. I mean, I am still basically invisible, but I suddenly become visible when someone wants me to do something they don’t want to do. I was always invisible in jail.
Maybe I can get them to transfer me back to jail…
As I promised in the last installment of “My Life as a Jailbrarian” today I will write about the fights I saw while working in the library. This is not going to be as exciting as it sounds. There were rarely fights in the library. I can really only remember two actual physical fights inside the library. There were numerous arguments that could have turned in to physical altercations had the officers not responded to my call and stopped it before it started, There were times that I was threatened, but that also never turned physical. I saw the aftermath of fights in other areas of the jail. I think the library had fewer fights because they didn’t want to lose library privileges. I had the law books, so they were nicer to me. So, now that I’ve told you that this post is boring – here are the two fights I remember.
The one common theme of both fights is that they started fast, with no warning. There were no arguments, no yelling, nothing that would indicate that something was about to happen. Just a sudden burst of violence.
Fight one was the oddest one. I was at my desk answering a question when suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a chair raising up in the air. The library went from relative quiet to violence in the blink of an eye. People who had been sitting quietly were now in a physical altercation and one of them was about to go after the other one with a chair. I have no idea why or how it started. It’s possible that this was a continuation of an argument that happened in the housing unit. It’s possible there was a quiet argument I missed. All I know is that I had an inmate going after another one with a chair. Luckily, it was not my job to intervene. I called for officer assistance and they stopped it before anyone was injured.
The other fight also happened quickly, but I know the reason for behind it. The county jail is a co-ed facility. The library was one of the place in the jail where the female inmates were allowed to work. At the time, I had a woman assigned to work in the library. Apparently, she was also writing notes to two different male inmates at the same time. These notes were not allowed, but they were passed all the time in a variety of ways. One of the guys she was writing also had a job within the jail. One day he was cleaning the halls outside the library and the other guy was in the library looking at books. I was at the desk helping someone find something in one of the law books. Suddenly, the guy cleaning the call charges in to the library and jumps the other guy. The officers arrived quickly again and broke up the fight before anything too extreme happened. It wasn’t until after the fight was over and I was cleaning up the library that I found the shank(homemade knife) that had been dropped when the officers arrived. Someone had been prepared to stab the other guy over a county jail pen pal.
That is the extent of real fights in the library. Not too exciting. There was plenty of yelling, plenty of me yelling over them to try to calm things down and plenty of times I felt the need to call the officers because it was past the point I felt I could intervene, but really only two real fights. It could have been much worse.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a “jailbrarian” post. It’s hard for me to decide where to start with my life in the county jail. As I mentioned in the last post, many days in jail are boring and uneventful and that is what you want. Boring and uneventful, coupled with the job being a very solitary job can make for a very long day. At the beginning if my time as a jailbrarian I was in jail 8-4 four days a week. I only worked with other librarians one day a week. It was a very isolated life. There was also a lot of down time during periods when the inmates were locked down for count, lunch or emergency situations as well as times when only a couple of people attended library and sat and read magazines for an hour. It was a small library, so tasks like shelving, weeding, etc didn’t take a lot of time.
All of this lead me to find ways to connect with other librarians, readers, and other random strangers. I joined email lists for librarians and book lovers. I joined one email list for book lovers that soon lead to me joining other outcasts in a new book lovers email list with fewer rules. This was The Book Barn and was my main escape from the monotony for a long time. I made several friends via the Barn and we are still friends today via Facebook. I even went to Pittsburgh for a weekend to meet some of them in person and survived. I joined bulletin boards, the best being the Christopher Moore board where I again made friends with whom I am still friends today. I joined a site called FriendFeed that was eventually bought and killed by Facebook. It was my favorite social media site. There were a lot of librarians who posted regularly, so I felt more connected to the field. It was perfect for actual conversation on a variety of topics. I’m still sad Facebook killed it. I did eventually join Facebook and Twitter as well, but they are not nearly as good as Friendeed. I actually started this blog with the thought that I would use it to post about library stuff, but decided early on that I didn’t really want to post about library stuff and also that I didn’t want to worry about what my employer thought about my thoughts on library stuff.
