Books behind Bars

Avi Steinberg's memoir of life as a prison librarian

Avi Steinberg has faith in the power of books and writing to help transform lives.

An “earnest Yeshiva boy,” Avi Steinberg ’02 never thought he’d spend his days in prison. But in 2005, when offered the post of librarian at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, he took it, glad to trade writing obituaries for the Boston Globe as a freelancer for a more secure job with dental insurance and a surplus of live, albeit caged, bodies. He was eagerly unaware of what was in store. “I knew this would be a stretch, and I went there searching for something,” he adds. “But I didn’t know what that was.” 

For nearly two years he promoted books and creative writing to a range of students: pimps, prostitutes, junkies, thugs, robbers, con men, and even killers. His recently published memoir, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (Random House), is a rich meditation on this wild experience and the related nuanced questions about morality and humanity that he confronted armed with little more than his own sensitivities and book learning. 

“A prison library is a fascinating place,” Steinberg says in retrospect. “People there have a dire need to connect--with other people, with estranged loved ones, with their past, with themselves.” At the same time, the library is the only place, apart from solitary confinement, where inmates can experience any quiet in a social setting; carpeting and books dull the roar and screams of prison life that reverberate against all that steel and concrete. It was within this context of books--of writing, reading, and thinking--that Steinberg aspired to create “a space where you can make people open up instead of close down, to awaken people instead of numbing them,” he explains. “Everywhere else in prison is a place of shut down, lock down, literally.” The library allows people to relax, briefly, away from the power-mongering and threats of physical harm, and reminds them “that they are more than criminals, if they choose to be.”


The job’s immediate milieu was familiar enough: “Libraries feel like home,” Steinberg says. Born in Jerusalem, he and his family lived in Cleveland until moving to Cambridge in 1993, when his father, Bernard Steinberg, became director of Harvard Hillel. Growing up, “there was always reading, and conversations about books; we’d pull one out to talk about it. And there was a willingness to argue. That’s part of the Jewish tradition: arguing that doesn’t lead to conflict.” 

Raised Orthodox, Steinberg went to the Maimonides School in Brookline, where he channeled his “considerable adolescent hooligan rage into, of all things, intense Torah study.” That included Torah summer camp in the West Bank, where whole days and nights were spent in the beit midrash, the House of Study. In an assigned table spot surrounded by the Talmud (a stack of six volumes), a Hebrew Bible, a set of Maimonides’ Code, and Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries, Steinberg’s teenage years were taken up by studying and praying: “I loved wrestling with the ancient books, having them speak to me in their original mysterious languages,” he writes. 

This library living continued at Harvard. “I wanted to study all day--and not for the grades or exams, all of which are absent in yeshiva, but just for the love of it,” he explains. A history and literature concentrator, he “basically just went into Widener Library and emerged bleary-eyed a few years later.” 

At the prison, inmates nicknamed him “Bookie.” With no library-related degree and only a modicum of in-house training, Steinberg threw himself into the union job. His boyish face and Harvard credentials marked him as the “youngest, greenest of staff members”--as no one ever failed to remind him. Advice came from all sides: “Trust no one,” “Be careful,” and “Watch your back.”

Any assumptions about the ease of book learning quickly disappeared. “As a prison librarian, you need to fight for the space, fight to purchase the books, fight to keep books on the shelves, fight for people to be able to come to the library, fight to keep people coming back to the library,” Steinberg says of his daily struggles. “It takes a lot of effort to bring books alive for people. To me, this was not obvious before.” 

In the subculture of the library he found a “prison crossroads, a place where hundreds of inmates come to deal with their pressing issues”: pending legal cases, illiteracy, stalled educations, nonexistent careers. “There is no wake-up call more effective than 25 convicts in matching uniforms coming at you first thing in the morning,” Steinberg writes. “The chaos begins right away.”

The library is also a hidey-hole, a place where inmates can sneak into the stacks to engage in illicit activities: hatching plans, or passing notes. Such “kites”--letters filled with love promises, soap-opera-worthy jealousies, and not a few erotic poems--are usually passed between men and women (who live in sex-segregated prison quarters and must use the library separately) inside books in the stacks. These notes are contraband, as are any weapons made from hard-bound books, such as knives, mallets, or simply blunt instruments. Also banned in cell blocks are pens, tape dispensers, CDs and DVDs, paper clips and staples. Magazines, though not banned, have been known to be rolled up tight with duct tape--to become fearsome billy clubs. 

Inmates were intrigued by two of the most famous Boston prisoners who educated themselves while incarcerated, Malcolm X and gangster Whitey Bulger, according to Steinberg. “For each person seeking spiritual guidance or the development of a political conscience, like Malcolm, there was a cold materialist, studying how to employ violence more efficiently…Just like Whitey,” he writes. The library is not allowed to carry the most-requested book: Robert Green’s The 48 Laws of Power, an update on Machiavelli’s The Prince, made famous on the streets by rapper Tupac “Makaveli” Shakur. Steinberg found the laws a bit unnerving: “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter”; “Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit”; “Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim”; and “Despise the free lunch.” 

Faith and religion led to perhaps the richest conversations and debates at the library. Inmates were fascinated by Steinberg’s background and by Hasidism, which Steinberg (no longer fully observant) came to see as not dissimilar to the street gangs that shape many prisoners’ lives. “In their minds, Hasidism embodied the ideals of thug life,” he writes: “a reputation of viewing the world as us-versus-them, and running their businesses and community institutions without any regard for a system of law imposed by outsiders, persecutors of their community. And what’s more, they did it in style. They dressed their own way, talked their own way, walked their own way.” 


