A prison philosophy program tells us what we can learn about life from lifers

Act I The scene feels like it could have come straight from a Danish TV show as horizontal sheets of rain slash at the barbed wire slicing the small patch of sky above the enclosed prison yard inside the Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI). The elegant British psychoanalyst and author with full dark hair and a dark streak seems indifferent to the weather. "Would you like this umbrella, Professor Brottman?" an official asks, hurrying along beside her.

"I'm fine," she says and keeps walking toward the next building.

Getting into the maximum-security prison is a bit like entering another country, with the same security inconveniences and bewildering shifts in custom. But Mikita Brottman is used to it. Wearing all black and a leather jacket, she walks with purpose toward the room that holds the nine prisoners she will question today.

She is accompanied by Shelby Norton, a MICA intern who has been working on art with inmates; a photographer; the prison official with the umbrella; media-relations manager Gerard Shields, a tall, stooped-over man who covered Martin O'Malley's first mayoral campaign for The Sun and looks and talks like David Lynch in Twin Peaks; and me, the reporter, acting as narrator.

We walk into a sterile room. The walls are the color of green sherbert. There are two barred windows to the outside. The wall along the hallway is lined with windows. The men sit in the kind of desk-chair combos commonly found in middle schools. They're wearing gray sweats and prison blues, all marked with big black letters: DOC.

Many of these men are lifers. One inmate, Alford Hardy, has a dog named Hector lying on the ground beside him. Another, Clifton Fitzgerald, a light-skinned black man with a skull cap and glasses, stoops a bit as he walks. Shields calls the two of them to the side. The dog watches Hardy. They have been cleared to talk to me and to have their photographs taken (though Fitzgerald declines to have his picture taken). I can use their names, but no one else's, due to victim-notification requirements. I later learn that one of the men in the room has organized a group fighting the requirements. He believes that it violates his First Amendment rights to free speech. But for now, this scene is as structured and as contrived by the state as everything else in these men's lives-a sort of play within a play as their images are constantly monitored by security cameras and passing guards. The tape recorder picks up the sound of rushing rain, but the room feels like it is hermetically sealed, separated from the world.

Brottman sits down and takes off her jacket. The group is going to talk about murder-but not the murders or attempted murders that brought them here. They are talking about the murders committed by Macbeth in Shakespeare's play. The mystery is existential-not whodunnit but why.

"How did you lose sympathy with Macbeth?" Brottman asks, her English accent giving a slightly Elizabethan flair to the question.

"I was with him the whole time," says a young African-American man covered in tattoos, including one between his eyes. "Sometimes, when you fucked-up, it's fucked."

"But he stays with it," Brottman adds.

"He stays with it," the tattooed man agrees. "He take it the whole way through, fuck it. Even when they kill him at the end, his name still gonna ring when they say something." As he says this, he looks up with a kind of awe in his eyes, and it is clear that he wants his name to ring out in that way.

"I believe in karma, so I was not with him," says an extremely tall white man with a goofy, almost innocent, grin.

"The man had no code," another says. "I have a lot of respect for a man with a code."

"It's better to rule by fear than love," says another man, an old head wearing a stocking cap low over his brow, referencing Niccolò Machiavelli, the 15th-century Italian political theorist. "I'd rather live on my feet than die on my knees."

"I do respect him," says Clifton Fitzgerald. "But I have some reservations about the things that he did."

Though Fitzgerald is describing Macbeth, his words may well apply to the complicated relationship he has developed with himself over the nearly three decades he has served in prison.

Act II Fitzgerald is one of the nearly 160,000 people serving life sentences in the United States and one of the 2.4 million people incarcerated within the United States-more per capita than any nation in history, ever. To hear him tell his story, he was trying to get his son to stop dealing drugs in 1989.

"He had a friend he was hanging out with, selling drugs," Fitzgerald, who is now 61, says after class. "Five times I had to take him back to school. I had a conversation with [that friend] several times; the third time, in my car, I told him this is the last time we're going to have this conversation. I told him we ain't gonna have this conversation. He said, 'Nigga, what, you threatening me?' and he reached for his gun and I shot him. And when I shot him, I pushed him out my car and I got out and went around to take the gun from him. Some people was about a block away, so I said, 'Nah,' and I drove away and left him there. But his girl and some other people drug him in and took his gun and his jewelry off and whatever else he had for the police, and when he went to court he lied and said he didn't have a gun."

Fitzgerald says there has been some change in his case and "hopefully we can work something out."

Things have changed a lot since he has been in prison. He says when he first came to Jessup from the old Maryland Penitentiary conditions were much worse. "We didn't want to come in here," he says. "This was the annex and this was one of the most vicious institutions in the United States." Part of the problem back then, Fitzgerald says, is that 70 percent of the prison's population was made up of lifers with little to lose. For a while, they could get work release, but all of that ended in 1993, when an inmate named Rodney Stokes killed a woman in front of the penitentiary and then killed himself.

