David Blumberg -- saint of lost causes

Jail librarian: With wit, respect and compassion, he soothes the failed of both society and politics.

November 25, 2001

About this series

This is one editorial in an occasional series that highlights the achievements and contributions of area residents who have little in common except this: Their lifetime commitments to the arts, the environment, social justice or volunteerism bolster our faith in this region and ourselves.

Champions of Hope, we're calling them, though they could just as easily be defined as heroes. Many are not well-known; others you'll recognize. All bring hope in some way to the people around them.

THE MEN at the Baltimore city jail probably would have profited from reading earlier. When they wander into the institution's library, they come looking for legal literature on telltale subjects:

Second-degree attempted murder. First-degree assault. Receiving stolen goods.

They make their requests to an expert who sometimes demands more detail before handing over the books.

"Stolen goods over $500?" he asks. If it's a different sum, it's a different law.

David Blumberg knows. He has been fielding such requests for 18 years as librarian at the Baltimore city jail.

He knows the basic citations the way evangelists know Scripture: Article 27, Section 411 -- second-degree attempted murder; Article 27, Section 12 -- first-degree assault; Article 27, Section 342 -- receiving stolen goods over $500.

His books fall open to the right pages, so often have they been copied.

"It's like Mickey D's," he says. "The hash browns are ready. They just have to be dumped in the oil."

So, this surprises you, this inmate interest in what they call "legal work"? You thought maybe they were reading Les Miserables?

Occasionally an inmate will want an actual book: Inner City Hoodlum, Kenyatta's Last Hit or something else by Donald Goines. Some of these volumes, Mr. Blumberg says, are like manuals, dramatizations of the life an inmate has lived or wants to live -- more successfully, at a higher level, outside.

"If it helps people escape, so be it," he says.

But a prison librarian generally isn't presiding over a Great Books course. The inmates want books that will help them work their cases, maybe file an appeal that cuts time off a sentence or overturns a verdict.

The jail can look like an all-male high school -- but it's still a prison. You could think of the inmates as students in a school of hard time.

Mr. Blumberg took the patience of librarians everywhere to a new height. Without airs, without noticing it himself, it seems, he transformed what might have been a clock-punching, let-me-out-of-here job into an enterprise of human generosity. He continues with first-day enthusiasm.

He nurtures hope beyond those he serves. Those who lose hope in humanity -- who see little value in what they do -- could see in David Blumberg how caring and commitment can be of service in the least likely places.

He succeeds because he has been a student as well as a teacher.

He can help his readers better because he has learned what they've learned: They expect to be virtually without representation when they finally do get to court. Overwhelmed public defenders won't have seen their cases or met them until they get to court. The defendant knows if he, the defendant, is not current on the law pertaining to "distribute and manufacture (not marijuana)," no one will be.

They try to do the work a lawyer would do if they had a lawyer with time. What they have is Mr. Blumberg, who can find the law or the law review article they want to study. They are taking some responsibility for their lives, in a sense. They are recognizing some value in reading. Everything is relative.

The librarian learns also that prisoners may not wish to have a speedy trial. They hope judges will see how long they've been rotting in jail and be, if not sympathetic, embarrassed, and sentence them to "time served" or, at the very least, time served plus a little -- less, they hope, than the time dictated by the guidelines. So Mr. Blumberg tries to make the defendant current. He can copy 10 pages of law book material per weekly visit per inmate.

Sometimes they want something relatively obscure, something from the University of Cincinnati Law Review. He'll try, he says.

"A lot of these guys are looking at a huge sentence," he says. "I can't say I can't."

He listens to those who claim they were framed, or caught up by corrupt police practices, or sent into the world without a chance to succeed. He listens as if it's the first time he's heard such a story. He asks only one thing: "Don't lie to me. If you were drunk and you confessed, don't say, `The Man kicked me.'"

You might think a man as giving, open and funny as David Blumberg would be abused by men in jail. You would be wrong. He's a lifeline and his customers know it.

"He's a person they can confide in. That's all a lot of them are asking for," says Lamont Flanagan, the jail's warden. "They're used to being treated at a sub-human level. He demands respect but he gives respect, so he's held in high regard."

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