As a queer teen, Michael Shane Hale found belonging in books. Here’s how he built a place where everyone can read in peace in prison.
When I was 16, my mom attacked me with a butcher knife. She was chasing me out of my childhood home after finding pages from a Playgirl magazine that I had secreted inside my bedroom wall years earlier.
A friend had used the pages — along with those from Penthouse — to show me the facts of life. She pointed out the genitals of Playgirl’s male and Penthouse’s female centerfolds and described penetration by rubbing the pages together.
About an hour after my mother drove me out of the house, I limped back on a leg that was already broken due to a sports accident. In shock, I watched her throw black garbage bags loaded with my things into a ditch.
Peeking out from one of those bags was my most prized possession: a small library of books including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Plato’s Symposium” and “The Tommyknockers.” It started raining, and my heart sank watching my collection melt away. These books gave me a sense of belonging. Seeing them destroyed made me feel like a ghost.
I survived this trauma by ignoring my longing to be accepted. But underneath the surface there were layers of unprocessed pain from a dysfunctional family dynamic, being bullied, and being molested by a friend of my father.
It was my desperation for my father’s validation that led me into my first relationship with a much older man. My lover told me that he saw my potential and wanted to help me realize it. But over the next 2 ½ years, he was controlling and abusive.
In 1995, at age 23, I killed this man. Four and a half years later, I pleaded guilty to murder, kidnapping and robbery, and I was sentenced to 50 years to life in a New York state prison.
Now even after nearly three decades behind bars as an openly queer person, I still wrestle with belonging, acceptance — and remorse. To transform myself and to never again bring that type of pain into the world, I’ve become involved with lots of programs, especially those in higher education. Over 16 years, at Auburn Correctional Facility and then at Sing Sing, I earned two associate degrees and a bachelor’s in behavioral science. At Sing Sing, where I am currently housed, I also began talking to the librarian about what a clerk position would entail.
In December 2020, I had just completed a master’s degree in professional studies when I found out that I had been assigned to the library as general clerk due to facility needs. As one of about eight people doing this job, I would perform tasks such as shelving books and learning how to catalog titles using the Dewey Decimal System. I would also enter books into the database, process magazines and newspapers, and create and maintain a reentry area for people planning for their return to their communities.
I can’t say that my first day was easy. As I began working in the back, one of the other clerks declared that he didn’t need me there. “You’ve got to stay out front,” the pudgy man said.
“Uh, OK,” I mumbled, hearing the uncertainty in my voice. I knew that working in the back of the library, where comic books, manga and urban novels were stored to prevent theft, was considered a more powerful position than working in the front.
After our brief encounter, the clerk turned his head back to the aging Hewlett-Packard computer that held the library database. He entered the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus that I was donating into the system. Yes, it was my first day, but gift-giving is a strategy I’ve used on straight and cisgender people, hoping they will see me as an asset and not a liability.
In the front of the library, tall, curtainless windows let in strips of sunlight illuminating the tightly spaced bookcases. Maybe I was projecting, but I imagined how such close quarters could lead to people “accidentally” bumping into me.
Not-so-accidentally bumping into a queer person is a strategy that straight men use to come on to us without ruining their reputation. If things don’t work out, they can claim you started it and retaliate against you with yelling, shunning, gossip and, sometimes, even violence.
As I considered the risks of the existing layout, the senior librarian, who I’ll call Mr. H., popped in from the educational office, where he spent hours processing interlibrary loan requests.
“Hey! Can I redesign the front of the library?” I asked the tall man, whose face unexpectedly exploded when he smiled.
“Why do you think I hired you?” he shot back.
I thought back to our previous conversations about an ecology class and lab that I created at Auburn through the Cornell Prison Education Program. I wanted to start a program at Sing Sing that would allow us to grow vegetables, sell them in commissary and donate any profits to food banks.
To help out, Mr. H. gave me information about area farms that had a social justice impact. Ultimately, my idea didn’t pan out, but my experience with the librarian let me know that it was OK for me to take the initiative.
After I returned to the back and took my place at the golden-brown, wooden counter, I asked several of my fellow clerks how they felt about a redesign. It was important for them to have a say.
“Man, that would be great,” said one. As he flashed his piercing eyes my way, everyone else agreed. I felt encouraged. Still, I knew that changing things would be a long and lonely affair. Like being openly queer and doing a lot of time.
Days turned into weeks, which turned into months. The library began its transformation. My handmade signage identified the Dewey Decimal System used in the nonfiction section. I created moments for the fiction section: Paper dragons flew above the fantasy section. A cardboard jewelry box with hearts anchored the romance section. The other clerks helped me move bookcases to allow in more light.
Along with renovating the space, I dusted, shelved, relabeled and repaired thousands of books. The oldest titles, from the late 1800s, were boxed up for the Sing Sing Museum. Other old, damaged or duplicate books were marked with a red discarded stamp. I hated taking a book out of circulation. Each one felt precious, but it was impractical to keep them all.
At least in our prison library, the criteria was deliberative and not arbitrary, like the conservative parents calling for bans on queer-focused books and the local governments forbidding schools to use titles that they brand as Critical Race Theory.
I eventually created a Black culture section of our library. If we’d carried books on Critical Race Theory, I would have highlighted them as well.
One day I was reshelving books and overheard a patron say, “They’ve really stepped this library up.” A smile reshaped my face. I felt genuine pride at what was being accomplished with my redesign.
Queer literature such as Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” began to feel different in my hands. I found myself putting them in a pile, along with the works of other queer ancestors like Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin.
On another day, when I talked to a patron about this stack of books, he did a double take. “Hold up, you said James Baldwin was a homosexual?”
“Yeah, it is common knowledge,” I replied, breaking the tension without a fist being thrown.