“You’re, At Best, a Punk”

Avi Steinberg ’02 spent two years as the prison librarian at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston. An excerpt from his Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian appears below with permission. In this passage, Steinberg reflects on the power dynamics within the prison.


After the rousing success of my creative writing class for women in the tower, I decided to inaugurate my class for men. The class met every Monday and Wednesday in the back-back room of the library. Ten inmates signed up.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I was standing in front of the circulation desk, waiting for the inmates to file into the classroom. Just then, the front door swung open and one of the inmates, Jason, strode in, looking straight ahead and perturbed. Officer De Luca appeared behind him, arms swinging, according to his style. His head shook as though it were about detonate.

“’Ey, get back here!” he shouted.

Jason glanced behind him. “I’m here for my class,” he said casually and proceeded to enter the room.

“Oh no you don’t . . .” De Luca said. He was almost running now.

I decided to try to defuse the situation. “It’s okay, Officer, he’s in the class. His name is on the list.”

Without so much as glancing at me, De Luca said: “No, no, no, no . . . this guy punked me out, he’s going back up to the unit. Or maybe the hole.”

This was not what I wanted to hear.

I hadn’t seen what had happened. Jason probably had said something stupid to him. On the other hand, De Luca’s bellicose “style” no doubt provoked him. I knew Jason well. He was mild-mannered and perfectly respectful when respected. I also knew that the inmate had every right to be in the library and that by giving him a hard time and now kicking him out, De Luca was pulling a macho power play that had nothing to do with any immediate security concern. And if there was a security situation, it was because De Luca was escalating the situation.

I could feel myself getting angry. The edges of my ears began to tingle. I was sick of De Luca’s style turning my library into Gitmo. Nor did I appreciate how he’d just blown me aside, without any attempt to give respect—you don’t do that in prison. There were less rational things churning through my head, as well. I was still annoyed that Coolidge had conned and embarrassed me. That my bosses had fired my employee without any regard for my position. I was generally sick of being messed with. And so, as my class of ten inmates and the four members of the inmate library detail stood by, I was suddenly overcome by a spirit, the impulse to go rogue.

Every piece of prison swag I’d heard suddenly swirled into my head, and was absorbed directly into my bloodstream. The 48 Laws of Power. Law 17—Keep others in suspended terror; cultivate an air of unpredictability. Law 37—Create compelling spectacles. And the boasting of the kite writer: I’m never one that’s lost for words. A bitch like me can’t be stuck on chuck, the boss is lost, for nada. I’m a go-getter, and I go for what I want, and usually, I get what I want. Early! And not only that: The spirit of Don Amato himself descended upon me. My lips curled into a faint sneer, the haughty gaze of the prison’s newest wise guy, the Sheriff Librarian. On the up&up and low low, you go for yourz. Law 28—Enter action with boldness.

I looked squarely at De Luca.

“Okay,” I said. “But now you’re punkin’ me out. He’s in my class.”

De Luca looked at me as though for the first time. It wasn’t a look of anger but of abject confusion, as though I’d just assumed physical form out of thin air. It suddenly occurred to me that he hadn’t ever really noticed me. And now, out of nowhere here I was, some stranger, dressed like a first- week college freshman, talking at him like a tough guy. It must have been a bit puzzling.

“What? No, no,” said De Luca. “He’s coming with me.” And to Jason: “You, up. You’re going right back.”

And that was that. I wasn’t going to escalate things any further. I had made my point. (Law 47—Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory, learn when to stop.) It was important to let the officer save face. He was, after all, the officer; in prison, it was his ass on the line.

As soon as De Luca had escorted Jason out, the other inmates commended me. “You go, Artie!,” “You tell that mutherfucka!” “We got yo back, bro”—all of which made me cringe. Nevertheless, it was respect, political capital that I could store away. And perhaps De Luca, the Angry Seven, and the inmates would think twice about crossing the Sheriff Librarian.

For the next few days I maintained my Sheriff Librarian persona, enforcing the rules with gusto, banishing inmates, speaking with authority to officers, and basically taking no shit from anybody. Fat Kat [inmate on library detail who is now out of prison working at a community center and with whom Steinberg is still friends] pulled me aside and gave me some advice.

“I know what you’re doing,” he said with a smile. “And I think it’s a good idea. But watch yourself. And don’t ever, never, do what you did with De Luca again or you’re asking for some serious trouble. And De Luca’s okay, you know? Don’t go crazy here.”

I shrugged.

“Listen,” said Fat Kat, “you might think you’re a badass. You are not a badass my friend. You’re, at best, a punk. So why don’t you just stick to being a librarian?”

De Luca and the inmates in the library probably thought of me as an overeducated young brat who didn’t know the first thing about the real world of tough-guy prison combat. And they were completely right. But if they feared me a tiny bit or thought I might be a loose cannon, that was fine with me. I now knew the 48 Laws of Power.

“To quote Dirty Harry,” I replied. “I work for the city.”

“To quote Dirty Harry? Okay, Avi,” Kat said, walking away, laughing, “I’ll remember that.”

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