This story was produced in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
“Is there a face on Mars?” a prisoner wants to know.
He is standing in the doorway to my office, beaming like a child. After watching a program on the History Channel, he decided there was a real human visage on the red planet, perhaps created by aliens.
We look up the subject online together. It turns out there is a geographical feature on Mars that looks a lot like a face, but the photographs and data, of course, demonstrate that it is just a rock formation on the planet’s surface.
I can see that he is genuinely disappointed—even as an incarcerated person, he had high hopes for a human presence in outer space.
As a prison librarian, you get a lot of interesting reference questions. Inmates do not have regular access to the internet, so while outsiders can Google the slightest question, the incarcerated have to use an old-fashioned form of search engine: the printed encyclopedia.
Or, they can lean on someone like me as their internet intermediary, making formal, written requests for information online. We do our best to provide accurate responses that are current and come from reliable sources.
An inmate hands me what looks like a 15th-generation photocopy, asking about the Social Security benefits available to him when he gets out. The piece of paper promises years of free financial benefits from the government.
This is another prison folktale: the myth of a lucrative handout, post-incarceration. The Social Security Administration is aware of such misinformation and has published brochures explaining how Social Security really works for inmates returning to society.
“But the paper says you will deny this program exists,” the inmate says, after I hand him one of those very brochures.
I am at a loss for words. He leaves my (accurate) brochure behind when he exits the library, a cruel reminder that people hear what they want to hear.
One of the library workers, an African-American man, tells me he goes by Brown-Bey, not simply Brown, because he is a Moorish Science Muslim. Inmates like him, he says, add a suffix such as ‘Bey’ or ‘El’ to their last names, a symbol of their Moorish, not Black, heritage.
The Moors meet on Fridays at the weekly Muslim jum’ah service in the gymnasium near the library. When they walk in, some with flowing robes and turbans, they look more like ancient wise men and shepherds than inmates. Others wear a modified fez, a hallmark of Moorish Science.
Today, the Moorish Science Temple shares a kinship with the Sovereign Citizen movement, which considers itself unbound by the laws and leaders of the United States.
The library clerk goes on to tell me that sovereign citizens don’t have to pay taxes because of the “straw man” theory. The explanation of this is convoluted and takes a while for my brain to process. But the idea is that all humans have two personas, a legal entity and their physical self, and the latter is not responsible for the debts or taxes of the former.
Yet the IRS is very aware of the “straw man” theory and will fine an individual who uses it $5,000 for filing a “frivolous tax return.”
I try to explain this, but to no avail.
“Just write the word Frank where the stamp goes,” I hear another inmate telling a friend in the library.
I have to ask what he is talking about. He tells me that it is common knowledge that a very wealthy man named Frank died and donated his millions of dollars to the U.S. Postal Service. Now all poor people have to do is write his name on an envelope in place of a stamp, and the mail will be delivered for free.
Many prisoners swear they have used this method, and that it works.
The cool and weird thing about Franking is that in the U.S., it was originally used in 1775 by members of the first Continental Congress—it allowed for representatives to mail letters just by signing their names. If you look up the word ‘frank’ in the dictionary, one of the definitions you'll find is, “The signature of the sender on a piece of franked mail serving in place of a postage stamp.”
While it may not work even if the concept has (somewhat legitimate) historic origins, the idea of franking is appealing. It is at times like these that I feel more like an anthropologist than a librarian: Prison can be a Kafka-esque time capsule, the Land That Time Forgot. Ideas from ancient Rome and early America still exist behind bars in the 21st century.
“Is Michelle Obama a Freemason?”
This is a serious question from an inmate. I sigh as I type it into Google. Many incarcerated people I have met are very sure that Freemasons are the real world power. I blame this myth on Dan Brown— The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol are still avidly read books in prison.
“She is at least part of the Illuminati,” another inmate says. “I saw her make a Freemason hand gesture on TV last night.”
Trying to start a dialogue, I ask, “What is the Illuminati?”
“It is the secret society of elites who rule the planet through the New World Order.”
“Who else is part of the Illuminati?” I ask.
According to inmates, there are many famous Illuminati members, including former President Barack Obama, Jay-Z and Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Bono. I’ve heard many of them reference the Eye of Providence, which sits atop the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill, as proof of the Freemasons’ secret reign over the U.S.
I tell them that current Freemason groups deny any connection to the design of the bill.
“Well, of course they will deny it...”
White supremacism, another conspiracy theory, is very much alive and well in prison. The library books are constantly getting vandalized with racist symbols, such as the tag “14/88.” (Fourteen represents the number of words in the white-supremacist maxim of the convicted felon David Lane, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The number 88 is shorthand for “Heil Hitler,” since H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.)
The circulation clerk blacks out the symbols with a Sharpie, but it’s a futile effort: The books go out and come back with the same markings, over and over again.
Another inmate, with an air of innocence, asks me about the plan for world domination by the Jews.
“And what plan is that?” I ask.
“I read about it in a book. How Jews are smart and stick together and have a plan to take over the media so they can control the world... Don’t the Jews own the media?”
After a few questions and some Googling, I realize that the book the inmate is talking about is “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It contains false, anti-Semitic propaganda published in early 20th-century Russia.
I talk about it a bit with the prisoner, and I can see some enlightenment happening. He is slightly mortified that he didn’t understand this classic work of hate literature was used against Jews during the Holocaust.
I have not found a copy of that vile book in my library, but I imagine it is also well-worn, often photocopied, and passed around just like the fake Social Security benefits paper. It’s true that conspiracy theories are popular everywhere—perhaps in this era more than the recent past. But they’re especially flourishing in the education-less vacuum of many prisons nationwide, where funding for classes and programming gets cut more every year. Sadly, ignorance is breeding faster than the cockroaches and mice that also inhabit these human warehouses.
At one point, I start bringing in books, two bags a day, to revitalize a prison library that has not seen new ones in years. The inmates are curious. Where do they come from? Am I buying them? Are they donations? How do I have access to so many?
One of the library clerks, a young man from Philadelphia, looks at me with a twinkle in his eye.
“I know,” he says. “You are part of the Book Illuminati!”
I am thrilled and smile back.
Mary Rayme is a recently retired prison librarian who worked at correctional facilities in West Virginia and Maryland. She is currently writing a memoir.