Book Excerpt: 'Running The Books'

"Running the Books" by Avi Steinberg. (Courtesy Random House)After graduating from Harvard, Avi Steinberg got what is surely one of the most interesting jobs one could imagine: prison librarian. Steinberg details his experience in "Running the Books."

In his book, excerpted below, Steinberg details his job and the characters he met while working.


Chapter 1: The up & up and low low

Pimps make the best librarians. Psycho killers, the worst. Ditto con men. Gangsters, gunrunners, bank robbers--adept at crowd control, at collaborating with a small staff, at planning with deliberation and executing with contained fury--all possess the librarian's basic skill set. Scalpers and loan sharks certainly have a role to play. But even they lack that something, the je ne sais quoi, the elusive it. What would a pimp call it? Yes: the love.

If you're a pimp, you've got love for the library. And if you don't, it's probably because you haven't visited one. But chances are you will eventually do a little--or perhaps, a lot--of prison time and you'll wander into one there. When you do, you'll encounter the sweetness and the light. You'll find books you've always needed, but never knew existed. Books like that indispensable hustler's tool, the rhyming dictionary. You'll discover and embrace, like long-lost relatives, entire new vocabularies. Anthropology and biology, philosophy and psychology, gender studies and musicology, art history and pharmacology, economics and poetry. French. The primordial slime. Lesbian bonobo chimps. Rousseau nibbling on sorbet with his Venetian hooker. The complete annotated record of animal striving.

And it's not just about books. In the joint, where business is slow, the library is The Spot. It's where you go to see and be seen. Among the stacks, you'll meet older colleagues who gather regularly to debate, to try out new material, to declaim, reminisce, network and match wits. You'll meet old timers working on their memoirs, upstarts writing the next great pimp screenplay.

Author Avi Steinberg (Courtesy photo)
Author Avi Steinberg (Courtesy photo)

You'll meet inmate librarians like Dice, who will tell you he stayed sane during two years in the hole at Walla Walla by memorizing a smuggled anthology of Shakespeare's plays. He'll prove it by reciting long passages by heart. Dice wears sunglasses and is an ideologue. He'll try to persuade you of the "virtues of vice." He'll tell you that a prison library "ain't a place to better yourself, it's a place to get better at getting worse." He'll bully you into reading Shelley's Frankenstein, and he'll bully you further into believing that it's "our story"--by which he means the story of pimps, a specialized class of men, a priesthood, who live according to the dictates of Nature.

He means it. Like many a pimp preoccupied by ancient questions, Dice takes the old books seriously. He approves of Emersonian self-reliance, and was scandalized that many American universities had ousted Shakespeare and the Classics from their curricula. He'd read about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"You kidding me, man?" he'd said, folding the newspaper like a hassled commuter, brow arching over his shades. "Now I've heard it all. This country's going to hell."

Men like Dice will inculcate you with an appreciation for tradition, what Matthew Arnold called "the best which has been thought and said." And you'll discover precisely why it is so important to study the best that has been thought and said: How else you gonna top it?

This at least is what I'm told. I wouldn't know. I'm not a pimp. I'm in a different sort of racket. My name is Avi Steinberg, but in the joint, they call me Bookie. The nickname was given to me by Jamar "Fat Kat" Richmond. Fat Kat is, or was, a notorious gangster, occasional pimp, and, as it turns out, exceptionally resourceful librarian. At thirty years old and two bullet wounds, Kat is already a veteran inmate. He's too big--five foot nine, three-hundred-plus pounds--for a proper prison outfit. Instead he is given a nonregulation T-shirt, the only inmate in his unit with a blue T-shirt instead of a tan uniform top. But the heaviness bespeaks solidity, substance, gravitas. The fat guy T-shirt, status. He is my right-hand, though it often seems the other way around.

"Talk to Bookie," he tells inmates who've lined up to see him. "He's the main book man."

The main book man. I like that. I can't help it. For an asthmatic Jewish kid, it's got a nice ring to it. Hired to run Boston's prison library--and serve as the resident creative writing teacher--I am living my (quixotic) dream: a book-slinger with a badge and a streetwise attitude, part bookworm, part badass. This identity has helped me tremendously at cocktail parties.