This may sound like I spent my time in jail doing everything but work, but I did all of this on breaks, at lunch and during times when I was watching two guys read magazines and couldn’t do anything else. It helped make a solitary librarian feel a little less alone.
Next time on My Life as a Jailbrarian perhaps I will talk about the handful of fights that occurred in the library.
We have now reached the point in the story where I have started working at the place where I would spend my next 19 years. The stories from here will not necessarily be in chronological order. This is mainly due to the fact that I am old and forgetful and won’t remember when a lot of them took place. Some posts might be a collection of stories from various time periods. I really won’t know until I decide to write them. This post is just some general information about the facility to give you a picture.
The county jail has a variety of inmates. There are people who are sentenced to a short amount of time for less serious charges. There are people who are awaiting trial for various charges. There are both male and female inmates. There are wok release inmates. There are ICE detainees(this was not the case when I started the job). Basically, you can have inmates with charges as small as petty theft all the way up to first degree murder.
You enter the jail through a lobby with an enclosed officer’s station. To enter the secure part of the facility, you go through two secured doors to another officer’s post and a metal detector. They will check you for contraband and then you are free to move about the facility. I won’t go into detail about the inside of the facility. I don’t want any of you to use the information to try to facilitate a prison break. I will just say that it is a very secure facility. I would go through several locked doors, controlled centrally, to get to the library. The library was on the same hallway as several of the housing units. For most of my time there my next door neighbor was the women’s housing unit. They were very loud. Each day was set aside for specific units to visit the library. Some days I had more of the lower level crime/sentenced inmates visit the library. Some days I had the pre-trial/serious crime types visit the library. Many times the petty criminals were more annoying than the ones facing serious charges.
I will try to tell some of the more interesting stories from my time there, but I have to confess that many days were boring and uneventful. When you work in jail, boring and uneventful is what you want.
While my job at the state prison system provided a few interesting stories, there were two good reasons I needed a new job: my boss was a horrible person and the state job was contractual and provided no benefits. After being rejected when I applied for the job I was already doing, I knew that I had no future with the organization. After working in the office with the person in charge of the organization, I knew I didn’t want a future there. So, it was time to seek parole and/or escape from prison.
I once again hit the job trail. I started actively seeking new employment. My horrible boss was very angry when she found out and called me in to an office to yell at me for looking for a new job without telling her. Apparently, I was being unfair to her by trying to escape the misery of working for her. This just made me look harder for a new job. I sent out a multitude of resumes. I got three interviews.
Interview 1: The memory of this one is very hazy. I think it was the American Psychology Association, but I could be wrong. I can say for sure that it was at a professional association in DC. It was a decent interview where they walked me around and introduced me to people in the office as part of the process. I remember it feeling like it was not a place I would fit. They must have felt the same way. I did not get an offer.
Interview 2: My second interview was at a private school north of Baltimore. It was a beautiful campus. It was a very good interview. I really felt like this was the place I would land. When I received the call from them, however, I discovered it would not be the place for me. I had applied to be the assistant librarian and the school felt that I would not be happy as the assistant and would leave the job quickly. I tried to convince them that this was not the case. They didn’t believe me. I wanted to point out that the librarian was old and that I could wait her out, but I felt that was a mistake. I did not get an offer.
