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Prison Librarian


We're going to start the Unspoken episode off with a story about notes, passing notes, only not in class. SNAP JUDGMENT's Joe Rosenberg has the story.


JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Avi Steinberg's mugging story takes place a few years ago when on his way back from a late night movie in Boston, a man stepped out from behind and pressed a cold object to Avi's chest.

AVI STEINBERG: He told me that he had a gun, but he actually did not have a gun. He had a knife. So I very warily took out the money, gave him the money. I thought, OK, we're done here.

ROSENBERG: Except they weren't done because instead of leaving, the mugger just stood there, not moving.

STEINBERG: I'm thinking, what does this guy want from me? What is happening here? And then his tone changed. It changed from, like, mugger tone to, like, something else that I could not quite identify. And he says to me, do you work at the Bay? And I said, yeah, I work at the Bay. And he said, oh, yeah, I think I know you. Are you the book guy? And I said, oh, God, yeah - because the Bay is Suffolk County House of Corrections - that's basically Boston County prison - and I'm the librarian of that prison. So finally, he walks away, and then he stops and turns around to me, and he says, I still owe you guys two books and then just runs. It turns out that this guy had taken out books, and he never returned them.

ROSENBERG: Avi was actually the assistant librarian at the prison. He worked the night shift. And he says that when he first started there...

STEINBERG: I thought I would definitely be, like, cool, you know, I mean, because I was like, I get it. I get that this is kind of like all [expletive], you know. And that these guys, whether guilty or not, whatever, they got some kind of raw deal. So I figured that they would get me right away, I would get them. It would be great. And, you know, it wasn't exactly the case. I mean, the second I walked into that space, the library space, I saw a rule that was on the door of the library. So everyone sees it as they're leaving because it was the rule. It says, books are not mailboxes.

ROSENBERG: Did you know what that meant?

STEINBERG: No, I didn't know, but I found out very quickly because within the first week, one of the guards came in, and I saw that he was looking at the books, and I thought, oh, guy's looking at the books. That's nice, you know. But then he started, like, fishing in the books and pulling out papers.

ROSENBERG: Then he walked over to Avi and dropped a note on his desk, a message from one prisoner to another.

STEINBERG: And he was like, I found this in the book. And I said, oh, that's interesting. And finally, he said like, this is something that happens here.

ROSENBERG: The officer said that these notes were actually a common way for prisoners to exchange illicit information.

STEINBERG: And you actually are supposed to go through all the books and make sure that there aren't notes being left inside. So my job ended up being mostly to be the guy who takes letters out of books.

ROSENBERG: And as it turns out, it was a full-time job. It seemed to Avi sometimes like everyone was leaving notes.

STEINBERG: I would see people furiously writing letters, you know, in the library. Like, they came, wrote the letter, and stuck it in the book, and I saw the whole thing just happen in front of me. And then I would see people, you know, casually walking up and down the aisle, like, just looking at the books. Like, why - is this not really how you look at books, you know what I mean? Like, I could tell that look that they had on their face when they were looking for a letter because I had the same look on my face when I looked for a letter.

ROSENBERG: Then Avi realized that the savvier prisoners, in order to avoid being caught, were using case law books.

STEINBERG: Because they're really well organized. So you could say, like, the 19th volume of the Federal Reporter, you know? So that's their mailbox, so they went straight to that book right away. Tons of letters I know got through because occasionally, I would intercept a letter, and it was clear that there was tons of correspondence beforehand that I had not seen. So whatever system I concocted to find these letters, they concocted a better system to deliver them. But it was also my job to read these letters because we had to find out if something was happening, if there was something of any kind of security importance, and that's what the officers were the most interested in. They wanted to hear what was going on. But I would have this downtime. Like in the afternoon when the men were locked down I would have like an hour or so, and the library would be really, really quiet, and I'd sit there reading letters. And these voices would just sort of jump out at me.

ROSENBERG: Avi says that as a staffer, he'd always had to maintain a certain distance from the inmates. But through these letters, he could start to understand how prison actually worked.

STEINBERG: And people would say, you know, fly me a kite next week. And I was thinking, what is that? And then I realized they were just talking about the letters themselves. They were referring to the letters as a kite. And then once I saw that, I started to see it everywhere. And I'd hear it, also, you know, people talking about it. And that's just what these letters were called. They were called kites. And I didn't realize this, but most of these letters were written from men to women and from women to men because this facility had men and women in it. They never shared the same space ever. And the women were housed in the prison tower, like 11 stories up, like sort of Rapunzel style. But for a few hours every night, the women would come down to the library. So a lot of the letters were romantic, and they were pages long, and people really took a lot of time to write them.