Steinberg found the best approach to inmates was to ask the simplest question: “What are you looking for?” Many sought what was elusive: finding peace with themselves. Despite repeated warnings, those were the people Steinberg drew close to. This caused him no end of worry about the boundaries between prisoner and jailer, but also honed his conscience--and spurred a maturity--in a way he never could have done by himself in the library of the yeshiva, or even at Harvard. 

“It takes a lot of courage to be kind to anyone in prison,” he says. “Kindness was literally outlawed.” Strict bureaucratic rules applied, as did an unwritten “us versus them” mentality; nobody was explicitly trusted, no one was a “friend.” Policies precluded staff from “sharing any item, no matter how small, with an inmate,” Steinberg writes. “This was what made the prison library--a lending library after all--such a radical concept.” And was Steinberg himself a teacher, mentor, jailer, or baby-sitter? Sometimes he “quietly permitted modest amounts of dancing in the library,” or did online searches for inmates, or allowed loans of prohibited books, such as the black, urban pulp fiction novels of Triple Crown Publications. Once, breaking serious rules, he brought in a chocolate cupcake for a man celebrating a lonely birthday and allowed him to eat it in private in the library office. “Even the toughest guys I met said that anyone who tells you they didn’t cry in the early days of imprisonment, or still don’t, sometimes by themselves in the dark of night, is lying,” Steinberg notes.

Among those he became closer to was a former drug dealer turned aspiring television chef, Chudney; Steinberg helped him develop a plan of action, track down recipes, and plow through extensive applications to cooking schools. Another inmate, C.C. Too Sweet, a short, loud-mouthed attention-seeker, was writing his magnum opus: an autobiography detailing his rise from a childhood of physical abuse by his mother to a successful career as a pimp. He and Steinberg together edited and shaped hundreds of pages of a handwritten manuscript over the course of a year. (Inmates may write only in prison-issued notebooks, using specially designed bendable pens.)

One inmate Steinberg befriended was Jessica, an addict and a Sylvia Plath fan (as were many women inmates) who came to his creative-writing class. She longed to reunite with the baby son she had left in a church pew with a note--who had turned up on the male side of the prison. From the library window, she silently watched him play basketball in the yard, but never came into contact with him. Surely one of her tasks, as Steinberg points out, was “to come to terms with the crime she was never charged with--abandoning her son.” He urged her to compose a letter and another inmate spent weeks drawing her portrait, both of which Steinberg had ambivalently agreed to deliver to her son. But as this once-removed encounter drew near, Jessica ripped up the letter and portrait and was transferred to another prison without saying good-bye. A few months later, shortly after her release, she was dead of a drug overdose. 

Later on, Steinberg found out that another recently released inmate, Chudney, the aspiring chef, had been shot in the back and killed, apparently because he had inadvertently crossed into enemy gang territory with his brother. At this news, Steinberg shut the library for the day. “Then I closed my eyes and was initiated into an ancient club, those who cry alone in the darkness of prison.” 

By that time he had developed serious stress-related back injuries and had had some unsettling run-ins with a few guards. One deliberately set off a foul-smelling spray to disrupt Steinberg’s most constructive movie discussion (on Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, a modern take involving Verona Beach street gangs shown during the library’s Shakespeare Festival). That caused chaos and justifiable fury among the inmates. Meanwhile, he writes, even though the “book-slinging sheriff persona still worked wonders at cocktail parties,” the reality “was starting to give me acid reflux. I wasn’t a visitor in this prison. I held a key and was beginning to feel infected by it. Frankly I was falling apart, headed toward something of a mental and physical breakdown.” To top things off, he was mugged at knifepoint on his way home one night by a former library patron. Though he recognized Steinberg--“You’re the book guy!”--the mugger still took Steinberg’s wallet and ran, turning back to yell, “Hey, I still owe you guys two books!” 


Five months later, Steinberg left the library. For him, that incident “encapsulated the humor and sadness of prison life, and the fact that not everything has a redemptive ending. It made my decision to leave a little clearer.”

He is now a full-time writer in Phila­del­phia, still sorting through the depth of his prison experience. Much of what he saw and heard he did not write about, preferring to focus on the “human stories” because “I want people to see that this place cannot be reduced to a message or, as it is so often, a political spin.” The guards, for example, deserve a whole book to themselves: “I know they encounter inmates in much more trying circumstances than I saw in the library.” Still, he suspects his book will not be on the shelves of the Suffolk County House of Correction--or touted by his Orthodox schools. 

In the book, he details an episode from Torah camp in which he and two friends unwittingly trespassed into a Palestinian farmer’s field and were suddenly confronted by his sons. “They were tough and courageous. We, on the other hand, played adventure video games in air-conditioned suburban palaces.” His friend Moshe took out a well-worn copy of the Torah and gave the book to the Arab boys’ leader, indicating it was a gift. Steinberg was ashamed at the time because it is taboo in Jewish tradition to give away a holy book, especially to an enemy. 

Prison helped changed Steinberg’s view of that incident. “We had been taught to place the Other on a narrow spectrum of pity, suspicion, and hate….But Moshe…knew the holiness of the book was in sharing it.” In prison, as on the West Bank, he writes, book-sharing is taboo. “I met people on the outside of prison who made it clear they didn’t want their tax dollars funding a pretty library for violent criminals.” Steinberg understands that, just as he understands “the misery we had felt as kids relinquishing our holy book to the enemy. It involved crossing a very real boundary. What did we accomplish by it, or by running a library for convicts? Perhaps nothing. But there was a greater danger in not doing these things--or, at least, in not being willing to try.”

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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