10th Anniversary: Once You’re Inside

This interview was originally published on September 11, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

prison wallsNote: All the men’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

I didn’t know what to expect when Linda Moghadam and I visited the men’s writing group at the Patuxent Institute. I had a clue as to the motivation and tenor of the men from reading a brochure Linda had given me about the creative group. Working together, the members had this to say about the purpose of forming a group and the power of the arts:

“The group wants to have a positive impact on people involved with the street culture, prisons, and policy makers who can re-introduce educational programs into the prison systems.…

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 13: Doubt. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/13-winter-2013/

Interview with Linda Moghadam

To celebrate Little Patuxent Review’s tenth anniversary, we’re highlighting previous posts.

Linda Moghadam, 2015.

Linda Moghadam, 2015.

I used to fear going inside a prison. Like many people, my ideas were fueled by media portrayals of the “hardened criminals” who exist behind the walls, locked away from society. But in recent years, thanks to Michelle Alexander’s fine work The New Jim Crow, I’d learned more about how the prison system operates and could see that, in many ways, our current criminal justice system was stacked against poor and minority populations.

The radio show Crossroads, a weekly radio program on WPFW in Washington, DC, hosted by Roach Brown only reinforced what I learned about prisoners from Michelle Alexander’s work.

Brown identifies himself as a former inmate and a national advocate for the men and women in and out of our prisons. Every week, he relates stories of former inmates who struggle to make a better life for themselves but face tremendous obstacles to reentering society. I’ve learned a lot from listening to Brown’s personal tale as well as the stories of countless men and women—many of whom freely admit to making bad decisions as young people and serving long years locked away. Their stories revealed to me a human side of the people we lump into the category of criminals. After a couple of years as a steady listener, my fears melted a little as I began to understand the complexity of their lives and to hear over and over again how many of them work to improve themselves in prison, much like Brown did, and how many want to give back to society in a positive way.

Because of my feelings, I had been already thinking about visiting a prison and myself offering a writing group even before I met Linda Moghadam and learned of her work at the Patuxent Institution. I felt a kinship with Linda as we sat in her office at the University of Maryland College Park, and chatted about her background, her interests, and her experiences with running a writing group at Jessup for the past eight years.

Linda Moghadam received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as her and Ph.D. in Sociology (1989) from the University of Maryland College Park. She has served as the Director of the Sociology Undergraduate Program since 1989 and also lectures on the sociology of education. Her areas of interest include work and family, inequality issues, and education.

Ann Bracken: Tell me how you came to work at the Patuxent Institution. How long have you been volunteering there?

Linda Moghadam: I started volunteering in the college program at Patuxent (a partnership between Anne Arundel Community College and Patuxent Institution, funded by a small grant) eight years ago.  The college program was active for a little more than ten years and was quite successful.  Over 50 men and women (there is a small women’s unit at Patuxent – kept separate from the men’s) earned associates degrees.  Ed Duke administered the program and ran it on a shoestring.   When the funds ran out, we were able to raise enough money to allow those closest to an AA degree to graduate.

AB: What can you tell me about the programs that were there at the time?

LM: During that time there were several enrichment programs (resumes workshops, social entrepreneurship programs) available.  The end of the college program was accompanied by an end to these programs.  I stayed on and did a writing workshop with a group of interested men, most of whom I had taught in various sociology courses.  The chaplain’s wife, who is an art teacher, also volunteered. She initiated and ran a very successful art program.

AB: How many men are currently in the writing program?

LM: There are ten men in the writing program.  These programs and others could be expanded with additional volunteers.   The members of the writing group are interesting and engaged in their work, the discussions and the work they do are about things that matter.   The time I spend at Patuxent is in many ways one of the best parts of my week.

AB: What has most impressed you about working with the men?

LM: Since the writing and art programs have been in place we have had two joint events that combined presenting the work of the writing group and the art group, along with some musical accompaniment from several of the men.  I have been moved by the energy, hard work and collegiality among the men in producing and performing.  Several of the therapists have also been extremely supportive in helping to arrange these events.  There is a considerable amount of talent among the participants and the opportunity to present their work as well as the opportunity to collaborate with others has had real value.   One of the poets who participated in the first event observed later that it is was the first time he had not felt like a number since he had arrived at Patuxent.

AB: How would you describe your philosophy of life?

LM: I suppose my philosophy of life can be borrowed from the author of the one-act play The Cultivators I sent you.  The play was inspired after the author read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

“And what does the nettle (seed) need?  Very little soil, no care, no culture; except that the seeds fall as fast as they ripen, and it is difficult to gather them, that is all.  If we would take a few pains, the nettle would be useful; we neglect it, and it becomes harmful.  Then we kill it.  How much men are like the nettle! . . . My friends, remember this, that there are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators.”