"They called all lifers back and, at that point, they didn't allow lifers to go no further," Fitzgerald says. "They take this away, so they take hope away. You had guys on work release who had weekends with their families, and then they took it away. You had some guys lost it. I seen them."

Fitzgerald had his share of trouble too. There is a charge on his record of assault on a DOC inmate. But now that there is a far smaller percentage of lifers in the prison, things have changed. "Now you got people with five and 10 years, 20"-people like Alford Hardy, 41, who is serving a 10-year sentence for distribution of cocaine-"but you got lifers mixed up in the whole system," he says. And there are programs like this one, the JCI Scholars Program, which is guided by the concept, "no one in society should be deprived of access to ideas."

"Say we didn't have this class or this program. Me personally, we'd be on lockup or somewhere down the road somewhere. I know where we would be at because that's where we been at," Fitzgerald says, pointing to the man in the stocking cap, also a lifer. "This is the longest either of us has been on general population in a whole lot of years-I mean ever, because of programs like this."

Act III A couple years after Fitzgerald ended up in Jessup, in 1992, Drew Leder, a Loyola University Maryland philosophy professor, was inspired to try teaching philosophy to inmates.

"I had this rather romantic image that in some ways turned out to be true," he says. "That people who were incarcerated and therefore rather limited in terms of body and space and geography would be natural philosophers. They would be looking for ways in which their mind and their soul could escape and broaden their world from the inside-out, since the outside is filled with barbed wire and bars. For them, doing philosophy was a kind of existential passion which had a great deal of immediate meaning and utility."

Rather randomly, he picked up the phone and called the Metropolitan Transition Center, which is now the Baltimore City Detention Center. With its medieval towers and turrets, it is the oldest operating penal institution in the Western world, an appropriate place to reflect on the way that the modern penitentiary emerged from the spiritual practices of early modern Protestants, with the cells modeled on monastic cells where the prisoner "could undergo a sort of reflective penitential process," as Leder puts it. And soon enough, he was teaching maximum-security inmates similar ideas as they read Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish or Martin Heidegger's Being and Time.

He discovered that he was, in many ways, learning as much as his students. "Lifers are very reflective about the issue of aging and the issue of waking up every day and finding yourself in the same constraining circumstances," he says.

The notion of incarceration goes back to the beginning of philosophy, with the imprisonment and execution of Socrates-and the idea, expressed by his student Plato in the Republic, that we are all imprisoned by the cave of our own reflections but don't realize it. "They face a lot of the issues ordinary people face, but in a heightened condition. We're all doing life in a certain sense," Leder says.

Eventually, he and his students-many of whom he has worked with for decades-published The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, and Hope, a book of Socratic-style dialogues between him and inmates. He likes to joke about another book of "Life Lessons from Lifers."

One of his students, H. B. Johnson Jr., won two playwriting awards. When he was diagnosed with AIDS, Leder drafted a petition to Governor Schaefer, who commuted Johnson's sentence.

In 2009 Leder began to work with Grace Schroeder, the librarian at JCI, to offer classes to inmates there. Eventually, they realized these courses had grown so much that they had become an actual program, and the JCI Scholars Program was officially born-though it receives almost no funding and is operated by volunteer teachers (donors can sponsor classes at patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram). Last year, they were joined by Brottman, who teaches rather darkly themed classes at MICA, such as "Apocalypse Culture," "Totem and Taboo," and "Understanding Suicide." She has written numerous books with similarly macabre themes, like Thirteen Girls, which deals with the aftermath of serial killings; Hyena, which uses the much-hated animal to reflect on the abject and all the things we want to hide; and The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, a book which compares reading to masturbation.

Like Leder, she was drawn toward the prison by her own personal interests.

"I've always been a big fan of horror movies and horror stories and I like sort of-I have a morbidly curious streak, and I like investigating what goes on underneath the repressed," she says. "When you have a crime, it's like this slice into people's lives, and all these little incremental details that come out-I just find it a really fascinating perspective. Suddenly everything you know stops and you get to know the underneath of what's going on in everyone's life. And I'm interested in, when someone commits a murder, for example, the way that they're stigmatized by society, so that then that's it-they're a murderer, that's it, there's nothing that can be done with it. And then what it's like to live with that for the rest of your life."

Again like Leder, she only taught books that interested her. Her JCI course began with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Brottman says that the students struggled with Conrad's impressionistic language, but, in a chapter of the book she is working on about the project, she describes a scene where the inmates compared the maniacal Mr. Kurtz to a prison guard who had been murdered. When Brottman asked how the guard, whom they called "Homeland Security," was like Kurtz, one of the inmates responded: "When you see it from the outside-from our perspective-there's all this horror. But from his perspective, maybe it was just work."

From here, they made their way through Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," William Burroughs, and Charles Bukowski. Now they've made it to Shakespeare's bloody tale of mayhem.

