Drew Leder's philosophy translates into actions A THINKING MAN

January 30, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Every Monday, in the bowels of the maximum-security Maryland Penitentiary, Drew Leder talks with inmates about power and drug tests, rehabilitation and stiff prison penalties, violence and forgiveness.

For the prisoners, the class helps them learn how to be free, even within the prison's grim stone walls.

For the Loyola College philosophy professor, these dialogues are a way to test what he has learned from great philosophers.

Personal growth, intellectual pursuit and social reform are one and the same for Dr. Leder. He is a hands-on philosopher who takes abstract thought and makes it real through his own actions.

Dr. Leder, a Jew who teaches Asian thought at a Jesuit school and attends Quaker meeting, is no cloistered academician. He drives a cherry-red 1967 Mustang. He's as comfortable contemplating Plato, Foucault and Gandhi as he is watching "Roseanne." At home, he and his philosopher wife -- Janice McLane teaches philosophy at Morgan State University -- "talk about who is going to do the dishes, not Schopenhauer and Kant," Dr. Leder says.

In addition to his work at the prison, this slightly bedraggled scholar is coordinating an ethics program for health care professionals and designing a model for a spiritual community that he hopes will enrich the lives of the elderly.

"I have felt led out of my little tower of isolation, sitting in front of my computer, typing manuscripts, to something that challenges and opens me up on a whole different level," Dr. Leder says.

He's as comfortable contemplating Plato, Foucault and Gandhi as he is watching "Roseanne."

"He just doesn't talk the values to his students; he models them and lives them out," says Erin D. Swezey, co-founder of Loyola's Center for Values and Service and a colleague of Dr. Leder's. For students at the Maryland penitentiary, Dr. Leder's philosophy class, open to those at college level or beyond, is "a way out of nowhere," says John Cowan, who has served 19 years of a life-plus-seven-years sentence. Discussions and readings have helped Mr. Cowan -- who graduated with honors and two degrees from Coppin State College -- to reroute energy, previously spent on anger, into tapping "what is good" within him.

"Together, we spend a lot of time exploring the nature of violence," Dr. Leder says. "The way in which [students] have been subjected to violence in their lives. The violence of growing up in the inner city, of poverty and discrimination, and conversely, the violence they have done to others."

Class topics are as eclectic as the teacher: prison architecture, the flawed American dream, race relations and the trial of Socrates. Dr. Leder is assembling a book based on class discussions, portions of which have already appeared in Lingua Franca, an academic magazine. Next month, he's bringing African-American scholar Cornel West, author of "Race Matters," speak to inmates.

In the small prison classroom on a January day, selections from religious writings provoke inmates' thoughts on their own growth and acceptance of responsibility for their actions.

"When I was over in that Supermax, in lockup for two years, I thought I was smarter than these dudes," remembers Arlando Jones, a young man wearing a ribbed hat.

Gradually, he came to the conclusion: "If I'm so smart, why do I wind up in these situations?"

A humiliating moment, but one that has directed Mr. Jones toward a richer life, even if it must be spent in jail. He's progressed from merely "hanging out with my homies to valuing my own thought."

Searching for answers

Mr. Jones' story is reinforced by others as students grapple with a thicket of moral questions concerning the value of their lives, the challenge of conquering one's self and the frustrating inability to test their new perspective outside the prison.

With one exception.

Thanks in large part to Dr. Leder, author H. B. Johnson Jr., originally sentenced to 35 years for attempted murder and a handgun violation, is out of jail.

Dr. Leder drafted the petition to Gov. William Donald Schaefer that led to the commutation of Mr. Johnson's sentence last November, 11 months after the award-winning playwright learned he had AIDS.

fTC Mr. Johnson says of jail: "I call it the island of black rain." A former class member released into home detention, Mr. Johnson notes that inmates spend their lives running from the incessant rain -- in other words, their dreary prison lives -- until a person like Dr. Leder "comes along and says, 'Hey!' And you stop and you say, 'Yeah, what you want?' "

Dr. Leder wants to offer freedom through knowledge.

As Mr. Johnson puts it: "Did you know there's a boat on the other side of the island? All you have to do is go on and get on and leave this place forever."

Dr. Leder's work with the prisoners and other students reveals a pattern, one of encouraging people to come together to share their lives and ideas.

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