Hoods, Hustlers, and Machiavelli: Ex-Prison Librarian Avi Steinberg on Reading Behind Bars

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Editorial by Avi Steinberg

There are almost as many reasons why an inmate would visit a prison library as there are books on the shelves — and at the prison library where I worked, there were roughly 20,000 books. After nearly two years as a librarian in the joint, I was still discovering new reasons. Some people came to the prison library not for books, but to talk about something that was pressing on their mind. These inmates, as much as the library’s readers, are the focus of my new tragicomic memoir, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.

But the soul of the prison library, of course, is its readers. Some prisoners checked out travel guides to countries they would never visit. A few came to look at books they had read as children. Many asked for law books, for guides to real estate and astrology, or accounts of “true crime.” Novels by James Patterson, Dan Brown and Jonathan Kellerman were as popular in prison as they are outside. Prison library-goers regularly requested “street books,” urban pulp romances that have the words “Hood” or “Hustler” in their titles, put out by Triple Crown Publications. Rare was the day that someone didn’t ask to see The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, a modern guide to living life the Machiavellian way. Occasionally someone would ask to read Machiavelli himself. (Machiavelli was permitted, Greene was not.)

There were many requests for books because there were many visitors. In prison, spending time in the library is neither cool nor uncool. It’s simply the norm. The library is almost always crowded. Many inmates visit the library every single day, sometimes more than once (how many undergraduates can say that?). The bustling nature of a prison library is even more remarkable given that many inmates hadn’t even stepped foot in a library until they arrived in prison.

Anyone who’s ever spent time in a library, any library, knows that once a person encounters those big shelves, all bets are off. Like any library, a prison library is designed for exploration. Its shelves call out for open-ended perusal. Often I saw an inmate arrive in the library looking for one title, or for nothing in particular, but eventually wander through the stacks, into sections he never knew existed, and pull a random book or two from the shelf. In these cases, the original reasons for visiting the library mattered much less than the result. And even the result wasn’t measurable simply in the number, or even in the kind, of books that an inmate discovered but rather in the fact that the inmate made a discovery on his own. As a prison teacher, I quickly learned that lecturing rarely succeeded in this setting. A much more effective technique, and much more difficult, was figuring out ways to challenge inmates to discover things on their own. For this, the wide-open format of the library space is indispensable.

Take the case of young Randall, who was doing time for a gun charge. Shortly before he finished his prison term, Randall boasted to me that he, Randall, was “the best thing going on” in the prison library, that he was a prison library all-star. He had a point. Randall made extensive use of the place. He visited every day. He checked out books of all kinds. He signed up for classes. He studied for his GED at one of the library desks. He stayed on top of his paperwork. He consulted me and the inmate clerks with his questions. He helped others with their queries.

The thing that made Randall special was not merely that he made such good use of the library but rather that he’d found his way into the place at all. I remember his first few visits. He came to the prison library for only two reasons: 1) to leave notes for other inmates, which he’d hide inside books and 2) to watch frivolous movies. (The screening of such movies, incidentally, has been cause for occasional media criticism and mockery. But there is no question that Randall ended up in the library because he was lured by just such movies.) When I reminded Randall of his original, humble reasons for visiting the library, he scoffed at me.

“I make this place, man,” he told me. “I own it.”

Avi Steinberg is the author of the memoir Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian published this week by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. He was born in Jerusalem and raised in Cleveland and Boston. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Review of Books, Salon, and other publications

DISCUSS: In the digital world, what is the future of the institutional library ?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.