Puritans be warned! Some tales from a prison library cannot be told, not even by a prisoner-priest, without the telling being a tad irreverent and even outrageous.
Not long ago, I wrote a post that became far more popular with readers than my usual paranormal quest. It was “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls.” The story it told stunned and inspired many readers who rejoiced in its miraculous happy ending. If you haven’t read it, I hope you will. Without a rational explanation for what happened, I attempted one:
“I can only tell you that this was the result of a bizarre and unlikely series of behind-the-scenes events, with just the right people in just the right places at just the right times doing just the right things.”
One of those people was my friend, Joseph. You have met him before, though you may not realize it. His first appearance here was in one of my earliest posts on These Stone Walls, a 2009 Advent post entitled “Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night.” You met Joseph again in 2012 in “Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an iPod World.”
Joseph moved away back then, and Pornchai Moontri and I lost touch with him. It turned out that during our move from a dungeon to a relatively “unprison-like” place a few months ago, Joseph was one of the persons behind-the-scenes who helped bring about a small miracle.
When I arrived there, Joseph had already been living there for the last two years. On the day Pornchai Moontri arrived, Joseph quickly said just the right thing to just the right person that resulted in Pornchai being moved to the same place I live. Our reunion with our friend, Joseph, has been one of the high points of moving to this new place We owe him a debt of gratitude.
Now if you are keeping track of the characters I have written about, then you might also remember James, my friend whose story I told in “Christmas in the Valley, and on the High Places.” James had been working with me in the prison library over the last year, and recently he was moved to a minimum security prison to prepare him for his release very soon.
That left an opening in the Library just when Joseph lost his job as a clerk in a department that had been closed. Jobs here are very hard to find, and the best of them pays only two or three dollars per day. Faced with his sudden idleness, Joseph was slumping into depression. So I was able to get him a job in the prison Library.
While we were at work one day, I let Joseph read my recent post about Skooter, “Cry Freedom! A Prisoner Unlocks Doors from the Inside.” Joseph knew Skooter. When we all lived in the same place, Joseph andSkooter would meet with me for coffee on Saturday mornings to help construct titles for my posts. Those meetings were the origin of my paradoxical prayer, “Lord, please grant me the grace to bear my blessings.”
After reading my post about Skooter, I let Joseph read another one that Skooter contributed to while he was still here. I never posted it on These Stone Walls because it’s a little irreverent and even outrageous. But Skooter loved it, and so did Joseph who talked me into sharing it with you.
I hesitate because we like the high road that These Stone Walls has always taken, and this may seem a descent into the breakdown lane. So forgive me, please, for the rough edges of this little story which is impossible to tell without them. Prepare yourself for this first installment of a new, occasional series on These Stone Walls:
TRUE STORIES FROM THE ANNALS OF A PRISON LIBRARY – FIRST UP: NOT YOUR GRANDMA’S ENGLISH
While pondering this article about work as a prisoner-clerk in a medium security prison library, I stumbled upon a TV rerun of my favorite among the Star Trek films that were box office hits in the 1980s. I tuned in on a scene from Star Trek IV The Voyage Home (1986) that should be logged among the classics of literary criticism.
Set in the 23 Century, an alien probe came to destroy Planet Earth because humpback whales had been hunted to extinction. The alien interest in humpback whales was not quite clear. En route to Earth aboard a hijacked Klingon Battle Cruiser acquired in the previous installment – Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) – the crew of the Starship Enterprise arrived just in time to save the planet.
Their mission: travel three centuries back in time, find a mating pair of humpback whales, transport them aboard the borrowed Klingon ship to the 23rd Century, and commence repopulation of the species. Hey, don’t laugh! It could happen!
Having arrived in 1986 San Francisco, Kirk and Spock sat aboard a city bus on their way to the Cetacean Institute Mr. Spock, trying in vain not to look too conspicuous, noted some curious changes in Kirk’s demeanor:
- Spock: “Admiral [James T Kirk had been promoted’], your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is laced with, shall I say, colorful metaphors ‘Double dumb-ass on you’ and so forth.”
- Kirk: “You mean profanity. It’s the way they talk here. No one pays any attention to you unless you swear every other word. It’s in all the literature of the period.”
- Spock: “Such as?”
