One prisoner's journey from illiteracy to a high school diploma with honors opened more than books. It opened prison doors to a freedom that could last a lifetime.
This medium-security prison has a library where I have been a prisoner-clerk for the last ten years. Its shelves are stocked with 21,000 volumes. With an average of 1,000 visits, and some 3,000 books checked out each month, the library is a literary hub intersecting virtually every facet of prison life. But there is a lot more going on than books flying off the shelves.
There are few proud moments in prison, but one of mine came in the form of a second-hand message from my friend Skooter, now free. A few months after Skooter (with a "k," he insists) ascended through the corrections system to finally hit the streets, another friend of his was sent back to prison for a parole violation. That friend came to the library one day, and standing at my desk, said, "You're the guy who broke Skooter out of prison!"
The man explained that he lived near Skooter in a seedy urban rooming house while both were unemployed and barely surviving in their first few months on parole. He said that Skooter had been unable to land a job, working in a series of temp jobs for minimum wage and sometimes faced with a choice between food and rent. It is an all-too-familiar account for young men struggling to emerge not just from a prison, but from a past.
Skooter came very close to giving up, the friend said, but often spoke of his "wanting very much not to disappoint you" by coming back to prison. "So he stayed the course," said the friend, "and now he's gotten his life together."
I first met Skooter several years earlier, one of the scores of aimless, rootless, fatherless, uneducated young men for whom prison can become a warehouse, a place in which thousands of "Skooters" store their aimless, hopeless futures. One day as we slowly ascended the multiple flights of stairs to be checked in at the Education Floor where the prison library is located, Skooter told me with a sense of shame that, at age 24, he had never learned to read or write.
Having resisted all the concerted efforts to recruit him into any number of prison gangs that would only foster his ignorance and exploit it, Skooter became a regular fixture in the prison library. For an hour a day there, I and other prisoners worked with Skooter to teach him to read and write.
My friend, Pornchai Moontri, tutored him in math, Skooter's most feared academic nemesis. We made sure he didn't starve, and in return he struggled relentlessly toward earning his high-school diploma in prison, a steep ascent in a place that by its very nature fosters humiliation and shuns personal empowerment.
One day, shortly before his high-school graduation in May, 2011, Skooter came charging into the library looking defeated. He plopped before me the previous day's copy of USA Today, opened to a full-page ad by some self-proclaimed Prophet-of-the-End-Time announcing that the world is to end on May 21, 2011, a week before graduation day.
"It's just my luck!" lamented Skooter. "I do all this work and the world's gonna end just before I graduate." "It's not true," I said calmly." "It MUST be true," Skooter shot back. "They wouldn't put it in the paper if it wasn't true!" Like many prisoners, and far too many others, Skooter believed that all truth was carefully vetted before ending up in newsprint.
Apocalyptic predictions sometimes play out strangely in prison. I told Skooter that back in 1999, a prisoner I knew became convinced of dire consequences from a looming technological Armageddon called "Y2K." That prisoner deduced somehow that prison officials would release toxic gas at the turn of the millennium so he spent the night of December 31 sewing his lips and eyes shut. Skooter wanted to know how the guy managed to sew that second eyelid, a small tribute to his deductive reasoning. I pointed out to Skooter in the USA Today ad's smaller print that this newest end-time prediction was actually a revision of the author's previous one set in 1994.
I strongly urged Skooter not to put off studying for final exams because of this. Skooter stayed the course. Since then, a subsequent prison policy barred all prisoners from teaching and tutoring other prisoners, a decision that effectively eliminated all of the positive influence, and none of the negative influence, that takes place in prison, driving the former underground.
Still, that graduation was Skooter's finest moment, and one of my own as well. It was a direct result of a prison-library subculture that grants every prisoner a few hours a week out of prison into an arena of books, a world of ideas, a release of huddled neurons yearning to be free.
A week after graduation, Skooter showed up in the library with a copy of The Wall Street Journal opened to an article by science writer, Matt Ridley. The article explored evidence that the Earth's magnetic core shifts polarity every few hundred-thousand years, and pointed out with dismal foreboding that it is 780,000 years overdue. Mr. Ridley stressed that no one knows its potential impact on our global technological infrastructure.