A philosophical feast for students, prisoners

Book group: Salisbury University students visit inmates to discuss Nietzsche and Camus.

April 25, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

WESTOVER - Betsy Mueller rarely speaks up in her philosophy classes at Salisbury University. But there's one place she comes alive - surrounded by convicted felons at the state prison.

"On the outside, I don't have a voice. But here, I've realized that to entertain discussions with inmates sparks the discovery that I do have things to say," the senior from Cockeysville said this week at the Eastern Correctional Institution. "It's been a breakthrough in my world."

Mueller is one of 20 Salisbury students who belong to a most unusual book group - and one of the bolder town-gown ventures a college has ever tried. Once a week, the students visit the prison here for heated, unsupervised discussions of weighty texts with inmates. They ponder questions of morality, mortality and free will with men who have confronted them in the starkest terms.

Their readings have included Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus and Frederick Douglass. The meetings run for two hours and, according to the students, are often more lively and insightful than classes back on campus.

"For me, this is the best form of dialogue," Michael Hansen, a junior from Harford County, told inmates after a session this week. "You have this wall put up, and it's a merging of the two sides of the wall that breaks it down in this phenomenal way."

For the prisoners who volunteered for the program, the discussions offer a rare opportunity for intellectual stimulation and for meeting in an organized setting with other inmates. (Most gatherings are banned at the 3,200-bed prison on the theory that they could be breeding grounds for insurrections.)

"There's only so much intellectual discussion in the cells," said Byron Bowie, 41, convicted on drug charges in Frederick. "This is an escape, my two hours of freedom."

The discussions began in 2001, after a Loyola College professor came to Salisbury to describe his work with prisoners. Inspired by his account, four philosophy students received permission from ECI to meet with inmates. Two years later, the program involves five groups of about four students each, who visit weekly to meet with groups of about six inmates.

Salisbury faculty say the program is a natural outgrowth of a philosophy department that is itself an anomaly of sorts.

With just five faculty, the department oversees 44 philosophy majors and draws dozens more non-majors to its overbooked courses. The Philosophy Club at Salisbury gets up to 20 students a week at its meetings; the annual daylong Philosophy Symposium draws up to 200.

This is no small feat at a time when many philosophy departments face dwindling enrollments. It's also notable at Salisbury, known for drawing career-minded students who are not particularly introspective.

The secret? The department strives to make philosophy relevant to students' lives rather than losing itself in abstract mind games. One of its courses considers the ethical questions surrounding animal rights; another examines the philosophy of violence and nonviolence.

"We've bought into the idea that we're engaging students in important questions about their lives," said department veteran Fran Kane.

The prison visits are an example of this approach, faculty say. This week, Mueller, Hansen and two other classmates drove the 15 miles to the medium-security prison early Monday morning. After being frisked, they were led through a dozen locked doors, through the prison yard and into the library, where six inmates awaited them.

There, the group tackled W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk in a boisterous discussion that ran for more than two hours without pause.

Back and forth, inmates and students argued whether DuBois was entitled to analyze rural black culture, even though he was a Northeastern intellectual far from Southern farms.

"The problem is, he's speaking for blacks, but he doesn't really represent blacks," said Kevin Lockhart, 50, of Baltimore, who's serving a sentence for theft.

The debate ranged to the larger question of whether one can truly understand the plight of someone whose experiences one doesn't share. What are the limits of empathy? Could the students really understand what it was like to be imprisoned?

The meetings have not been without hurdles. Students have repeatedly had to convince the inmates that they are not getting course credit for their visits.

On the whole, though, the discussions are remarkably lacking in tension. Monday's veered frequently into issues of race - a potentially sensitive subject in a room where all the students were white and all the inmates black. But after six weeks, the participants seemed to trust each other enough to be candid.

"I don't usually click too well with you all white people, but I enjoy sitting around with you," said Arthur Ross, 51, of Washington, who has a life sentence for homicide. "We're getting to mingle with the outside, and we don't get that much."

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