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Correctional Education: Books Give Prisoners’ Perspectives

Correctional Education: Books Give Prisoners’ Perspectives

Currently, some 70 percent of the 2 million people in U.S. jails, prisons and detention centers are people of color; approximately 1 million are African American. With the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, the United States is one of the few developed countries with capital punishment and one of a few democratic nations to execute minors. Two new books, The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, & Hope and All Things Censored, discuss imprisonment, philosophy, politics and personal and social
Neither book addresses the more than 138,000 women incarcerated in the United States.  And although most men are in prison for nonviolent offenses, often related to the drug trade and addiction, The Soul Knows No Bars introduces us to men convicted of heinous crimes: rape, armed robbery, murder. Editor and co-author Drew Leder is a philosophy professor at Loyola College in Maryland who for several years also taught at Baltimore’s Maryland Penitentiary. Charles Baxter, Wayne Brown, Tony Chatman-Bey, Jack Cowan, Michael Green, Gary Huffman, H. B. Johnson Jr., O’Donald Johnson, Arlando Jones III, Mark Medley, “Q,” Donald Thompson, Selvyn Tillett and John Woodland attended his course at the Penitentiary and eventually became his co-authors.
The Soul Knows No Bars consists largely of edited transcripts from their class sessions. Their discussions of theory, morality and philosophy appear in six parts, each focusing on a different historic individual:
n Power — Simon Weil and Friedrich Nietzche;
n Architecture — Michel Foucault;
n Space and time — Martin Heidegger;
n Sex and race — Cornel West;
n Journeys — Joseph Campbell;
n Beginnings and endings — Martin Buber and Malcolm X.
The book is somewhat constrained in that it never quite shakes the authoritative voice that academics wield while granting (or seeking) approval in relation to their students. Leder candidly explores the unequal power dynamics at work and displays considerable respect for his incarcerated students: “The convicts cared about ideas, more than many of my Loyola College students sentenced to serve out their required curriculum. I felt at home in this drab penitentiary classroom and so, seemingly, did the inmates.” African American philosopher Cornel West, who lectured in Leder’s class, writes in the foreword: “How I wish such high-quality pedagogical experiences could be had in schools and prisons across this nation and world!”
Still, the parameters within which the men reveal their souls are structured by Leder’s training in philosophy. Readers might wonder what would have happened if Leder had included pioneering, provocative texts such as the anthology by African American philosophers, Philosophy Born of Struggle and Toni Morrison’s collection of essays on race, culture and literature, Playing in the Dark.
One of the most engaging intellectuals, and the only one besides Leder to establish a name for himself before this volume, is H.B. Johnson Jr.
Incarcerated for armed robbery and attempted murder, sentenced for a minimum of 25 years, Johnson is described in the book: “Entering prison with an eighth-grade education, H.B. studied the works of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, and was inspired to become a writer.” His plays, poems and essays gained attention outside of prison. He won the WMAR-TV Black Playwrights contest, was featured on the NBC Today show and honored by the PEN American Center. Having contracted AIDS from drug use while in prison, Johnson’s reflections reveal intimacy not only with prison culture and the street violence that led him to be incarcerated, but, one senses, an awareness of the proximity of his own death.
With the other prisoners, Johnson offers personal insights into culture and social relations. In discussing Foucault’s panopticon and the prison as constant invasive surveillance, co-author Tillett remarks: “Different people react differently to the discipline. It might make you or break you.” To which, Johnson responds: “The best is living a life where you don’t have anything to hide. You don’t care if the state’s looking at you or not. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
While The Soul Knows No Bars contributes to the growing literature about prison life and intellectuals, violence, power and morality, one of the most powerful and influential writers on social justice today is death row inmate and political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Live from Death Row, published in 1995, established him internationally as an intellectual. Leder might have been permanently banned from teaching this incisive book in the penitentiary, but one can only wonder what dynamic unfolds when Black prison intellectuals are able to read each other’s works. Translated into seven languages, Abu-Jamal’s books have sold more than 100,000 copies. Yet, his popularity as a writer also highlights his pending execution date.
