As both writer and teacher of writing the past two decades, have developed a weakness for writer's groups, those intimate little gatherings of wordsmiths that hold such promise of lively debate over esoterica like narrative hooks and word choice and rhyme and meter. While most have been orderly affairs, some have been fairly intense -- writers being the type of people who often don't take criticism kindly. None, though, prepared me for the raw power and emotion I encountered while visiting a group of poets and essayists incarcerated at the Maryland House of Correction.
Incarcerated. The first of many euphemisms you confront as a visitor as you work your way through the faceless meat locker of a prison system. Let's cut the niceties, shall we? For all of the high-minded ideals contained in its name, the Maryland House of Correction, off Route 175 in Jessup, is a state prison. It looks and smells and scares you every bit as bad as any prison you've seen in the movies or dreamed about in your darkest nightmare.
And those poets and essayists and wordsmiths who crowded into a tiny cubicle of Center Hall in the very belly of this savage beast, they are the murderers, robbers, kidnappers, drug dealers you've read so much about. They aren't incarcerated, they are locked up, filed away by number behind layer after layer of bars. If that isn't enough, there are fences out beyond those bars topped with concertina barbed wire, and beyond that stand guards with police dogs, and on a chilly gray winter's day you can see their steamy breath rising in tandem just south of freedom.
The bulk of the inmates here are housed in a series orectangular brick buildings arranged in the shape of a capital F. Inside the prison lobby, located in the base of that F, photographer Patrick Sandor and I pass through a set of electronically controlled double barred doors. We are led to a guard station situated in the center of the stem of the F. It is an open pit-like arena, encircled on all sides by high walls made out of bars. Through the bars are more bars and through those bars even more. You can make out men moving from level to level as far as the eye can see. Most of all you can hear them. The din is overpowering, like the noise from the halls of a thousand high schools at day's end. The lunch hour is near and the aroma of boiled mystery meat hangs heavily in the air.
We wait until guards can be freed from other duties to escort us to the prison activity area. This is a broad room, extending back perhaps 30 feet to a series of reading rooms. We are met at the door by Michael Vaughn-Bey, the 34-year-old chairman of the writer's club. He is a dark complexioned black man, dressed in sneakers and a Prussian blue velour jumpsuit with a monogram over the heart. He has been in prison three times before and
now, halfway through a four-year term for drug distribution -- another euphemism, this one for drug dealing -- he says he has decided at last to find a new career.
He signs us in and walks us across to a small cubicle housing the writer's club. Inside, crowded around a number of old typewriters and a few modern word processors -- either donated or purchased through state grants -- are five men. Ronald Page, 25, of Washington, is serving a 20-year term for first-degree murder. Joe Brown, 34, of Baltimore, the ex-chairman of the writer's club, was recently approved for parole after serving 16 years for a pair of armed robberies and a kidnapping. Djuane Manns, 25, of Washington, known as "D. J.," is here for an armed robbery conviction tied to drugs. Charles Rogers, 42, of Baltimore is the grand old man of the writer's club; he has been in and out of prison since 1965 and has seven felonies on his record. He has earned a bachelor's degree in sociology while in prison and has written 2,500 words of an autobiography. Timotheus Fitzgerald, 34, of Washington, is a compulsive gambler who chooses not to name the crimes that have landed him in prison for 14 years. Later, a seventh club member enters the room, Mark Taitano, 24, of Washington, who has been in and out of prisons since he was 13.
All but Taitano are black, as are the vast majority of the inmates in this medium-security prison housing just under 1,400 inmates. Each man is also an officer of the 42-member writer's club, allowed to come to this cubicle each day as opposed to spending his time out in the main prison population. It is not unusual, says Joe Brown, to return to your cellblock at day's end and find that a fellow inmate has been injured in a fight and taken to the hospital. Or that some other disturbance has resulted in a general lockdown. "This is a haven," he says of the little room.