Act IV How you feel about what is happening in this room says a lot about how you feel about the function of prisons in the United States. Is prison punishment or rehabilitation? If the purpose of prison is to punish a transgressor of society's laws, then it is a travesty to spend money for men like Hardy and Fitzgerald to be educated when you may not be able to afford to pay for your kids to go to college.

But if the purpose of prison is rehabilitate, then we should praise the fact that these men have an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life, power, and violence through great literary works.

The men all agreed that what they do in these classes is not valued by the system. When they tell their parole-board counselor about the program, he asks, "So what are you really doing?"

Still, Fitzgerald describes it as "the first positive program" he has been in since entering prison over 28 years ago.

"Then why didn't you do your homework?" Brottman asks.

"I've never missed a class," he says. "Right now we're working on this little cat called Shakespeare, I heard about him all my life."

The homework was to put themselves in the place of Macduff as he goes off to fight against the tyrant Macbeth, and write a letter explaining Macduff's reasoning to his wife.

The young guy with the tattooed face reads his first. "Hi Babe, I miss you so much . . . You know the things I have to do as a man . . . I just need your support, baby, on the things that I do, so that when I make these moves I want to be clear-minded so I can make it back home . . . You got me strung out. Whole time I'm out here, I'm thinking about that pretty body and that good pussy. . . One thing you know is that all I've got is my word and my loyalty in this life."

Brottman asks why Macduff would go if he misses her so much.

"Some things you gotta do," he says. "It's like me personally. You say like, 'Would you do that?' You know, being a gang member, for me, I would leave everybody for my family, for my gang. I could get married tomorrow, but if they call me, I got to go."

Now it is the turn of the old lifer in the hat.

"My sudden departure wasn't relative to you or family matters. You were made aware of the fact that, if you married me, you would have to share my loyalties with king and country. I am truly saddened because of our separation because duty calls . . . I owe you a thousand pleasantries for this separation and I owe you a thousand more for understanding why it was that I wasn't afforded the time to inform you of my departure. I am unable to explain anything to you within this missive for fear that it may fall into the wrong hands. I assure you that it is of the extreme and utmost importance that I am away from you and our kids."

Everyone is clearly impressed by his letter.

"He did it," one man says over the general murmur of approval.

"Oh yeah!" another adds.

"That's what I do," the man in the hat says proudly. This class has provided a way for his name to ring out, even if I am not allowed to use it. "Me personally, I've written a thousand letters of that nature, I had a lot of explaining to do, just like he had to do."

"Did you leave voluntarily?" Brottman asks.

"Hell no."

"I think what he said, about being in prison, he had to explain to his family, his entire family," Fitzgerald says. The man with the hat is a lifer like him, and they both see it as part of their purpose to help the younger inmates-especially those like Alford Hardy-who have a chance to get out.

Act V "Like the young guy there was talking ridiculous, stupid stuff," Fitzgerald says of the young man with the tattooed face. "And they just-I wanted to apologize for him. But that's his mindset. If these classes elevate your thinking, you might grow out of it and elevate your thoughts to the point that you'll be having a relevant conversation rather than that."

Fitzgerald may have wanted to apologize, but on the ride back to town through the rain, Brottman said the inmates were on their best behavior for my visit and that normally there was a lot more talk about "pussy."

Still, Fitzgerald is serious and reflective when he talks about his relation with the younger inmates, and it is clear that he actually believes he has something to offer them. "I have several kids, we have a group called 'A Friend of a Friend' that mentors to these youths, and every six months we have new mentees come in and we start all over again our whole program. Teach them how to interact with people, how to go for a job interview, how to interact with your family, how to keep your family close, how to talk to your caseworker, how to talk to the officers around here that doesn't involve being confrontational, or whatever."

Hardy is not in Fitzgerald's unit. But because Hardy trains the dogs and is out and about a lot, and because Fitzgerald is a senior citizen with medical difficulties, they see each other often. Hector is always near Hardy, who demonstrates what he is teaching the dog-which the inmates say cost $30,000 and will eventually become a service dog for a disabled person-with evident pride.

"I've never been in this predicament ever before," Hardy says of his stint in prison, which began in 2012 after he was caught selling $80 of cocaine to a friend. It was a second offense, and he had a firearm. "But when I see guys [whom] you expect to be those villains, they are the same people that really have made a difference in my life. So many of us are short-timers, know what I mean? I mean, God forbid, pray for better, but we know, inside of five or six years, we're going to be home unless something drastic happens here. And that's possible. But they have been a great influence in my life."

In addition to taking classes like this and working with the dogs, Hardy works in hospice and has particular feeling for the lifers whom he watches over until their deaths.

"I'm a country boy, you know what I mean? I feel their pain," he says. "I work in the hospice care here, and to watch them die here, knowing that they are going to die here, saddens me very much."

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