In the foreword to his latest book, All Things Censored, Alice Walker writes, “So I will ask you to read at least one of Mumia’s books, as a way to begin to feel your way into this new millennium. He has written and published books while on death row, an amazing feat, and of course he has been punished for doing so. I will encourage you to listen to his voice. Losing that voice would be like losing a color from the rainbow.”
The title of the book refers to how Americans were prevented from hearing that voice when National Public Radio fired journalist Abu-Jamal as an on-air columnist for its newsmagazine, All Things Considered, in 1994. Learning about the upcoming commentaries from the station’s promotional spots, then-Sen. Bob Dole and the National Fraternal Order of Police lobbied NPR not to broadcast Abu-Jamal. Although it had agreed to air the tapes, NPR canceled their contract with Abu-Jamal and refused to return the tapes that had been painstakingly made by Abu-Jamal and Noelle Hanrahan, the editor of his most recent book. The only copies of the tapes were placed in an NPR vault and those commentaries — which address social and racial issues but make no mention of his case or trial — as read by Abu-Jamal are lost to the public, which ironically pays for public radio.
However, the commentaries resurface in print in All Things Censored. The CD which accompanies the book also presents other commentaries read by Abu-Jamal and by activists, writers and actors such as Alice Walker, Cornel West, Ramona Africa, Assata Shakur, Martin Sheen and John Edgar Wideman. It is rare to hear Abu-Jamal’s voice. Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Greene, where Abu-Jamal is on death row, has changed its regulations in order to prevent further recordings.
In 1982, the former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists was sentenced to death for the killing of a White police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal and his supporters maintain his innocence and are petitioning for a new trial. All Things Censored devotes few pages to this struggle, the public record of malfeasance by the police, district attorney and presiding judge, and the perjured testimony of prosecution witnesses. The book closes with C. Clark Kissinger’s essay on the case and a list of notable individuals and groups calling for a new trial, including Jesse Jackson, Toni Morrison, Susan Sarandon, the National Black Police Association and the National Lawyers Guild.
Abu-Jamal is not new to the trials of censorship. As a young journalist he was fired from a Philadelphia radio station because of his coverage of the Africanist organization MOVE, and because of his strong critiques of the Philadelphia police.
Dealing with life outside and inside of prison, All Things Censored draws us into parallel universes populated by people struggling for humanity. It chronicles pervasive racial bias in sentencing and policing, e.g., although Whites are the majority of consumers of both crack and powder cocaine, Black and Latino defendants disproportionately are policed, arrested and incarcerated for drug use and sale.
Abu-Jamal addresses police harassment, brutality and racial-profiling. He describes how race of both the defendant and the victim is the primary factor in capital punishment. Those convicted of killing a White person are four times more likely to receive the death penalty, particularly if they are not White themselves.
Reading these essays, one is struck by analyses that won’t appear in the speeches of politicians who embrace the rhetoric of capital punishment, despite the publicly acknowledged racial bias in state executions which led the American Bar Association to call for a moratorium. All of this does not deny the criminal activity and dangerous behavior of many — and the insanity of a few — who are incarcerated: In narratives about prison experiences we hear stories of frailty, depravity and humanity. It only notes that the basis for a prison or death sentence is not determined merely by guilt or criminal activity. Of the many types of social criminals —white- or blue-collar, government, corporate or individual — the ones who are incarcerated fight for their dignity and human rights.
Ultimately these essays challenge us to rethink contemporary government, social and police policies. They also remind us of a historical struggle shaped by legal disenfranchisement — the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which codifies rather than abolishes slavery, saying that those convicted of a crime can be forced into involuntary servitude while in prison. One must add to those the prison-lease system after the Civil War, in which Blacks were worked to death on former plantations that became prisons in joint state-private ventures to accumulate wealth.
Alongside powerful writing on injustice and the oral testimonies on the CD, this book provides arresting photographs and sketches by various artists. All Things Censored provides what All Things Considered tried to bury: a collective narrative of the compelling and painful stories of the village or tribe on both sides of the concertina wire and their constant resistance to being dehumanized. As Abu-Jamal writes, “Don’t tell me about the valley of the shadow of death. I live there.”

— Joy James is a professor of African American Studies at Brown University.

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