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“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.
Read the full article about the conspiracy theories you hear in prison by Mary Rayme at The Marshall Project.