Tuesday, August 9, 2011

#55: Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg

New York: Doubleday, 2010. 399 pages

I normally don't read memoirs, because I am damn frightened that it will prompt me to write one. The prospect of a 38 year old writing a memoir is somewhat sad; what, nothing else is going to happen in the next 35 years? I picked this one up for the following reasons:

1. I love libraries, having worked in four of them.
2. I love books. I tend to go in bursts where I devour the damn things.
3. This seemed to good to pass up. A Jewish kid gets a job in Boston's South Bay Prison as a librarian. One of the cons wants to be in a cooking show when he gets on the outs, and is going to call it Thug Sizzle. The cons take to calling this Jewish kid "Bookie". I'm glad I picked it up.

The book is in two intertwined parts. One is the prison, the other the authors attempt at "finding himself". One is excellent, one is too familiar to be called good, to well written to be called bad. The stories that Steinberg writes about his grandmother (he calls her "an Alchemist of Misery") are great; the rest of the bits about him, his girlfriend and his family made me think and occasionally say "What about Too Sweet? What about Chudney? What about that asshole guard?"

One item that Steinberg does point out is the incredible incarceration rate of this country. The US Census reports in 2008 that 2.3% of the population of this country was either on parole or incarcerated. That same year, 2.2 million people were in jail in this country.

For perspective:

1. This a population higher than 15 states and the District of Columbia.
2. It is roughly the size of the population of the state of New Mexico. If you would group all of these cons into one enormous jail, it would instantly become the 5th largest city in the United States, roughly equivalent to the population of Houston.

Steinberg rarely mentions the race of the cons; he does not need to do so. In 2007, 11.7% of black males between the ages of 25-29 were in jail, according to the non-profit Sentencing Project. According to a 2002 Human Rights Watch study, more than 10% of African American men were in jail in 12 different states. Oh, that same study found out that even though blacks and Latinos made up 25% of the US population, they made up 63% of prison populations.

Back to the book. Steinberg is generous with the cons and, refreshingly, does not judge them. In some instances, it is incredibly hard for both he and the reader not to. Steinberg approaches each con as having a story worth telling, something that not many people do anymore, being wrapped up in their damn phones and other trappings of self-centeredness. Language, and Steinberg's excellent ear for it, drive this text. You can picture these men and women by listening to them in a way that mere physical descriptions do not match. To hear a con named Fat Kat say "Man, you don't understand. You can change where you going but you can't change where you from" without the tears that would adorn this statement in a movie is new. Steinberg finds that in working in prison, the bull shit, pseudo-gang culture cultivated by wanna be white kids from coast to coast lacks two things: experience and respect. The kids have no respect and they would be scared shitless by the experience. Of course, they probably would not wind up inside.

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