[Prison journal]: Second entry

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.

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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It’s a Friday afternoon and I find myself once again under lock and key in Jessup’s schoolhouse. The same familiar faces come to greet me. One man has been sent to ‘administrative’ (i.e. Administrative Segregation, aka ‘the hole’)  since our last class and I’m told will not be joining us for the rest of the term. adseg

He is replaced by two new students. I guess when the educational venue is prison, there is never a lack of students.

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So the students assemble in their seats, wearing their blue, state-issued shirts with “D.O.C” prominently stamped on them as if they needed yet another reminder of their position. The students are eager to talk about the readings they’ve been going over since we last met. So we dive right in.  This week, we’re discussing “defensive violence” and the connection between structural inequality and responsive violence. As soon as I get everyone’s attention we begin. Paul Hill is the first topic of the day. We discussed why Paul decided it was morally justified and divinely commanded to shoot a Florida doctor providing abortions. When I assigned the text, I did not know the most of the class was incarcerated for ‘murder.’ With this history contributing to their positionally, I was surprised that very little self-referential comments were made. While I did not not expect students to say, ‘Well when I id MY murder I thought…”, but I did expect a bit of self-reflection.

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Though the students made a host of intreating and intelligent observations and analyses of the texts, one stuck out for me. After we discussed the unrepentant nature of Walter Bond’s statement to the court at sentencing, the student looked puzzled and asked: ‘ ‘Why would the government ever let him out if he’s just going to do the same thing again?’ I laughed a bit and then realized he was serious. Edging a bit closer than I’d like to mockery I asked him, ‘Isn’t that the same thing the state says about you and every other inmate in here?’ The student looked a bit shocked, and other students laughed. Strange as it may seem, this man, who is serving a life sentence for murder, came to the same conclusion that prison architects do: prison doesn’t take a person’s beliefs away, it just isolates them from society for a time. Strangely enough, our discussion of political violence and the ethics of force covered the usual topics; usual to when I teach this text in other university venues. From there we talked about Walter Bond and the politics of the AETA, militant animal liberation and on and on. For around two hours we talk. We talk as classmates.

When it was time for the prisoners to leave the school wing and head to the next count, I distribute next week’s readings, collect their journals and shake a lot of hands. Many students thank me, call me by my name, and wish me a safe return next time. As I stand by the inmate bathroom waiting for a CO to escort me through the various contraptions separating my students from the outside, I look at the Obama-Lincoln mural which I had seen my first time there, the one that had filled me with so much shame and sadness. As if it had appeared since then (though I know it had not), I noticed a quite written below Mr. Lincoln and above Mr. Obama. it read:

“What do you envision? Never forget that this is your one precious life and you have the power to create your own future.”

This text is written across the red and blue stripes of the American flag. I wonder if the thousands of men who pass by it each day, if any of them read it. Do any of them find solace in such wisdom located on a prison wall?

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While I lean on the wall, the CO decides to go get a sandwich and milk from the cafeteria, leaving me in prison limbo: unable to return to the classroom that has been cleared and locked down, and unable to proceed towards the front discharge without a key-holder. So I wait. Even for outside volunteers, prison is a lot of waiting.  While I lean against the wall I chat with the prisoners.

One man in particular, with a grey winter hat, dark eyes and thick rimmed black glasses smalls warmly at me. He is a student of mine and a ‘criminal’ of some notoriety. In our weekly journal exchanges, I told him that his name was the only one I had recognized on the roster. I told him that although I knew the boogy man he had been made into, that I believed people are more than the crimes they committed.  Though his past was littered with the most heinous and violent offenses, leaning on the same wall, adjacent to the same bathroom, we’re just two people trying to make sense of this world.  For being such a tall and imposing figure, the student speaks softly. As I shuffle closer to continue our conversation, the guard returns. 

Apparently, while talking to the student, I had crossed some imaginary, arbitrarily-determined red line. Since I had been ‘cleared’ from the classroom wing, I had to stay with the guards, not with “them” (i.e. the prisoners). Though the difference between ‘with the guards’ and ‘with the prisoners’ is a matter of inches, I complied. I have learned in life that often times, the arbitrariness of a rule does not account for how strictly its transgression is punished or its ill logic enforced.  Again, even for volunteers, this is frustratingly obvious in prison. So we continued our conversation with me ‘safely’ on the CO side of the invisible line. The students seeing this exchange just laughed and gave me reassuring smiles.

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When we were finally ready to leave, after the CO had eaten her sandwich and drank her milk box, we began the journey through the heavy doors, past the main yard, through the fences and more heavy doors, past visitation, past an armory and finally to the control center where I’m discharged. As we passed through the vast outdoor yard I looked again at the imposing fences that reach so high. A flock of five Canadian geese noisily flew overhead squawking as if teasing the Earth-bound men below. When I looked closer at the coils of razor wire covered in snow, I noticed something that I has missed before. In between the two fences placed only a few feet apart, is a veritable graveyard of deflating balls. I saw a basket ball, several soccer balls and what I’m pretty sure is a volleyball. The balls must have been throw there during yard time and gotten stuck between the outer and inner fence. Over time they been shuffled around the barbs of the wire and had deflated. For whatever reason, they had been left there. When I saw the balls, freezing in the cold snow, my mind began to wonder. I began to see the balls as a metaphor for prison itself. They are caught in a form of physical and existential limbo, not quite caged and not quite free; not quite alive and not quite dead. The balls exist in a temporal space, deflated and forgotten. I’m sure the COs see them, but its clear from their inaction that they don’t care. So the balls remain between the fences, beaten by the elements, and destined to eventually be discarded when their blight becomes inconvenient.

As I handed in my ID to the CO on the other side of the thick glass, I head some others behind me talking. They were speaking of what I gathered was a fight which occurred in the prison in the last few days. The one guard inquired, “Was anyone hurt,” and the second guard was quick to respond, “Hell yeah they was hurt.” It must of been the speed of the response which prompted the question to be rephrased, “No, I mean were any of US hurt?” The story telling guard sucked her teeth and with a sense of shock said, “Nah.”

The intonation and inflection said it all. ‘If a CO had been hurt I would have led with that, but since it was only an inmate, it’s barely even news.’

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