Baltimore City Paper

Book Clubs Suspended

Something about “The Maximum Security Book Club,” which came out on June 7, is riling officials at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS). Just over two months after its publication, on Aug. 24, Mikita Brottman received an email telling her the book club was being canceled due to the fact that she committed a "violation." Though she asked, she says she was never told what the violation was. She is no longer permitted to volunteer at the prison for the book club or any of the other classes she has been voluntarily teaching over the years, she says. Then last week, she learned that a second, therapeutic book club, Focus on Fiction, that she ran for four years at the Clifton T. Perkins Mental Hospital would not be running either.

Brottman says that her book was written with the full cooperation of the current prison warden, and representatives of the Maryland Department of Corrections, as was a City Paper article by Baynard Woods about Brottman’s book club that ran in April 2014 and resulted in no censure of the group.

In the book’s afterword, Brottman does talk about meeting two of the book club members on the outside, after they are released. One of them clearly hounds her for a date, but she writes that she rejected these overtures. It is difficult to guess what other aspects of the book club officials might have objected to.

An email from DPSCS Communications Director Shari Elliker doesn't elaborate on why the book club was suspended but counters that "Ms. Brottman is free to apply for a volunteer position at any one of our facilities, provided she adheres to our policies regarding offender and volunteer contact due to the fact that these guidelines were not followed during her previous service at Jessup Correctional Institution."

When it comes to the Clifton Perkins psychiatric hospital, Brottman was told that, in addition to not being able to run her book club there, she was being asked to step down from the Citizen Advisory Board one year into her four-year term. “When I asked for reasons, I have been given a list of quotations from my book, in which I am frank and honest about the pleasures and challenges about volunteering in the prison system and the complexities of my feelings for the convicts and the books we have been reading together,” she said in an email.

Christopher Garrett, a spokesperson for Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, emailed City Paper saying that her class “ended” in September 2015. “It was not shut down or canceled by hospital leadership.” He explains: “Recently, Dr. Brottman contacted Clifton T. Perkins Mental Hospital in the interest of resuming her class. In the intervening time, new Perkins CEO John Robison learned of Dr. Brottman's previous violation of a rule governing volunteer-patient boundaries at the hospital, which serves Maryland's most vulnerable and most psychiatrically ill patients, and of the need of hospital staff to address that violation.

"Robison also read Dr. Brottman's book and concluded her disclosures in it concerning her interactions with prison inmates warranted not permitting her to resume the class at the hospital.”

Garrett said Brottman violated conduct by sharing her personal contact information with patients.

Brottman, writing a piece about the end of both book clubs in LitHub on Aug. 31, calls the officials’ decisions “devastating” and puzzles over the Orwellian email she received from Corrections that quotes from the volunteer contract. Officials reminded her that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services “reserves the right to terminate any volunteer for any reason or no reason at all, except as precluded by law. Therefore, facilities reserve the right to sign up or terminate volunteers autonomously, and do not have to offer explanations for such actions.”

As Brottman discovered through her inmates’ book club, the prisoners’ lives are governed by a vast network of rules and regulations that could be changed at any time with no explanations provided; her book club's fate has been similarly sealed.

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