ROSENBERG: But what really surprised Avi was how many of these romances started in the prison, even though most of these couples have never actually met.

STEINBERG: Because they could see each other through the windows, and they actually created this sort of language where they could signal to each other through the windows at night. So they would have these like, you know, sort of live-action conversations. Like, I could only see them motioning. I couldn't read it. But then whatever dramas were happening in the windows would filter into the letters.

ROSENBERG: I was wondering then if we could have you read through some of these.

STEINBERG: Sure, OK. This is Mario writing to T-Baby (ph). (Reading) My window writing skills suck, so we must go slow and be patient with each other until we get better. On Wednesday, we have a window date. Post up in your cell window. When I see you, I'm going to click my lights five times and then shape two hearts.

A woman writing to Papa Duck (ph). (Reading) One of my cellies just told me you were skywriting her in May. So know one thing, my friend. I'm on to you, Mr. Loyal. Stay the [expletive] out the windows. I know everyone here.

ROSENBERG: I love that line.

STEINBERG: It's a good one. Let's see. (Reading) Shahid (ph), how can you question my fidelity? Like I told you already, you don't understand or comprehend how what we have is very real. It ain't window talk and just something to do.

These are people who come to the library. I know everyone really well, you know? So sometimes, I could tell this was just such b.s., you know. Someone was just completely spinning themselves. Well, and you know, it's like a dating profile. Good for them, you know. They're putting out their best foot or whatever. But sometimes, people would just be super honest. So there was a couple letters from this older woman who - I knew her, you know. I saw her in the library a lot. She was just really lonely. And this is a line from a note that she wrote and left in the library. (Reading) To whom it may concern, I am a 36-year-old mother, grandmother and addict, the latter I'm not proud of.

ROSENBERG: Who was she writing to?

STEINBERG: Anyone. She was just looking to have a pen pal. And, you know, it's such a vulnerable position to put out a letter to nobody in particular and then to bury her soul in it. It takes a lot to do that. But you know, in the end of the day, I didn't let those go through, and that was just kind of sad because I was moved by that but I guess not moved enough.

ROSENBERG: How does it feel, then, when these people are yearning to communicate, and you're the guy who's, like, foiling them at the last second? And not only - you're not only foiling them, but you're getting to know the content of the message, and the recipient isn't.

STEINBERG: Yeah, it's terrible. I mean, tampering with people's mail is a crime, right? So it felt like I was committing a crime, like I was doing something really wrong. But if I let them through, then I'm starting to compromise my authority, which was so shaky - I mean, so shaky from the beginning because when you start bending any kind of rules for someone, they could say not only did you do this thing and now we're friends, so you have to help me out, but I know that you broke the rules, and I can get you in trouble for that so now you better help me. And you don't know how it's going to end. So I took special solace in my second job, which was to teach creative writing up in the prison tower and hoping that maybe, you know, I don't know, maybe that would help me feel less bad about the fact that I was destroying their other writings. And it was in that class on the very first day that I first met Jessica.

My first impression of her was her just sitting very, very still and very straight and very sort of proud, very good posture with her hands folded in her lap, just looking out the window, just kind of meditating. And I had no idea what was going on outside that window, only that her attention was there, not with me. But one of the readings I had assigned was a short story by Flannery O'Connor. And Jessica suddenly said, you know, let me see her. And I was like, what? And she's like, let me - I want to see a picture of Flannery O'Connor. So I said, OK, I mean, is that important? She's like, I want to - before I read this, I want to see what she looks like. I said, all right, fine. So I rustled it out, I showed her a picture of her, and she looked at her very intently and said, all right, she's not too pretty, you know. She looks kind of busted up. I trust her.

ROSENBERG: Then, Jessica went back to gazing out the window and didn't speak for the rest of the class. And after a while, it became clear that that's all Jessica did. No matter what the discussion, no matter how hard Avi tried to engage with her, Jessica would just sit there, her head turned to the right, staring off into nothing.

STEINBERG: So I pretty much said to her, listen, you can't just sit there staring out the window. And over the course of the next few weeks, she basically stopped showing up to the class. So I figured, fine, she doesn't want to come to the class. So be it. And then one day, probably a couple weeks later, I was in the library just sorting through some books, and Martha (ph), the gossip, came into the library to chat with me. And she said, you know, your friend, Jessica, you know, there's a reason why she doesn't come to your class anymore. And I said why, you know, because I was kind of curious. And she said because she can't look out that window. And I said, you know, so what she can't look out the window? It's not my problem. And she said, no, no, you don't understand. Like, she was coming to your class to look out that window because she wanted to look at her son.

