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Arts & Culture

Criminal: The Editor

Julienne Alexander
Robin Woods was saved by books while serving time in a Maryland prison.

On this week's Criminal Podcast, we hear the story of a man saved by books.  

Robin Woods landed in jail after stealing about $20,000 worth of office equipment and trying to sell it to other people. He was caught and sentenced to 16 years in prison. 

Once there, Woods became very unhappy at the conditions in the prison and became involved in prison riots, which led officials to classify him as one of the most dangerous prisoners in the state of Maryland.

Woods, a man who had had very little formal education and did not know how to read, was transferred to a high security prison.
One day, while sitting in his jail cell, he heard someone coming around, screaming, 'library cart.'

Woods thought: "Why not."

"It was a marvelous thing. The whole world opened up," Woods said. "Even though I was confined in an institution, in a prison, in a building, in a cell, my mind was free because the only thing I had to do was wait for the library man to come in and bring me a book. And I could escape."

And that began an incredible journey of learning and reading.
Woods fell in love with reading and he found the Merriam-Webster encyclopedia. Reading the gigantic book was all he did.

And as he did, he started finding errors in the encyclopedia. So he wrote a letter to Mark Stevens, the editor of the encyclopedia. Stevens became incredibly fond of Woods and also leaned on his shoulder to look for other mistakes.  
"He informed me, I think fairly early on, that his ambition was to read the entire encyclopedia and nobody before or since has ever told me that that was their ambition for that book," Stevens said.

The state's Commissioner of Correction was impressed with Woods' pursuit of knowledge and his tenacity to learn. Stevens, wrote a letter to the commissioner and asked  for Woods' release and because of good time and behavior, and Woods was eventually released from prison.

Woods and Stevens finally met at Stevens' house in Massachusetts. Not only were they corresponding, but for years Stevens has been sending Woods money and helping support him after he got out of jail. Nobody knew that. It was always a very big secret.

The two men continue their relationship, but when asked, Woods said he doesn’t do much reading anymore.

The story of Robin Woods is this week's Criminal Podcast.  It's hosted by Phoebe Judge and recorded at WUNC.

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