Magazine article American Libraries

Prison Libraries Change Lives

Magazine article American Libraries

Prison Libraries Change Lives

Article excerpt


Quick now: What do Jean Harris and John Resko have in common? If you answered that they both served time for murder and wrote about their experiences in accounts full of a sense of human potentiality, you've probably read more prison bios than most people.

But even if you only knew of one, you're likely tuned into the debate about whether prison officials should just lock 'em up and throw away the key, or try to help inmates live a better life.

Like Harris, who was convicted in the slaying of Scarsdale Diet Doctor Herman Tarnower, Resko knew a lot about this subject. At 18 he was sentenced to die in the electric chair for murder; on Death Row at Sing Sing he watched the cells empty around him and was served three last suppers before calls came to call the whole thing off.

Transferred to Dannemora Prison in New York State, he worked his way up over the next 18 years to a position of trust and authority with both officials and fellow convicts. When, at 36, he received a Christmas clemency and was released back into the community as an established artist, it was said that he had convinced even the skeptical that a man convicted of murder might so rehabilitate himself in prison as to deserve release.

You can read about the experiences of No. 22818 - Resko's inside ID - in his autobiography Reprieve (New York: Bantam, 1958). In it, he describes the challenges of his prison jobs as newspaper editor and sign-painting instructor, and also gives his views about rehabilitation versus straight punishment.

Of the latter, he wrote: "Punishment did nothing for the felon except make him warier, more cunning, and more inclined to violence. Punishment was not the answer to the financial and moral problems generated by the increasing number of prisons and prisoners. Punishment, whether it is corporal, psychological or not the answer. Not for the con or for his respectable brother."

Of the former, he lamented the failure of some prison administrators "to recognize the benefits that could be gathered from a simple, practical rehabilitation program." For Resko, that was an inmate's only hope.

Though published nearly 40 years ago, Resko's testament still seems relevant today. When American Libraries can laud an outstanding prison library program like South Carolina's (Feb. 1995, p. 128-129) and report on its demise just four months later (June 1995, p. 501-503), one might wonder whether the punitive sense among those in power has not supplanted their common sense.

Despite the backlash of administrators who want to "get tough" with criminals and put them in their place, there still exist many innovative, creative, and successful prison-library programs, aided, in many cases, by administrators who believe in the regenerative possibilities of humankind and sustained by librarians with a strong sense of purpose.

An octave above

One of these was seen in 1994 by ALA Annual Conference attendees who took the tour of the Dade Correctional Center outside Miami. Expecting a conventional library tour, surprised participants were instead led into a large room and seated opposite a group of 30 inmates. No one knew what to expect until the occasion was made clear: This was to be the first public performance of Act I, Scene I, of El Caido (The Fallen One), an operatic work that the inmates had conceived, written, and produced themselves.

In some quarters opera may get a bad rap, but at Dade Correctional it's the coming thing, helped along by Rolando Valdes, the prison's music-loving librarian. Over the last few years, some 200 inmates have participated in his Saturday-evening Culture Club, which Valdes voluntarily operates on his own time. In the process the participants have become aficionados as well. So successful has Valdes been that, in the library at least, 11 Trovatore can outdraw The Terminator, and Verdi is as omnipresent as Jean-Claude Van Damme. …

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