Running the Books

I needed to gain some prison respect.  Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t escape the impulses of my education: that the world’s problems demanded the old college effort.  Yes, I would do this the Harvard way.  I would spearhead an initiative.

I spliced some glossy magazine photos of Hurricane Katrina refugees and designed a nice propaganda poster with it.  There had been a good deal of outrage among the inmates at the government’s indifference toward poor black communities in New Orleans.  I would challenge inmates to do something beyond complain.  To donate money to hurricane relief and to command respect for having done so.

When I proposed the idea to Patti, she balked.  It hadn’t occurred to me that raising money from inmates, especially as a collective, was actually a radical concept, not to mention a potential logistical nightmare.  But these, I insisted, were mere technical problems.  I’ll stay on top of it, I assured her, supremely confident.  I could tell she didn’t feel comfortable with the idea.  But, probably not wanting to dampen my enthusiasm, she gave me the green light.  Or rather, the yellow light, which in Boston means slam on the gas.

Up went the poster.  I rigged up a special consent form with which an inmate could authorize the transfer of money directly from his prison account to the Red Cross Katrina Fund.  The consent form was photocopied as a receipt.  I made up lists of inmates by prison unit.  I perfected my pitch and made flyers that were to be dispersed throughout the prison.

Everything was going well until a senior staffer, a jolly linebacker-sized caseworker with a heavy black leather jacket, a thick curly mop, and even thicker Greek accent, walked into the library, clutching one of the flyers.  His smile beamed through his gum-chewing.

“Eez theez for real?” he asked, lifting up the flyer.

I confirmed that theez indeed was quite real.

“Ho boy,” he said shaking his head, laughing.  “Good luck, my friend.”

He gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder that almost knocked me square out of my Rockports.

The reaction from staff was nearly unanimous.  Another caseworker, on his daily newspaper break in the library, asked me what inmate donors would get in return.  A sense of agency, I theorized.  A faint grin crossed his face as he awaited the punch line.  When it didn’t come, he burst out laughing.

“That,” he said, “is priceless.”


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