In prison Fat Kat, Dice, and their ilk are the intellectual elite, hence their role as inmate librarians. But the library itself is not elitist. To gain entrance, one need only commit a felony. And the majority of felons, at least where I work, do make their way to the library. Many visit every day. Even though some inmates can barely read, the prison library is packed. And when things get crowded, the atmosphere is more like a speakeasy than a quiet reading room. This place is, after all, the library of "all rogues, vagabonds, persons using any subtle craft, juggling, or unlawful games or plays, common pipers, fiddlers, runaways, stubborn children, drunkards, nightwalkers, pilferers, wanton and lascivious persons, railers and brawlers." This according to a nineteenth-century state government report. I've met only one fiddler. No pipers, common or otherwise. But I do meet a good number of rappers and MCs. With the addition of gun-toting gangbangers and coke dealers, the old catalog remains fairly accurate.

Which is all to say that a library in prison is significantly different than a library in the real world. Yes, there are book clubs, poetry readings, and moments of silent reflection. But there isn't much shushing. As a prison crossroads, a place where hundreds of inmates come to deal with their pressing issues, where officers and other staff stop by to hang out and mix things up, the pace of a prison library is social and up-tempo. I spend much of my time running.

The chaos begins right away. There is no wake-up call more effective than twenty-five convicts in matching uniforms coming at you first thing in the morning.

First come the greetings. This takes a while. Inmates exchange intricate handshakes and formal titles: OG, young G, boo, bro, baby boy, brutha, dude, cuz, dawg, P, G, daddy, pimpin', nigga, man, thug thizzle, my boy, my man, homie. Then, the nicknames: Flip, Hood, Lil Haiti, Messiah, Bleach, Bombay, K*Shine, Rib, Swi$$, Tu-Shay, The Truth, Black, Boat, Forty, Fifty (no Sixty), Giz, Izz, Rizz, Fizz, Shizz, Lil Shizz, Frenchy, P-Rico, Country, Dro, Turk, T, Africa . . .

And, yes, occasionally, Bookie. Incidentally I have other, less-used prison nicknames: Slim, Harvard, Jew-Fro (though my hair is stick straight). Mostly, people just call me Arvin or Harvey.

Next comes business. Every inmate wants a magazine and/or newspaper. Most inmates also want a "street book," the wildly popular pulp "hip-hop novels" whose titles tend to have the word hustler in them. I let Fat Kat handle these requests. Kat keeps a secret stash and runs a snug little business in these books, to which I--for mostly self-interested reasons--turn a blind eye. We have a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Then comes a flurry of random requests. Some legit, some not. Demands to make illicit calls to the courts, to parole boards, to "my mans on the outs," to mommas and babymommas, wifeys and wifey-wifeys. All denied. Whispered requests for information on AIDS, for information on the significance of blood in urine, for help reading a letter. All noted. I dismiss inmates' requests to use my Internet for "just one second." I deflect an inmate's charges that I'm an Israeli spy; confirm that indeed, I really did go to Harvard, ignore the follow-up question of why I ended up working in prison if I graduated from Harvard. I give serious thought to an inmate's request for me to check his rap album's website. I am, after all, the prison's self-appointed CGO, Chief Google Officer.

I field legal queries. I am asked about the legal distinction between homicide and manslaughter, the terms of probation, sentencing guidelines, the laws relating to kidnapping one's own children, of extradition, of armed robbery with a grenade. There are also clever criminals: a guy who wants to learn state regulations regarding antique guns and antique ammunition, items he hopes might be governed by laxer laws and fraught with loopholes. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice an inmate sporting a marker-drawn musketeer-style mustache, talking to himself in a phony posh English accent. Somebody might need to take his meds. I note this, as well.

An inmate thanks me for my suggestion that he listen to "Sherbert" at our listening station. (He means Schubert.) Inmates ask me for a book about the band Nirvana, about the state of nirvana; for a self-help guide for fathers; for a yoga book; a book on "how to mix chemicals"; a guide to real estate. Ignoring the chemicals request, I suggest "Dummies" guides. I do this diplomatically, since inmates have been sensitive in the past to the possibility that I may be calling them dummies. A caseworker suddenly appears--she's a crazy woman who talks nonstop and tells wild lies of dating European royals. She wants to borrow a book on tigers. Waiting patiently is C.C. Too Sweet, a mercurial, balding pimp memoirist who wants me to edit his revised manuscript.

