Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Les Miserables: The Bishop and the Redemption of Jean Valjean

Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Miserables, set in the French Revolution, was really about a revolution in the human heart and a contagious outbreak of virtue.

By Father Gordon J. MacRae

(These Stone Walls) Many TSW readers know that I work in the prison library. I wrote about it in 2011 in “The Spring of Hope: Winter in New England Shows Signs of Thaw.” In 2012, the prison library broke all previous records. 25,861 books were checked out to prisoners during the course of the year. A part of my job is to maintain such statistics for a monthly report. In a typical month in this prison, over 1,000 prisoners visit the library.

I take a little ribbing just for having such a job. Every time the Stephen King story, The Shawshank Redemption replays on television, prisoners start calling me “Brooks,” the old codger of a prison librarian deftly played by the great James Whitmore. I even have Brooks’ job. When prisoners succumb to their worst behaviors, and end up spending months locked away in “the hole,” it’s my job to receive and fill their weekly requests for two books.

Locked alone in punitive segregation cells for 23 hours a day with no human contact – the 24th hour usually spent pacing alone in an outside cage – the two allowed weekly books become crucially important. On a typical Friday afternoon in prison, I pull, check out, wrap, and bag nearly 100 books requested by prisoners locked in solitary confinement, and print check-out cards for them to sign. I pack the books in two heavy plastic bags to haul them off to the Special Housing Unit (SHU).

It’s quite a workout as the book bags typically weigh 50 to 60 pounds each. Once I get the bags hoisted over my shoulders, I have to carry them down three flights of stairs, across the walled prison yard, up a long ramp, then into the Special Housing Unit for distribution to the intended recipients. The prison library tends to hire older inmates – who are often (but not always) a little more mature and a little less disruptive – for a few library clerk positions that pay up to $2.00 per day. One day the prison yard sergeant saw me hauling the two heavy bags and asked, “Why don’t they get one of the kids to carry those?” I replied, “Have you seen the library staff lately? I AM one of the kids! ”

Prisoners who have spent time in the hole are usually very grateful for the books they’ve read. “Oh man, you saved me!” is a comment I hear a lot from men who have had the experience of being isolated from others for months on end. When prisoners in the hole request books, they fill out a form listing two primary choices and several alternates. I try my very best to find and send them what they ask for whenever possible, but I admit that I also sometimes err on the side of appealing to their better nature. There always is one. So when they ask for books about “heinous true crimes,” I tend to look for something a bit more redemptive.

One week, one of the requests I received was from Tom, a younger prisoner who later became one of my friends and is now free. Tom’s written book request had an air of despair. “I’m going insane! Please just send me the longest book you can find,” he wrote. So I sent the library’s only copy of Les Miserables, the 1862 masterpiece by Victor Hugo.

It got Tom through a few desperate weeks in solitary confinement. Two years later, as Tom was getting ready to leave prison, I asked him to name the most influential book among the hundreds that he read while in prison. “That’s easy,” said Tom. “The most influential book I’ve ever read is the one you sent me in the hole – Les Miserables. It changed me in ways I can’t begin to understand...” (continued)


1 comment:

James K Savonarola said...

thanks for the link...this is refreshing for the mind and the heart