We read and studying these things, and yet we fail to benefit from their wisdom.

AB: What are the men most interested in learning?

LM:   Just about everything.   Some of the men are voracious readers and are interested in history, literature, science. As you noted during your visit, they put you and me to shame in how well read many of them are. Neither one of us has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Proust, yet several of the men had.  They also have an interest in learning more about restorative justice and in finding ways to give back to their communities..

AB: I know that one of the men has written a play. What’s it about?

LM: Actually two men wrote plays. One of the plays was particularly impressive for the way in which it incorporated a vision and understanding of society garnered from literature as well as the social sciences. It’s exciting to observe the ways in which the men have applied what they have learned—both from experience and literature –in their story telling.

AB: What has been the most surprising thing about working with the men?

LM: No real surprises here. When I was growing up, my dad had gotten burned quite a few times by friends – sometimes by family. As a result, his view of the world changed, and he was always telling me that most people were not to be trusted. He was sure that I would learn this lesson eventually.   But working at Patuxent has reinforced my view of the world—most people are good, trying to be better, and sometimes making terrible mistakes. But they’re basically good people. I suspect my father knew this as well, but was trying to protect me.

AB: How has the work changed them? How has it changed you?

LM: At the first program where we did readings, one of the poets made an observation that he found it ironic that he would have to come to prison to find that people would actually care about him. In a subsequent meeting of the writing group, he said that in presenting his poetry, it was the first time since he had arrived at Patuxent that he saw himself as something other than a number.   I hope that both through the college program and the writing and art program – and also the therapy that is provided at Patuxent—they have an opportunity to believe in themselves and discover what they are capable of.

This experience has changed me in all sorts of ways. The men helped me choose a book for my grandson’s 5th-grade graduation. I’ve developed an ongoing appreciation for the many undeserved breaks I’ve had. I realize that great company comes in unexpected places. And I feel a push to read more to keep up with the group.

AB: Anything you’d like to add?

LM: These types of program are important, but, even more, important are policies that stem the flow of our citizens into prison.   You can see from just one meeting with the writing group how talented they are and what they could contribute to society had their early lives been different.

Linda’s words about what the men could contribute once they can return to society reminded me about a program I attended a couple of months ago with Betty May, a theatrical director, writer, high school teacher, circus coach, and clown from Columbia, MD. Betty did a presentation on her book Faces, which details how she worked with women in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and helped them put on an original play. May supported the women, all of whom were serving life sentences, as they wrote and performed their original play “Faces,” which was performed at the prison and also found its way to the Kennedy Center Stage. The play told their collective stories to serve as a warning to young people who were on the wrong path in life. The women had one simple wish: “If we can help just one kid, all the work we do will be worth it. “

I feel the same way about the work Linda is doing with the writing group: If a few people are moved by the men’s stories from the writing group, it will be worth it.

Editor’s Note: If this interview interests you, check out LPR’s Issue 21: Prison https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/.


Once You’re Inside

prison wallsNote: All the men’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

I didn’t know what to expect when Linda Moghadam and I visited the men’s writing group at the Patuxent Institute. I had a clue as to the motivation and tenor of the men from reading a brochure Linda had given me about the creative group. Working together, the members had this to say about the purpose of forming a group and the power of the arts:

“The group wants to have a positive impact on people involved with the street culture, prisons, and policy makers who can re-introduce educational programs into the prison systems.…

“The arts are not something people think of when they picture a maximum security prison. ‘Tough guys’ in small tank tops in a prison yard dominate the general idea of what prison is like. But far from joining gangs and delving deeper into the criminal lifestyle, these young men spend their time learning how to express themselves, work in groups, give and receive positive feedback, and effectively communicate with others; all important skills that are critical to functioning in the world outside of prison.”

Patuxent Institute

Patuxent Institute

When I arrived at Patuxent, I was struck by how I had to let go of things I take for granted —beginning with what to wear. With the June temperature rising over 90 degrees, I wanted to wear a skirt, but Linda told me ahead of time that I was required to wear slacks. My purse had to remain locked in the car, along with my cell phone. Little by little, even before I met the men, I yielded some of my personal freedoms, albeit temporarily. Still, I felt unnerved by the lack of control.

I surrendered my license at the front desk and in return, they handed me a temporary visitor’s pass. They permitted me to carry a copy of my book, a pad of paper, and a pen for my interviews. After I had walked through the metal detector, a female officer patted me down. Once the formalities were out of the way, Linda and I began our long walk to the education room in another building.