- Kirk: “The collected works of Jacqueline Susann; the novels of Harold Robbins.”
- Spock: “Ah! The Giants!”
In this setting, two elements of the scene ring true. In prison, even in the library, the typical mode of human communication is just as Kirk described. Though “Double dumb-ass on you!” is not the usual linguistic fare here, it’s true that in prison no one seems to pay any attention to you unless the “f-word” finds its way into every other sentence.
Add the suffix, “…in”, and it becomes a sort of universal adjective. I hear that word a thousand times a day. I don’t say it unless I’m quoting someone and that doesn’t count.
The word poses a challenge for me in a library – even a prison library – and I’ve generally taken the high road, but at a price. I don’t swear – at least, I don’t swear in the library – and as a result, I get puzzled looks after a few consecutive “f-free” sentences.
The latter part of that Star Trek scene also rings true. Kirk implied that certain authors of steamy 1960s and 1970s best sellers would still be read in the 23rd Century, and therefore known to the Enterprise crew. Not likely, but when I first came to work in the prison library circa 2005 or so, Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins really were among “The Giants.”
In the face of annual budget cutbacks, “new” books here consist mostly of other libraries’ cast-offs. What was old, passé, and no longer checked out in some of the local municipal libraries has been shipped here where these authors were greeted by a captive audience of new readers.
In fact, I just checked the library database for the two authors cited by Admiral Kirk. As of June 2016, the shelves have three circa 1960s novels by Jacqueline Susann, and two of them are currently checked out. One of her best known books, Valley of the Dolls, actually has a short waiting list. It was published in 1966, but not acquired here until 1994, the same year I arrived in this prison.
This library also has nine titles by Harold Robbins, and most have similar descriptions in the library database: “sex, romance, money, corruption.” In either deprivation or commission, most here can relate. And lest anyone miss the really racy scenes, some prisoner performed what he thought was a public service by employing a yellow highlighter to call attention to them.
All of the 1960s Harold Robbins novels were acquired here in the 1990s. Excluding some of the classics, every library should have and keep, books that have not been checked out for at least three or four years are removed. All nine of our fifty-year-old Harold Robbins novels are still on the shelves and are still being read. Three are currently checked out. Two others are being repaired from excessive use.
So if you smirked at Mr. Spock’s dubious assessment of these authors’ enduring popularity, well – double dumb-ass on you!
PORNCHAI MOONTRI’S DOG DAY AFTERNOON
For about five years from 2005 to 2010, a unit in this prison was designated to host what became known as “The Dog Program.” It was intended to be a training program for several personal assistance dogs housed and cared for by trained prisoners.
Over time here, however, the experience of confinement has devolved. Space to live and breathe and have our being remains a constant while the mass of errant humanity contained in that space has increased exponentially. The dog program was the first of many humanitarian efforts sacrificed to prison overcrowding and a diminished staff to provide oversight.
While it lasted, the program seemed a humanizing experience for both prisoners and dogs, but it was never really clear exactly who was training whom. Once a week, a few of the dogs brought their handlers to the prison library where a supply of doggie treats was kept in the librarian’s desk. A few of the treats would be hidden in the library stacks and the dogs were let loose to roam and find them.
One day after the dogs left, the librarian noticed a foul odor drifting across the library. My friend, Pornchai Moontri was quietly studying his native Thai language from a textbook when he was tapped to join in the odious search for the doggie donor’s literary criticism. Our friend, Skooter joined in as well.
Up and down the aisles we all went before Pornchai called out from a far corner. “Found it,” he said as he pointed to a mound left behind by the dog directly in front of the Library’s collection of author Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series.
Skooter rushed over to the scene of the crime. “It’s post-apocalyptic poop!” said Pornchai while everyone else groaned. Skooter pointed to the Left Behind books and said, “The dog was just following instructions!”
Pornchai added that he read the entire Left Behind series during seven years of solitary confinement, but that’s a nightmare tale for another time.
Pornchai did not concur with the dog’s Left Behind review.
Enter into a spirit of Thanksgiving by reading and sharing these special Thanksgiving posts on These Stone Walls:
- The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims and the Pope
- Giving Thanks in the Time of Christ the King
- Holidays in the Hoosegow: Thanksgiving with Some Not-So-Just Desserts