[Prison journal]: Third and Fourth entries
I just finished writing in about 20 prisoner notebooks. It’s been such a long while since I have hand written anything of that quantity. I feel that if the students take the time to write to me, than it is my obligation to do the same to them. I try and mirror their length, answering a half page with a half page and anything more with a page. I begin each entry with something like, ‘Thank you for sharing you thoughts on the Paul Hill piece.” I then try and respond to their observations and analysis in an affirming and instructive way. I find myself writing, “I agree with your…” a lot. I try and build on their ideas and relate it back to larger themes in the class such as the elasticity of the definition of terrorism, the asymmetric labeling of violence as legitimate or illegitimate, the power of perspective… I use idioms that I would scoff at in a classroom setting, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,’ being a prime example.
I find myself constantly having to hold back things I want to share, to keep a balance with the depth I expose my personal life to strangers. In their introductions which some have submitted with their journal responses, many speak of their kids and wives, where they’re from and so on. I try and stay vague but relatable. I’ll write when our ages are close because my age is not protected information. I have students from both Philly and other parts of South Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When they make reference to places I’ve been, I say nice things about them…even to the student who writes the Newark, NJ is the “greatest city on earth!”
If I’m being honest with myself, sometimes I feel like I’m infantilizing the response I write, trying to protect ego and unclear analysis. I find myself wanting to say “You’re right” even if in another venue, I’d say “well how about we try and look at it this way.”
I imagine that what I’m writing to them will be read back a few times, so I try and strike a balance between making clear points, and putting pen to paper without forethought or planning. It’s not exactly stream of conscious, but like writing a letter, it sometimes goes in its own direction. Without the luxury of CTRL+C and CTRL+V, it’s hard for me to get into the habit of having everything come out in the right order. My dependency on computer writing and my mental fatigue after a day of constantly speaking to students from 12:30-6, and then a dinner meeting with an ex student 6:30-8…my brain is exhausted in coming up with banter. This is all to say that I noticed that some responses came out better than others depending on when and where it was written, and the fact that so many were done in a row when I was already a bit tired of ‘grading’ and ‘responding.’ In total today I will have met with 8 students for meetings, graded about 15 journals, 20 quizzes, 15 discussion posts and around 20 hand written journals. I had a departmental review during my morning class and had to squeeze in making photocopies of readings for the prison class so that they have enough to read while I’m in Ohio for spring break.
I’m having the JCI students read communiqués from the George Jackson Brigade defending bank robberies, OBL’s diatribe of a justification for jihad, Hill’s ‘defending the defenseless’ defense, Walter Bond’s defiant writings…. This week I’m giving them an essay by CrimethInc. and a chapter from How Non-Violence Protects the State. I’m thinking about trying to bring in copies of the resurrected Fire to the Prisons for them but am wondering if I’m pushing too hard and too fast.
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My route into Jessup prison today was the usual. The guard took extra interest in the box I was delivering for student materials, and took care to open every envelope, shake every book, and look in every nook and cranny. Typically I’m ignored and pass through security quite easily, but maybe I’d been making too many comments that make me appear sympathetic to the inmates, and maybe that’s resulted in these procedures?
As I approach the school building well beyond the prison’s outer walls, I notice several hundred men, mostly black skinned, leaving a large building labeled “gymnasium.” Many of these men were carrying rolled up rugs under their arms, and I immediately recognized that they were leaving Friday Juma prayer services. Later I asked one of the Muslim inmates, how many attendees they have for weekly prayers, and he reported to me that it was approximately 250 attendees each Friday. He said that the congregation is Sunni but allows some small Shia representation—mostly from Arabs—but that the prison congregation does not participate in the nation of Islam, Moorish grouping, or similar organizations.
When we started the class discussion, one of my students, a particularly vocal white male, commented that he was very surprised that they [the prison officials] “let me in JCI.” He had read one of my articles and paid special attention to the author’s biography. He was surprised to see that I had described myself as an “academic insurgent”, and even more surprised that such a person got into the prison as a teacher. The class spent the first half of the session, upon the inmates request, discussing the merits, challenges and complexities of the anarchist critique of modern society. We spoke a bit about anarchist ideas of economic inequality, anarchist solutions to the prison problem, and we used the example of the Amish to talk about community-level enforcement outside of the police. When they asked me if anarchy would lead to global chaos, I asked them if this very building were standing in, this monstrosity of a prison, is not also an example of the insanity and chaos that’s already present in the contemporary world. They all thought this to be very funny, and shook their heads approvingly.
I distributed copies of the CrimethInc. publication, “To Change Everything,” and was met with much excitement. When we reconvene in a couple weeks, after the spring break, we will be discussing several pieces from contemporary anarchists, as well as other popular authors such as Osama bin Laden, and the George Jackson brigade.