The officers seemed pretty friendly as they chatted with each other. They recognized Linda —perhaps because she’s been a volunteer writing instructor at Jessup for seven years — nodding at her and me as we walked through the long, tan-colored hallways, every so often segmented by half-opened black, iron, barred doors. I sighed with relief when the doors weren’t locked behind us. We snaked through several long, airless halls until we came to another guarded entrance. We were waved outside and followed a path, lined with marigolds and bluebells, to the education building. Good to see some color in this bleak, brick and barbed wire area. Whoever planted those flowers had my gratitude.

We entered the red brick building that was home to the education program—more long hallways, more half-barred doorways. I noticed a few Baltimore-themed murals decorating some sections of the walls. The pipes were wrapped in insulation, which peeled off in large chunks. The air felt still and hot.

I felt closed in, striding deeper and deeper into the prison as if I was being sealed into an airless container. The only inmates I saw were escorted in the hallways by guards whose hands rested lightly on the prisoners’ arms. There seemed to be a quiet calm to the facility, and I couldn’t help but think of some of the troubled young men who had been my students just a few years ago. A picture of teachers punishing entire classes flashed in my mind. Yes, I was now in the prison end of the school-to-prison pipeline.When we finally arrived in the multipurpose room, an officer wearing tinted glasses nodded to Linda and then opened the locked door for us.

“Hey, Ms. Moghadam!” The students almost cheered Linda as she strode across the floor. One by one the six young men introduced themselves to me and shook my hand. As we exchanged names, they welcomed me to their writing group.

The room, about the size of half a gymnasium, had a stage toward the front. The following quote, written in a flawless script on a huge sheet of yellow paper, filled the back wall of the stage: “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.” The men sat around a large, old, wooden table and each had a writing notebook. A couple of them had brought reading materials as well.

I had only 90 minutes in which to interview all the members of the Jessup writing group. I decided to use as inspiration Betty May’s Faces women and the guiding questions that had formed the basis of their play. The women featured in May’s book shared a common thread no matter their stories—they all felt they had changed and were not the same people they were when they committed their crimes. They wanted to give back.

I would ask only two questions: Who were you when you came to prison and who are you now? I think their answers provide significant insights into the people behind the barbed wire fences, so many of us drive by every day.

Ryan had long braids, tattoos on his arms, and wore a warm smile as he told me his story.  “I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I’m from East Baltimore, and I went to the Harford Institute—an alternative school in Baltimore City (now it’s called the Fairmont-Harford High School). I was only reading at about the 7th-grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15 and now I’m 28.

“Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. I think the first thing I read that helped me to change was called As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. That book made a powerful impression on me. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”

Matt had close-cropped hair and black-framed glasses. He smiled when I asked him to tell me about his experiences. “I was always a searcher. When I was 20, I was traveling a lot and exposed to lots of different environments and people. I was trying to find my place through looking at the world with other people’s eyes combined with my experiences. I grew up in East Baltimore and went to the Harford Institute like Ryan, but I went to college as well. My home life was pretty unstable. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. When you’re lost, any road will take you there. I’m a people person, but listening to my peer group back then—that was the blind leading the blind.

“One thing that I’ve always had is I like to read. In my old neighborhood, some people moved out of their house, and they left a bunch of stuff on the sidewalk—VCR tapes and a large collection of books. I remember seeing an entire set of books by Mark TwainTom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and more—I grabbed all those books and took them home. When I read and found words I didn’t understand, I’d ask my mother or my friend’s sister what they meant. Learning that way sparked my creativity.

“But I couldn’t connect what I was reading with what I was experiencing out in the world. I wish I had had a mentor, someone who could have helped me make sense of the world. The first time I was in prison, there were no programs and no education classes. But now, I take every program they offer here. I know how to make sense of my life. That took maturation. What I want to do now is put a new vibe into the system—something that will be beneficial for myself and others.”

Timothy carried with him a notebook and reading materials. He had a serious approach to language and the intentional use of words. “One thing you won’t find me doing is using sayings without knowing what they mean. Like a lot of people in here talk about ‘rule of thumb’ and ‘Tomming.’ I won’t use either one of those sayings because I don’t like what they mean.”

Timothy went on the explain that “rule of thumb” refers to an old English law that allows a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it’s no bigger than his thumb. “I won’t use that phrase because of its original meaning.”

I had never heard of “Tomming,” so Timothy explained that it refers to someone in prison who sucks up to the guards and does them favors, someone who’s subservient to get in good with the people in charge.