ROSENBERG: You see, the window didn't really look out over nothing. It looked out over the prison yard, the same yard where Jessica's son, Chris, who was also an inmate at the prison, had yard time at the exact same time that Avi taught his creative writing class.

STEINBERG: And she had abandoned this boy years earlier when he was almost a baby. And the first time she saw her son as an adult was when he came into the yard. And this is what was going on in my class. She wasn't just checked out. She was checked in to her son. I don't know whether he knew that she was there. I took the elevator up to the 11th floor where the women were housed. She was just in the corner, you know, minding her own business, playing a game. And I sat down with her, and I said, listen, I know why you look out the window. And she looked at me like, what do you know? And I just said, look, I know that you were looking at your son. So I want you to come back to the class.

ROSENBERG: He had only one request, participate a little bit more, just enough to keep up appearances, and he'd let her look out the window as much as she wanted.

STEINBERG: And then of course, I, like, sighed and said, please don't tell anyone that I'm making this deal 'cause then everyone's going to want to make deals with me. But I want to help you out here, OK? And she looked at me like, all right, I'll come to your class. Let's do this. And so at one day, when the class was over and the other inmates had already left the room, I asked Jessica, so what are you seeing?

ROSENBERG: Jessica gestured to a group of men playing basketball down below. Then she pointed one out, Chris. From 11 stories up, it was hard for Avi to make out the details, but he seemed happy, healthy, lost in the game.

STEINBERG: And she had a whole take on him, you know? She - you know, when she was watching him out the window, she was really studying him and trying to understand what kind of guy he was and who - how it matched with the little boy that she remembered from all those years ago. And the little boy was a very happy boy and very active, and she still saw that, but it gave her some sense of continuity or some sense of - I don't know, something. And she just she told me this incredible dream that she had had.

ROSENBERG: In her dream, she would see Chris on the court, only this time, he was alone.

STEINBERG: But it was just sort of beautiful dance of him just sort of like skating around and shooting hoops in his very graceful way. And she just imagined him breathing and after many years remembered the dreams that she had had when she was pregnant with him of what it was like to have another breath inside of you. And, you know, she would go to sleep hoping that she would have this dream.

ROSENBERG: After that, Jessica started coming down to the library and confiding in Avi more and more.

STEINBERG: And she told me about the time that she abandoned him. This was after, you know, months and months of being seriously addicted and estranged from her family, and she just could - felt like I cannot raise this child. And she had taken him to a playground that day so he'd be really tired. She got on a train to go to the opposite side of town to a rich neighborhood so she would leave him in a place where there is money and there would be more opportunity for him. And she went into a church, and she left a note that said, he's a good boy. Please give him a good home. God bless. And she put this note in his shirt and just left, and that was the last time she saw him.

The way she put it to me is, you know, I committed all these crimes. I was always in trouble with the law, but, like, this was the worst thing I had ever done, and I wasn't even getting in any trouble for it. I'd gotten away with it, you know? And that was killing her. In the background, I'm hearing the prison guard come down yelling and saying, it's time to go. And I watched her go out with the other inmates in the hallway. And particularly that day, the guards were just really nasty, and I'm watching her through the library window. Everyone else was kind of, you know, engaged with the officer and yelling at him and trying to whatever, and she was just, like, not there. Like, she was, like, invisible, and then she just disappeared. I'm sure that night she tried to have her dream. I don't know.

ROSENBERG: Avi found himself hoping that one day he'd find a kite from Jessica to Chris in the library, letting him know that she was there and that she loved him. But Chris wasn't much of a library-goer. And when he did come in, Avi noticed that he wasn't as happy as he seemed from 11 stories up. Then one day, Jessica came to him with more bad news. She was being transferred to another prison. Within a month, she'd be gone.

STEINBERG: And I said, well, what about Chris, you know? And she said, what about him? And it was true. What exactly was I even suggesting? I don't know. But then later, before it really - when it got closer to her actually - her time to leave - she said to me, I would like to write him a letter. Can you deliver it to him? And, of course, I thought, no.

ROSENBERG: This was, after all, the opposite of what he was supposed to. His job was to intercept messages, not pass them along. For all the reasons he talked about earlier, it was just a bad idea.

