Reading Conrad with convicts: What I learned leading a book club inside a men's prison

Conversations in my maximum security reading group may be “only” about books, but in them everything is at stake

By Mikita Brottman
Published June 26, 2016 11:30PM (EDT)
The author with the members of the book club
The author with the members of the book club

Excerpted from "The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison."

For the last three years, I’ve been running a book club at a men’s prison. I started volunteering at the prison as a sabbatical project, but it’s become a long-term commitment. My fascination with this place and the men who inhabit it isn’t a new impulse; I’ve long been preoccupied with the lives of people generally considered unworthy of sympathy, especially those who’ve committed crimes with irreversible moral implications, like murder. Such people, more so even than the rest of us, are unable to escape the past.

Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI) was originally constructed as an annex to the huge Maryland House of Correction (better known as “the Cut,” after the path forged through a nearby hill during the construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad), a handsome but sinister-looking structure built in 1878 from local brick and stone. Now dismantled, the Cut was notorious for its harsh living conditions, violence among convicts, and frequent assaults on the guards. Most of the men currently incarcerated in JCI arrived there from other prisons, including both the Cut and the Maryland Penitentiary in downtown Baltimore, and they’ve often entertained me with tales of their past lives in these legendary establishments. When the Cut closed down in 2007, most of its inhabitants were moved to North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, a new supermax facility, and JCI went from being an annex to the Cut to becoming a prison in its own right.

To get there, I drive south from Baltimore on Interstate 95, take exit 41, and enter a semirural no-man’s-land dotted with administration buildings, truck stops, landfills, and industrial warehouses. These structures are separated by what looks from the highway like pleasant woodland but is in fact a dumping ground for unwanted electrical equipment and rusting industrial trash.

Arriving at JCI, I park next to one of the dark blue prison vehicles, which bear Maryland’s coat of arms and the motto Fatti maschii parole femine (“Manly deeds, womanly words”). I walk over to the front gate and show the correctional officer (CO) my paperwork and ID. If everything’s in order, I pass on to the next obstacle: the metal detector. Once the metal detector has given me the all clear, the CO gives me a full-body pat down and I turn in my driver’s license in exchange for a pink clip-on visitor’s badge. Next, I’m sent to wait by a glass sally port (a double set of mechanically operated steel doors) for a uniformed escort.

In 1994, Congress eliminated Pell grants for prisoners, effectively eliminating all college programs in U.S. prisons, including the one at JCI (In July 2015, the Obama administration announced that it was planning to reinstate a pilot Pell grant program to a limited number of prisoners seeking college degrees). I’m one of a small group of volunteers who continue to teach courses to incarcerated men at the college level (though not for college credit). Vincent, a trusted convict with a high level of responsibility, oversees the college program. JCI has no system of orderlies, but Vincent’s position is a close equivalent.

A slight, young-looking man of 53 with a closely trimmed beard, he has a quiet, casual dignity and speaks with intelligence and authority. Over his 30-plus years in prison, Vincent has earned his GED, and, through the kind of penitentiary extension programs that used to be common, an undergraduate degree in political science and sociology and an MA in humanities. From his cluttered desk in the school office, Vincent negotiates expertly and discreetly between the college program, the principal, the prisoners, and the librarian. It was Vincent who helped me put the book club together once I got my foot in the door, enlisting a group of respectful and literate prisoners, ensuring an appropriate racial balance, and negotiating personality conflicts. I made it clear to him that I wanted discussions in the group to be friendly and as open as possible, given the circumstances; that I wanted everyone to have the chance to speak if they wanted to; and that although we’d be talking about books, we’d also be learning about one another.

Vincent is a member of the book club himself, although his interests are closer to those of the other volunteers who teach in the prison college program, whose classes generally consider broader concerns about race, crime, justice, and similar issues. In fact, virtually all educators who volunteer their time in prisons— and perhaps elsewhere—are based in the humanities and related fields. This is not only because those drawn to these subject areas tend to have a more liberal, idealistic way of thinking—and are seldom paid enough to feel their wisdom is too hard earned to be given away for free—but also because these disciplines require no expensive equipment (unlike, say, classes in engineering, computer science, architecture, or medicine).

My subject is literature. For me, the prison was a new and compelling place for me to talk about books I love with people I wouldn’t otherwise get to know. I had no religious or political agenda, no cause to promote, no desire to liberate or enlighten. Nor was I interested in race, crime, power, or the politics of incarceration, although these subjects, among others, sometimes came up. More so than any of the other professors, I think, my interest in the prisoners was personal.