Timothy told me, “’Tomming’ comes from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. After the Civil War when the slaves had been freed, and people were unhappy with the freedom and rights that African Americans had gained, they discredited the real story of Uncle Tom. Instead, of Uncle Tom being revered as a hero who cared for his fellow slaves and went to great lengths to help them, calling African Americans an Uncle Tom became an insult. The term was used to mean they (African Americans) were subservient to white people or wanting to gain favor with white people and forsake their own race.”

Timothy was articulate and thoughtful as he continued speaking. “We used to get the Catalog of Dover Thrift Classics, and I loved all those classic books. But we can’t get them anymore.

“You know, ideas are dangerous—being a writer and a teacher are revolutionary acts. People who think outside of the box are feared. Pretty soon teachers will realize their own power and then they can create an alternative education system.”

The other men in the group agreed as Timothy continued, “Change has got to come. People are suffering—no jobs, the schools are bad. Lousy homes. But it’s just like in here—the more they [the guards] take away, the less you have to lose, the more people fight back.”

Initially, Vincent, who sat to my left, did not want to talk. He listened thoughtfully and nodded his head while the others took their turns answering my questions. He was very polite and spoke softly when he had something to add. When I asked him a second time if he wanted to speak, he answered in a clear voice.

Vincent: “When I came here, I had just turned 15. I grew up in the child-care system, so I lived in lots of places. Coming to prison was like crossing the Rubicon for me. Since I’ve been here, I’ve developed my values and formed better habits. I love reading—one of my favorite authors is Proust.

“I’d say the biggest influence on helping me develop my values is learning that I have the right to make up my mind. When I was younger, I never thought I had that right. I never really knew I could make up my own mind.

“I’d describe myself as a lover of language, and I live in my imagination. I’ve developed a value set and for me, the most important value is compassion. I see myself as part of the human family. I know that spirituality is omnipresent, and it connects all of us through one language—the language of love.”

When I asked Vincent what he was currently reading, he smiled and said, “I’ve been sleeping a lot. It’s too hot to read in here.”

Williams seemed eager to talk and grinned when he finally had the attention of the group.

“I was 16 when I came here. I grew up in Hyattsville. I’d say that I was a person who was very aware of the disadvantages in my life. I thought of myself as someone who could level the playing field, but I went about it in the wrong way. My mother was a single parent, and she worked all the time, but we never had enough of anything. That put pressure on me that I couldn’t handle at the time.

“I’m a Hispanic male, so there are a lot of expectations from my culture. To be a man means you are aggressive. You have to protect your self-esteem. Now, thanks to Ms. Moghadam, I’m a feminist. I understand the position of women in America.

“I’ve been in prison for 12 years, and I know the best way to spend my time is to educate myself. I participate in every program they have. I believe that knowledge is power, and I’ve dedicated myself to education. I’m still trying to level the playing field. I grew up in poverty, but now I’m trying to do it the right way.

“I’m working on my character by being honest with myself. I ask for help now. I’m committed to learning and striving to get where I want to be. I want a respectable position when I get out of here, so I can help people. I want to give back. I know there’s a stigma against ex-prisoners. I love the arts; they’ve been a godsend for me. I’ve been able to develop my ideas through arts and writing.”

Our time was nearly over—Linda, and I had to leave the room by 4 o’clock sharp. There is no leeway for long good-byes in a prison, as I found out. Before we left, Mark had one last comment to make about the arts. His words struck me as important.

Mark said, “When people are in a state of disconnection, it’s much easier to harm the environment, to harm each other. The arts build a connection. That’s why they’re so important.”

When the session was over, and the men filed out of the room accompanied by a guard, I had only a few minutes to collect my papers and retrace my steps back through the maze of the prison to return to the outside world. A flood of images filled my mind, and I couldn’t help but reflect on their ages again. Nearly all of the men have spent half of their lives in prison. And even though I knew that most of them were under 30 years old, it was still a shock to learn that many of them had entered prison as 15-year-old boys. I thought of the mistakes my son made at that age, and I shuddered to think how his life might have been different under other circumstances.

The whole time I was with them I had a lump in my throat, but refused to let any tears leak from my eyes. When I concluded the interviews, I told them, “I’m very sorry all of you are still in prison. But I want you to know that the positive energy you carry and share benefits everyone around you. You make this prison a better place. “ I hope all who read their words will feel the same way.

I’m going back for another visit in a few weeks.

Online Editor’s Note: Read Ann’s interview with Linda Moghadam from last week.