For most men contemplating a career that will bring them into a fascinating world full of interesting conflicts and populated by colorful characters, being a librarian ranks somewhere between "dental assistant
" and "wedding videographer
Unless you're Avi Steinberg
, author of the new memoir "Running the Books
," whose job as a prison librarian led him to work with people who carried monikers like "C.C. Too Sweet" and "Fat Kat."
The Harvard-educated Steinberg found the job in the Suffolk County House of Corrections on -- where else? -- Craigslist
. After cutting his hair as short as possible to pass a follicle drug test, he left his position as a freelance obituary writer for The Boston Globe
to become, at least in some capacity, a jailer.
The book features more than a handful of colorful anecdotes -- including the one about the time he was mugged by a then-released inmate who recognized him
("I still owe you two books," the mugger shouted as he ran off) -- but also is full of thoughtful soul-searching about the nature of our prison system, as well as the library's place in it.
"The library is an important piece of the lives of the inmates," he says. "They come in every day ... I tried to be friendly and warm, and they really responded to that. In prison, that's not a given."
Keep reading to learn about the inmates Steinberg is still friends with, the point when he decided to write the book, and why he hopes C.C. Too Sweet is reading this.
Breaking the Taboo and Being Friends
Steinberg says that while it's taboo for guards and inmates to call themselves friends, there's not nearly as much separation between the inmates and the guards as TV and movies make it seem. "When you spend that much time with people, the differences tend to melt away, and you realize that you have much more in common with each other," he says. "They're all part of communities and families, and the officers and staff develop a kinship with them."
Steinberg himself discovered a particular affinity for the pimps, due to that group's inexplicable love for the library. One former gangster and pimp, who went by the name of "Fat Kat," even bestowed upon Steinberg his cherished prison nickname, "Bookie." Another inmate Steinberg befriended dreamed of starring in his own cooking show, "Thug Sizzle." The librarian contemplated sneaking him spices to use on the inside, until he realized "how incriminating handing an inmate a bag of oregano or rosemary would look to a guard."
On C.C. Too Sweet and Being a Teacher
In addition to running the library, Steinberg's role in the prison included teaching creative writing classes. "The teaching aspect of prison was one thing I really loved," he says. "I thought I was better at that than anything else."
Steinberg worked closely with one former pimp, who went by the name "C.C. Too Sweet," whose memoir showed particular promise. In his role as editor and adviser, Steinberg suggested C.C. more fully realize his female characters, leading the pimp to stop referring to them as "bitches" in his manuscript.
Steinberg worried that people would be outraged that a civil servant was helping a pimp write a salacious "tell-all" book. He also felt ambivalent about being close to a man who was responsible for crimes like kidnapping and forced prostitution. However, in the time since his own book's completion, he's made peace with the conflict.
"I've actually been trying to get in touch with him," Steinberg said. "He may be back in jail, according to Fat Kat. But thanks to the book, I actually have some connections, and I'd like to show his book to agents. He worked hard on it, and it deserves a read. Hopefully, he'll read this article."
Leaving the Prison and Telling the Story
While the book isn't clear on the exact circumstances leading to Steinberg quitting his job in the prison, he tells Asylum that while he worried about the inmates, he doesn't overstate the impact his departure had on their lives. "These guys are pretty good at getting by," he points out.
So when did he realize that this was a story he needed to tell? Almost as soon as he started: "One thing I noticed about the culture of the prison, among the staff and the inmates, is that everyone says, 'This could be a movie. This could be a book.' It's like a refrain, and I realized they were right."
In the end, "Running the Books" is one of the more thoughtful and nuanced looks at prison culture -- more so than, say, "Oz
," anyway. And it'll probably remain high on the list of great books about the subject -- at least until C.C. Too Sweet's memoir finds a publisher.