STEINBERG: But I just couldn't help but say something at that moment because in prison, it's very hard to make things good happen, and I thought, you know, this is something that I could do. So I said, OK, I will do this, yes. And she said, I also want to give him a gift. And I'm like, I can't give him a gift, you know, what is that going to be? But she said the gift was a drawing of her. She wanted to have her portrait drawn, and she wanted her son to have his picture of his mother.

ROSENBERG: So Avi reached out to Chris through a third party - a mutual friend who often came into the library - only he said Chris wasn't interested in anything his mother had to say.

STEINBERG: But after - I don't know - maybe a couple days, couple weeks, he said that Chris actually was open to something. And when that letter came I should give it to him, and he would give to Chris, and, you know, he was waiting for it.

ROSENBERG: Now all he had to do was set up a space for Jessica to have that portrait drawn.

STEINBERG: And she came so prepared for that moment. She walked in, and she just looked completely different. Her eyebrows were plucked. Her lips and cheeks were rouged. Oh, and she had this flower in her hair made out of construction paper and gum wrappers folded origami-style into, like, a dahlia flower. And at some point, I said, maybe you should stare off, like, in a distance, like, looking out that window. But this was dismissed as too artsy.

ROSENBERG: And when the portrait was finished, Avi had to admit that Jessica's instinct was spot on. In the drawing, she put her best face forward, smiling for her son.

STEINBERG: But just from every single moment onwards, I felt nervous because Jessica really wanted to fuss over this letter, really get it right, you know? So, you know, I'd say to her, how's it going with the letter? And she said, no, I need more time. I need more time. And whenever Chris's friend would come into the library, he would say to me, hey, how's it going? Do we have any progress? And I would keep saying to him, I saw the portrait. It's happening. You know, she's just working on the letter, yes, yes, yes. It's in the mail. But the fact was I didn't have the letter in my hand, and a few days later, I was at the circulation desk processing books. And Martha the Gossip came in. That's where all these stories started and ended, and she said to me, she's gone. Jessica has left. But I had been preparing myself for her leaving for a while. I knew that that was going to come. And the fact is that as long as she had the letter, it could still happen. But then she said, I want you to know, also, that Jessica trashed the letter. She ripped it up and threw it into the garbage, and I saw it. And that kind of hit me hard, you know, because for me to think that I had raised Chris's hopes was just - it was just horrible.

ROSENBERG: What did you do to reach out to Chris? What did you say to him?

STEINBERG: Yeah, I - not much you can say. So I wrote him a really simple note. It said, I tried, Chris. I'm really sorry. And then it must've been weeks or - I don't know - months later. Martha came in, once again, to the library, but this time she was in tears. And she told me that - that Jessica had died. It happened not long after she had gotten out of prison. And she said she had overdosed alone in an abandoned house. And through her tears, Martha said to me, she was my friend. And I said, I know. And she said, you know, she considered you a friend, too, which, in prison, that's, like, such a radical notion, but it was the truth. And when you're about to leave the prison, you have to kind of just wait in this little area between two doors while they check you out. There were a lot of prison guards and other people - staff - around. And for some reason, that night, the wait was longer than usual. And you're just waiting and waiting and waiting, thinking this door is never going to open. And at that moment, I started feeling like I was going to burst into tears in between the prison doors. But I pushed them down, and the door opened, and I escaped into the night. A few weeks later after all this, I found myself wanting to find a book. And it was late at night, so I rolled up to the prison, flipped the light on back in the library, went to the poetry section. And then I opened the book up and a note slipped out - a kite. And I looked at the note, and it said, dear Mother, my life is - and that was it, nothing else.

ROSENBERG: Did you even allow yourself to think that this might be something from Chris? Or is that just too outlandish?

STEINBERG: It's not too outlandish for me. You know, someone else who opened it would've had a totally different take on it. But one thing I knew about this letter - the only thing I really knew about it - was that it was wedged into a book about Sylvia Plath. And Jessica used to come into the library looking for books and never finding what she was looking for. She told me that she'd probably read the back of every book in the library and had never found anything that was interesting for her. But Sylvia Plath - she was a big fan of hers. So everything sort of, for me at that moment, came together in that unfinished letter.


WASHINGTON: To learn more - a lot more - about Avi's time in the Suffolk County House of Correction, go grab a copy of his memoir. It's called "Running The Books." It's got some amazing stories. His latest book, "The Lost Book Of Mormon," which is nominated for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, will be out in paperback in November. We have links to both on our website, The original sound design for that piece was created by Renzo Gorrio, and the story was produced by Joe Rosenberg.


WASHINGTON: When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we're going to find the most unlikely savior of all, and you're not even going to believe it. When SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Unspoken" episode, continues, stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.