In Edith Wharton’s novel "The House of Mirth," clever Lily Bart, in search of a husband, is “discerning enough to know that the inner vanity is generally in proportion to the outer self-depreciation.” At JCI, I learned the converse is also true: muscles can be a sign of sadness, tattoos can cover lack, and underdogs come in all shapes and sizes. I can’t claim a higher motive, a belief in literature as redemptive, as a way of helping the convicts understand the pain they’ve brought their victims. On the contrary, I saw the book club mainly as a way for me to share my love for the books that have come to mean the most to me.

Still, the motives that drive us are always complex, and we seldom have much insight into our own. It’s definitely a boost to my self-esteem to know how important I am to the prisoners, when these days my college students don’t even seem to know my name. But I also ask myself: How much does motive really matter? If even the apparently purest act of altruism—the anonymous donation, for example—has some form of payback, whether a private lift to the ego or a more complex unconscious reward, does it make the act itself any less beneficial to the recipient?

I doubt the men in my reading group would think so. These nine prisoners are smart and thoughtful, but they’re also tough, hard-edged, and practical. For them, the books we read seem to provide a kind of defensive barrier, as well as a bridge. It’s always easier to get to know people when they’re not talking about themselves directly, and I soon came to realize that when the men are talking about books, they’re also talking about their lives. The book club is a place where they can relax their posturing and defensiveness and, in the guise of discussing literature, talk unguardedly about their memories, the disastrous choices they’ve made, their guilt, and their remorse. They can bypass the usual ego games and reveal their affections and ambitions, their current and past dilemmas, the defining moments in their lives.

In talking about books, they can even broach otherwise taboo subjects such as drug use, homosexuality, and prison power plays. The group brings together men from different housing units, gang affiliations, and racial and religious backgrounds who wouldn’t normally spend time together. It’s a place and time that permits them to drop their social masks without exposing themselves completely. It’s a serious space, but one in which they can still joke, chat, act out, and tease one another (and me).

While I feel great sympathy and fondness for these men, at other times their attitudes bother me. They insist they want to learn and say they’re open to new ideas, yet on many subjects they’re already rock-solid in their opinions. Surprisingly, given their own predicament, they rarely have sympathy for those like Melville’s Bartleby—men they dismiss as losers in the battle of life. These prejudices often strike me as an impediment to understanding. I’ve always believed that, to remain open to the surprises and contingencies offered by literature, you have to value ignorance more than self-confidence.

As a result, I’m rarely fully convinced about anything, always able to see both sides of the argument. I try to stay open to the possibilities of not knowing because, in some ways, I think it’s the best frame of mind for reading: every idea, I realize, is open to change. When you believe you know what a book is all about—when a reading becomes fixed and determined—there’s no longer room for slippage, for accidents, for the play of the unconscious. The prisoners, however, see my openness as wishy-washy. If this is what you get from literature, they tell me, maybe it’s better to leave it alone.

Who wants to be uncertain and indecisive? At least they know where they stand.

That may very well be true, I reply, but look where it’s got you.

The ten books I chose to read with the prisoners—works by Conrad, Melville, Bukowski, Burroughs, Braly, Shakespeare, Stevenson, Poe, Kafka, and Nabokov—all deal with outsiders who strike out against society, asserting their individuality, right or wrong, against the blind force of “the system” (often the human condition). They’re all, in some way or another, subversive books that present familiar situations from a new perspective, letting us see the strangeness in the ordinary and everyday (a useful skill, you might think, for those trapped in a monotonous daily routine).

Most important, they’re books that don’t flinch from showing the isolation of the human struggle, the pain of conflict, and the price that must be paid in consequence—a price these men know only too well.

At first, I was surprised to find the prisoners’ responses to be so insightful, thought provoking, and articulate. Then I wondered why I’d been expecting any less from them because they’ve been in prison for most of their lives, or because they murdered another human being. Why do we find it so difficult to believe that men who’ve killed are as capable of literary appreciation as anyone else? Is it because we consider them fundamentally lacking in empathy? If a convicted murderer turns out to have a refined literary sensibility, might it suggest that his crime was caused not by an innate pathology but by the same kind of momentary bad decision anybody could make? If so, is it merely accident of circumstance that separates “the murderer” from “you and me?”

