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In prison, respect is the coin of the realm. The library ran smoothly when it ran on mutual respect. I was a pretty good boss, but the bar is low in prison: one of my clerks told me that he liked working in the library because “you treat us like people.” Treating people like people seems like a no-brainer to me, but that is the essence of respect.

Respect is all that is left when a person’s dignity is methodically stripped down to nothing. An inmate has no personal space, no privacy, no power, no voice in anything that happens to him, but he can command and give respect. If any word or deed is tinged with the slightest “disrespect,” all hell could break loose. Many dialogues start with, “No disrespect, but . . .”

The literal meaning of “respect” is “to take a second look.”
Every word in prison is second-guessed, mulled over, dissected. This is possibly due to the fact that people have a lot of free time when they are incarcerated. With a surfeit of time, molehills can become mountains. Respect is universally desired; disrespect is hunted, ferreted out. Sometimes I caught a thieving patron hiding a magazine in his pocket or trying to smuggle a book out of the library, a blatant act of disrespect that, for my
own credibility, I had to write up as a rules infraction. “Bunch of crooks around here,” I’d mutter to my clerks, which made them laugh, but they knew: Disrespect must not stand.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This article is excerpted from Valerie Schultz’s book, Overdue: Dewey Decimal System of Grace.


© Liturgical Press.

Valerie Schultz

Valerie Schultz is a freelance writer and award-winning essayist. She is author of the recently released book Overdue: A Dewey Decimal System of Grace.

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