My main challenge is to focus on the tasks at hand and not get sucked into the pimp and hustler gabfests. These are always entertaining and occasionally lead to fascinating discussions. I overhear an elder pimp tell an apprentice, "I wasn't born, son, I was hatched." But before I hear where that conversation is going, Ty pokes his way to the front of the line and politely demands to talk with me. Immediately.

He is a tower of an eighteen-year-old with a baby face and a jaw that can probably split a walnut shell in one clean crack. Today he looks spooked. As soon as I close my door--something I rarely do--Ty bursts into tears. His mother died last month and he was unable to attend the out-of-state funeral; yesterday his long-estranged father showed up in prison. These are not unusual issues in prison. I've encountered them many times before, but I still have no answers for him.

As he tells me his story, I look out the office window toward the library, wondering what atrocities are taking place in my absence. This is what I call Prison ADD: the inability to ever be present because there's always something potentially heinous occurring nearby, something that is probably your responsibility. Ty is inconsolable.

While he cries, I try to gather my thoughts. I've posted a sheet on my wall, next to my desk. It's a wordfind game that an inmate has created and sells to other inmates for the equivalent of fifty cents a pop. Thirty-eight terms, mixed into a jumble of letters. The words are listed, in roughly alphabetical order, at the side of the sheet. They form something of a mantra I use to orient myself in situations like this one.

Titled "Things Found in Prison," the list reads: attitude, bail bondsman, booking, contraband, count time, canteen, cellie [i.e., cellmate], drama, depression, family, fence, grievance, gossip, hunger, habe [short for habeas corpus], handcuffs, indigent, ID card, isolation, lawyer, medication, meditation, mail, noise, officer, PIN number, prayer, quarantine, recreation, rules, shower shoes, sheriff, solitude, telephone, tears, uniforms, worry, yard. I'm forced to reschedule a meeting with Ty. Right now, I have to help the guy who thought it would be a good idea to rob a liquor store with a live grenade. In the prison library, it's first-come, first-served.

. . . hunger, habe, handcuffs, indigent . . .

The hour has passed. The inmates in green uniforms finally leave, returning to the block to play chess and watch Judge Judy or Days of Our Lives. A new group of inmates is on its way. This will go on for two full shifts, until 9 p.m. when all the inmates will gather in front of TVs--self-segregated by race--to watch Prison Break. I take in a deep breath of recycled prison air.

. . . rules, shower shoes, sheriff, solitude, telephone, tears . . .

Before the next group arrives, Officer Malone saunters in. He and I undertake the regular task of scanning bookshelves, and other dark corners, for contraband, or for something that might be missing, especially something that can be refashioned into a weapon. This includes just about anything. We look for notes wedged into books by inmates, left for another inmate to pick up. Many of these notes are intended for the female inmates, who come down from their tower blocks at a separate time. I retrieve handfuls of these confessional letters every day. Taken as a whole literature, they give me an insight into the secret lives and concerns of inmates. I let some of the better ones pass under my radar.

Malone and I drop down to our knees simultaneously, Muslim prayer-style. We're not entreating a deity, though, but sweeping under the shelves for contraband.

. . . mail, noise, officer, PIN number, prayer . . .

Malone likes to talk. He tells me about his time in the service, about working in a paper mill. He advises me to trade in my bicycle for a Ford S150, like his. He tells me about his wife, who went back to school. She's smarter than he is, he admits. He resumes a line of conversation we've had off and on for months: he wants to help me out. I seem like a good kid, he tells me with a shrug. I should get a raise, more vaca, better retirement. My union is shitty. He urges me to join his, to become a prison guard.

I am, he says, already most of the way there.

This program aired on October 20, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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Jessica Alpert Managing Producer, Program Development
Jessica Alpert is the managing producer for program development at WBUR. In this position, she develops new podcasts and programs while also launching and nurturing WBUR’s newest projects.



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