Interview 3: My third interview was with a public library system. The position was for the local detention center. It was also the library system that had returned my unsolicited resume back to me stamped rejected. It was not a good sign. At the interview, while shaking hands, I noticed one person had the list of interviewees face up in front of them. I quickly took a sneak peek while shaking their hand and discovered I was competing with someone else from the state prison system. I seemed doomed to fail. The interview went well and I received a call from the library asking me to come to a second interview with the administration from the jail. This one did not go as well. I was 26 years old and looked much younger and am not exactly an imposing figure. The security supervisor at the jail was furious that they had chosen me and said I wouldn’t last. He was not shy about saying that with me in the room. He was completely against me being hired. The rest of the room was not quite as hostile, but they were not friendly. I was sure that I was headed back out on the job hunt again. Instead, as we walked to our cars, the library people told me that it didn’t matter what the jail thought I was their choice and the job was mine if I wanted it. I was so desperate to get out of my current position that I readily agreed to go work at a place where the people in charge clearly did not want me. Spoiler alert: I outlasted every person in the room who said I wouldn’t last.
I was heading back to jail. I felt comfortable doing this because I was not intimidated by jail and also because I thought for sure I could work my way up and out of the jail before too long. I was so young and stupid.
I was only with the state for about a year, so there aren’t a lot of interesting stories to tell. I think the one from the last post was the most interesting day I had at work. So, the entire year will be completed in this post.
Most of my time with the state was spent in an office working on a computer. Nothing much exciting ever happened in the office. We had the occasional collect call from a prison with an inmate trying to contact us. There was the time my boss was given a brand new computer even though she never actually used her computer so the IT guy switched it with mine one day while she was out of the office. She never noticed. There was the time I was called down to the front desk because I had certified mail and had to sign for it. It turned out to be Penthouse magazine. This happened for several months until I figured out why. It was soon after the state banned adult magazines from the prison libraries. One librarian kept getting them in the mail so she sent them to us so she wouldn’t get in trouble. Most of what I remember from the office is that the boss was the worst boss I’ve ever had and being in prison was preferable to being in the office with her.
I got the chance to do be in prison more when the librarian at the women’s prison left. I spent a couple of months working as the substitute librarian. There aren’t a lot of exciting stories from my time there. I do remember one early morning when I signed in and headed over to the building where the library was located only to find it locked. I had arrived before the day shift roll call was done and the education building was not yet open. I considered waiting at the door until this officers arrived and then realized I was lurking around prison grounds in the dark and the officers in the towers had guns. I changed my mind and walked over to the roll call room to wait for the officers there. I had a library worker go on maternity leave. It was not something I expected to happen while working in prison. It was relatively uneventful. It was a good job. It was an easy commute. It was a 7-3 schedule. The inmates didn’t cause me much trouble. I had a private restroom. I applied to be the full time librarian but did not get the job, most likely because my boss was an asshole.
I went back to the office and back in front of a computer. I took over the LASI program when the LASI coordinator went out on medical leave. This meant I supervised law students who used LEXIS to send requested legal cases to the inmates on request. This program was eventually moved to a building back at the penitentiary compound from the last post. This meant I spent some days working out of the compound. One perk if working at the prisons was that the library staff had reserved parking spots. This was never an issue at any other prison, but it became an issue here. There was a lot of construction at the compound at this time so parking was scarce. It was not uncommon for someone to be parked in my spot if I arrived at the compound later in the day. One day I guess I was in a bad mood(shocking, I know) and had had it with people taking my spot so I pulled in behind them, parked and started to head in to work. An officer ran over to confront me about this. Due to the construction, the compound was guarded on the ground by armed correctional officers. This guy was one with a gun. He ordered me to move my car. I refused. He ordered me to move the car again. I pointed to the sign that said reserved for librarian and told him that I was the librarian and that I would be happy to move my car to let the car parked illegally to vacate my spot. I honestly can’t remember who won that fight, In my mind I did, but I think that is a false memory. I’m pretty sure that the guy with the gun probably won, but let’s pretend I did.
Eventually, the stress of working for a horrible person, the fact that it was a contract position with no benefits and that fact that she had rejected me when I applied to be a real employee added up to me deciding my time in prison was over. My boss did manage to be an asshole one more time by pulling me into a conference room to yell at me when she heard I was looking for a new job. Fun times.
Up next: I apply for parole.
