prison class

Michael Yates mikey+ at
Sat Oct 16 20:24:46 MDT 1999

Pennsylvania's Western Penitentiary sits along the Ohio River on the far
north side of Pittsburgh.  The spot is a pretty one, although in the
fenced in former parking lot to which the inmates have occassional
access, the fence itself is covered with plastic sheeting so that they
cannot actually see the river.

I have been teaching a class in economics at this prison for two hours
every Tuesday evening.  Upon entering, I sign in and present myself to a
guard.  I empty my pockets and take off my belt and my shoes (if they
have any metal on them).  The guard checks my bag, and I walk through a
metal detector.  I have a cushion with me because I cannot sit for long
on a hard chair without pain.  I had to get permission from a supervisor
to bring this cushion in, and it is checked by the guard each time I
arrive for class.  After going through the metal detector and back out
again, I go in and am drug checked.  Another guard takes a filter of
some sort and puts it into a machine that looks a little like a
miniature dust buster.  He runs this over my palms, my jacket pockets,
my pants and shirt pockets, and my cuffs. Then he takes out the filter
and puts it into another machine which checks for any signs of a wide
variety of drugs.  A marker visible to a special light is used by the
guard to mark my hand.  I am given an ID card with my picture on it and
I place this in a visible place on my shirt or jacket. Then another
guard is called and he comes out to escort me to the school building
inside the prison.  We await the opening of a set of double doors by
still another guard invisible to us.  The doors open and we go down a
hallway to another set of doors which open into the yard of the prison.
We walk a block or so to the school building and the guard lets me into
the class room.  I await the arrival of the students.  They may be late
for any number of reasons; prisons have many checks on prisoners and
these take time.  Not all of the students may make every class; some of
them may be on various sorts of punishment (one man missed last week's
class, perhaps because he rebelled when he was not allowed to go to the
funeral home to see his dead mother's body).  I make small talk with the
guards.  It is best to keep on their good side as they can make life
difficult for me if they want.  (If I plan to use a video I have to let
them have it in advance. My friend who helps runs the education program
is trying to get this procedure eliminated.  Before it was implemented,
she showd "Battle of Algiers" to a class studying Franz Fanon's
"Wretched of the Earth."  This probably would have been prohibited had
she had to show them the film first.  Generally, you can use any
material you want, but titles referring to persons such as Mumia or
Leonard Peltier will probably be confiscated, if not from us then from
the inmates.)

In my first clas I had them sign the roster sheet and asked them to put
down, in addition to their given names, any name they preferred me to
use.  Some wrote down Muslim names, one an Egyptian name, and some
nicknames.  So I have Khalifa, Senifer, Heru, Farid Rafiq, Bamoni,
Crump, Capone, Tacuma,and Muscles as well as Deion and Slutzker. They
range in age from early 20s to late 40s.  I do not know why they are in
prison.  All but one of the students are black (I am white), and it
struck me right away that none of the black students is light-skinned.
They do not look like the African American newscasters we see now on
television. Not only do black americans face an abominable
discrimination that puts so many in prison but those with the darkest
skin color face this discrimination most forcefully.

I have never felt unsafe in the prison.  However, I did jump the first
time the double doors slammed behind me (just like in the movies).  And
I was very nervous about the class. It is not a credit class.  The
government took away Pell grants from the prisoners and so they cannot
afford to attend college and the Univ. of Pittsburgh closed the program
it once had there.  My friend did not want to see all nonvocational
education programs end at the prison, so she and another person started
a noncredit certificate program.  So far, it has been a great success.

Anyway, I started the first class by saying something about myself. Then
I passed out some handouts.  I started to talk about capitalism and what
I thought of as its main features.  Then I asked a question about wealth
and the discussion began.  I can only describe it as a runaway train. We
talked about many things for at least an hour without a stop. Some
comments were as sharp as any I have ever heard from a student, some
were funny, and some reflected views common on the outside.  But all
were made seriously, by men wanting to know and wanting to have their
voices heard.  I was exhilarated in a way seldom so in my regular
classes.  When I got home I could not sleep.  I kept thinking about the
class and I kept seeing the students' faces.  I dreamed about them most
of the night.

The next class was just like the first.  We discussed an article called
"Buddhist Economics" by E.F. Schumacher (from his book "Small is
Beautiful") and compared the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood with
work and consumption in capitalism.  Then I talked about the
accumulation of capital.  The class ended with me pounding my fist on
the table, saying "Accumulate, Accumulate, that is Moses and the
Prophets." I had their complete and undivided attention when I said this
and then argued that capital will be accumulated whatever the human
cost, whether it be enslavement, theft, or murder.

During the last class I felt something I have never felt in a class
before.  I know this will sound corny and some of you will think that I
am naive, but I felt sitting there with convicts all around me, that we
really were brothers.  We left the class together after the whistle
shrilly blew the signal that they had to get to their cellblocks.  We
walked down the steps of the classroom buiding and out into the yard
among the general prison population.  I looked up at the stars and my
heart was filled with a hard sadness.

Michael Yates

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