Our group discussions, and my background knowledge, helped place the books and their authors in a historical and cultural context; but to get a fuller understanding of them, the men had to read, reflect, and judge on their own, and in private. This is especially true, I think, of "Heart of Darkness," a book that, to some degree at least, is a tale of disconnection from the community. Ironically, if anything in this obscure story is made more lucid by words, it’s our inability to make each other understand our experiences—as Conrad puts it elsewhere, to make each other truly see. (He also claims that “words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.”) Marlow isn’t much of a storyteller (or so he claims), and yet he seems somehow compelled to share his experiences with his listeners—or at least, to make the attempt.

The more deeply he gets involved in his story, however, the more difficult he finds it to express himself. In the end, he begins to realize that we can’t share our experiences, coming to the conclusion that “we live as we dream: alone.”

Outside prison, the accepted, value-neutral word for an incarcerated individual is “inmate,” but within the prison gates, this word is taboo. The men at JCI taught me that in most American prisons, “inmate” is regarded as a euphemism coined by the prison authorities—the equivalent to the average slave of an “Uncle Tom.” “The difference between an inmate and a convict,” one of the men told me, “is respect.” Instead of regarding words like “convict” and “criminal” as demeaning, the prisoners saw them as honest descriptions of their position. In the pages that follow, then, I’ve adhered to this preference, and avoided the word “inmate.”

Jessup Correctional Institution is still officially a maximum security prison. However, its population is no longer made up of lifers with little to lose; in fact, there are only around four hundred lifers remaining. Over the last eight years, the facility has slowly been transitioning to medium security; currently, the prison houses around 1,750 prisoners, of whom around 100 are in the “maximum security” category. The book club contained a number of these men.

I use the term “book club” interchangeably with “reading group,” although I realize the two are rather different. While my group was aligned with all the other college-level courses (its official title was Advanced Literature), it was also different and separate from the other classes in the sense that it was limited to nine men, and has continued with the same members (as far as possible) for more than two years. It wasn’t a book club in the usual sense of the term in that I was the person who chose, purchased, and brought in the books, and I also asked the men to write a one-page weekly response about that week’s reading. Yet, despite the fact that I anchored our discussions by introducing the books and their authors and occasionally asked questions or identified passages for discussion, it wasn’t a “class” in the sense that I didn’t have anything to “teach” the men. I wanted to introduce them to some books they wouldn’t normally have encountered, and I wanted to hear what they had to say about them. As it turned out, most of the time I wasn’t leading the group but following, waiting for the chance to rejoin the discussion.

Given the many obstacles inherent in any prison environment, it would be unnatural if I did not, from time to time, find myself wondering why I’m giving up my free time to subject myself to the guarded and defensive behavior of the officers. Yet, every time I think about quitting, I realize it’s not an option—at least, not yet. The book club is teaching me to see literature in a way I’ve never seen it before. As often as I’ve discussed characters like Macbeth, Mr. Kurtz, Bartleby, and Dr. Jekyll—both as a student myself and as a professor—I’ve never done so with men who actually know what it feels like to kill from ambition, to take pleasure in other people’s pain, to look death in the face, to have nothing left to live for. Our conversations may be “only” about literature, but in them everything is at stake.

When I first read these books, I found them tough, because they made me confront difficult subjects: the inevitability of death, our ultimate aloneness, and the absence of any obvious meaning to life. Although they may not have been much fun to read, they helped me explore some very painful subjects, and allowed me to think about hard truths in a serious way. In time, I learned to appreciate the way books like these could lift the veil of subjectivity and, just for a moment, give me a glimpse into moments of other people’s existence. They helped me to become attuned to the inner life; they taught me to pay more attention to others, and, as a result, to think more deeply about the different dimensions of individual character and the moral consequences of my own behavior.

This, if anything, is what I hoped the book club would do for the prisoners. I also realized, however, that from their perspective these skills were of little use if they didn’t bring the men any nearer to the possibility of release, impress the parole board, or make them more satisfied with their lot. As one man put it to me when I asked why he was leaving the group: “All of what you do is great. However, it will not help me to get out of prison, where I have been for the past 25 years.” The rewards the book club offered these nine men were intangible and inexpressible, and I never lost sight of the fact that they would surely have preferred to spend their time learning something practical: computer skills, car mechanics, or carpentry, perhaps.

But literature was all I had.

Mikita Brottman

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