[Prison journal]: First impressions

Intro note: Part of the 5 course Spring semester was a course I taught at Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI), a maximum-security men’s state prison in-between Baltimore and Washington, DC. It houses thousands of male prisoners, many from West Baltimore, the sight of the recent ‘Baltimore Uprising.’ The facility was the former cage for Black Panther leader Eddie Conway until last year, and has a very noticeable influence and presence from the Marxist-rooted Black Guerrilla Family, which grew from the uprisings in Attica in 1971 and the work of revolutionary fighters such as George Jackson.

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During our 10-class course titled, “Contemporary Violent Conflict” we mostly focused on the interpretation of current events through critical theory. We read Zizek, Foucault, Thoreau alongside Kaczynski, McVeigh, bin Laden and a host of lesser known militants. The course was very well received.

What follows are a series of journals I scribbled down typically via voice dictation to my phone as I battled traffic heading back into DC. These are not formal essays but my own self-reflection. I have removed the names of prisoners and replaced it with ****. I will post a series of these as I transcribe them.

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Journal #1: 01/28/2015

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in chilly January and I find myself standing in front of 30 men in sweat pants and matching blue-ish shirts. The men sit talking amongst themselves—and some of them, obviously about me—as I pace in the front of the room and wait for my time begin. In the back of the room, are several black men sitting closely together wearing kufis, one has wrapped his neck in a green and white kafiah. Sitting directly in front of me, in the front row of the room, are two men, both white, one of whom is embroidered with heavy tattooing. Being a student of symbols and social movements, I recognize many of these symbols: an eagle with its wings spread and his head to the side, a styled pair of lighting bolts and various Nordic symbols—all marking of a neo-Nazi.

This is the scene in course selection day at a maximum-security prison nestled in between DC and Baltimore. This is JCI.

The student prisoners are all very warm. Many make eye contact when I speak, ask intriguing questions, and seem to be trying to put me at ease. Dispute the extensive searching from the guards, the anti-rape training I underwent, the roll after roll of razor wire, bullet proof glass, shotguns, handcuffs and cameras, I do feel at ease. So I do my part. I pace from side to side in the front of the room, trying to entice the students to select my class. On this day approximately 120 students are provided the opportunity to sign up for classes, mine being one, with five other options. While some Profs are teaching classes on law or communication, my course is on contemporary violent conflicts and the interest and enthusiasm is palpable. So I say my spiel and take questions. An older man, probably in his sixties, who appears to be Arab and has a long white beard and kufi asks me if I plan on discussing State terrorism. Another man, with a strong Jamaican accent and a large build, asks about the Caribbean. Others ask about 9/11, the war in Syria, drones, the criminalization of dissent, the War on Drugs, and on and on and on. One excitedly asks me if we plan on discussing Boko Haram and ISIS.

When I propose using the course to discuss ‘the current protest movement sparked by police killings,’ a student correct me and calls them “murders.” I nod in agreement.

Another student asked me if I was in law enforcement or ever wanted to be in the military. When I said ‘no’ on both accounts, and clarified that I want to study terrorism outside of its application for counterterrorism, many in the room nod their heads. As I move from class to class I only see guards a few times, and the students move freely from room to room within the wing. I see students make tea from a hot water urn while others talk with friends.

I see students writing with plastic pens and I am reminded of the literally hundreds (if not thousands) of representations I’ve been shown in TV shows and movies of prison stabbings.

After giving the course overview three times to three separate rooms of eager student inmates, I return to the room where the student committee operates. This room has a few computers, an old TV on a cart, and various posters—such as one depicting the alphabet or North America—similar to a primary school classroom. One of these catches my eye. Across the room from an old picture of Malcolm X is a 8 x 10” piece of paper stating:

We are not inmates.

We are not convicts.

We are not prisoners.

We are incarcerated American citizens.

As I take in my surroundings with hungry eyes, the older Arab man comes in and staples together packets of text written in Arabic that appear to be from the Qur’an. Another student, a man who appears to be barely in his 20s and heavily tattooed, gives me a shy but obvious once over, head to toe, and then asks me where I got my jeans. As I sit with the student committee (who are also prisoners) one of them quickly reaches behind the desk to pull something out with a timed sense of urgency. It is a beautiful decorated brown and deep maroon prayer rug. Behind me, a few feet away, ten men assemble themselves shoulder-to-shoulder, face away eastwardly, and begin Maghrib, afternoon Muslim prayers. The men, all black, wear knit kufis and pray in silence…either that or the bullet proof glass that separated us by only a few feet blocked out the sound.

Just outside the classroom area, in an area off limits to prisoners beyond the security perimeter, is a mural of an American flag, with Abraham Lincoln in one corner and Obama in the other. I softly laugh to myself in a state of disbelief and shame.

After a series of interactions with guards and a host of bureaucratic delays, we begin our journey out of the prison facility. While the guards walk us from the ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’ after we reach our wing of the prison they seemingly vanish. Their sudden reemergence is notable as I had put their unpleasantness behind me and had been enjoying the students’ energy. Nonetheless, when it was time for the guards to take us out, we went through the long process of reaching the outside world. We pass through heavy door after heavy door, each one controlled by an invisible entity that seemingly is always a minute behind. Often time one door would have to be closed before the next could be opened, creating controllable, isolated pockets—‘man traps’ in security terms. Throughout the journey there are sights to marvel. A wall of shackles and other implements of confinement. A rack of old, heavy-looking pump action shotguns. We never see cells or prisoners in chains, but you know this is present. As we near a door that leads us to an outdoor courtyard I notice the guard’s face, maybe for the first time, and note the deep scars he has, two vertical cuts, one beneath each eye. Given the context, and despite the aged nature of the marks, I wonder if they were the result of an inmate.

We walk outside between buildings in the bitter cold. While still on the ‘inside’ in a security sense, it is mostly prison staff and the few inmates who have janitorial and other jobs. Above out heads swarms of seagulls circle and occasionally dive toward the ground, and further above even their heads, are menacing guard towers, and fences dressed with razor wire that seem to reach the sky. Because the fence is chain-link you can peer through it, but no matter how far you look beyond the fence is simply more fence or prison building.

While one can look up and marvel at the birds, everywhere else is chain, razor and the shadows of towers.

When I eventually reach my car I feel a sense of relief. Knowing I only have a short while before I have to lecture 20 Georgetown students on terrorism, I put my septum ring back in, my wedding ring back on, check my phone for missed calls and proceed on my way towards the nation’s capital. I will return to JCI each Friday for the next three and a half months. Throughout that time, I will spend a few hours each week reading communiqués and justifiable homicide essays with students. It will be the last thing that happens in their Fridays before 5pm dinner and the weekend. Some in the room will have experience with political violence of this nature. All will have experienced the violence of confinement and incarceration.

This semester promises to be unique, and in a nation that imprisons more people than anyone, never a shortage of eager students.

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