My actual job with the state was not located inside a prison. I was in an office in the Department of Education building in downtown Baltimore. My office was right down the hall from the Secretary of Education. This was not fun because it meant that I had to dress much nicer than needed to look good for the important people wandering around. I can’t really remember my first actual day on the job, but I do remember the first day they sent me off to prison.
At this time, the Maryland Penitentiary was still a maximum security state prison and the location of the Maryland death chamber. At arrival, I was greeted by an officer in a small guard tower and was told to put my ID in a bucket(or something similar. My memory is fuzzy) and a pulley system was used to raise it up to the officer. The officer was very irritated when he saw my license had my first name listed as a different name than what he was given. He finally allowed me in after I explained that if he looked at the middle name, he would see the other name. Once in I was given a wristband. It was explained that this wristband was my ticket out of the prison. I was to make sure not to lose the wristband because it was the one thin assuring I would be allowed to leave the prison. This was not a pleasant way to begin.
After this I then made my way to the library. The way to the library was via the recreation yard. It was not an empty recreation yard. It was a recreation yard being fully used my many maximum security inmates. If you had told me just a few months before that I would be walking through a maximum security prison’s recreation yard soon I would never have believed you. I just wasn’t that guy. I was short, quiet and looked like I was just out of my teens. This is not a place I should be. I made it through the yard, went to the library and met an inmate who either was still in death row or had just has his sentence commuted to life without parole. That was a nice topper to the experience.
In reality, the day was not that exciting. It seemed a little scary at the time, but it really was just another library visit. I didn’t run screaming from the building. I didn’t quit my job. I went back to work the next day and somehow in a short few months would be the guy arguing about a parking space while a correctional officer pointed a gun at me.
After talking recently about my time as a jail librarian I have decided to do an occasional post with some stories about my life in jail. This prologue is not a jail story. It is the story of how I ended up in jail in the first place.
I was living in Cincinnati, working at a market research firm and had just finished going to school at night to complete my MLS(Master of Library Science) degree when we got the official word that my wife would be transferred to Washington DC. We knew it was coming. I didn’t think it would happen that fast. As the move got closer, I started applying for jobs in the DC area. I had one really good phone interview while still in Cincy that, unfortunately, did not result in a job. A few days before the scheduled move I got a call to schedule an interview with DC Public Library so I headed east a few days ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, this meant being extremely tired and possibly ill from eating bad road food when I arrived at the interview. My boss at my old job said that the DC people broke the rules and asked her about my health. I looked that bad. Needless to say, I did not get that job.
Once we were officially residents of the DC area I started sending resumes to every local library I could find. I hit the road and personally visited the HR departments of both public and academic libraries. One public library system actually sent my resume back to me stamped rejected and accompanied by a letter saying they do not accept unsolicited resumes. This system will appear again in later posts. That was fun. I rode the Metro around DC to the colleges there. I was on my way to Howard University one day. I got off the Metro and asked a woman who was headed to work at the hospital for directions. Along with the directions, she also gave me advice for walking through the neighborhood: walk quickly, don’t make eye contact and run if you hear gunshots. I never made it to Howard. As soon as we parted company I went right back to the Metro station and went back home.
I eventually signed on with a temp agency that works with librarians. I worked for a week at a fancy law firm near the White House. I enjoyed eating my lunch in the park with a view of the White House. I worked for a week at the World Bank. I have no memory of anything I did there. I remember being bored. I was also still applying for every job opening I saw. I eventually was called in for an interview with the state of Maryland. It was at the Department of Education working with Correctional Education as a technical librarian. I was offered the job. It was only a contract position, but it was better than temping, so I accepted. The same week I received a call from the temp agency. They had a job for me that could turn in to a permanent position. I turned it down because I felt a guaranteed position was better than a possible permanent position. I have no idea where the other job was. I made the decision to go with the job with the state without details on the possible other job. This decision led to my 20 year jail sentence. Sometimes I regret making that decision.
Next installment: A Visit to the Big House