The prisoners sign up purely out of interest; no credit, no parole bump, etc. attaches to attendance. There have been posters up advertising the groups (there are, at any given time 2 or 3 other book groups running other nights or weeks, none on philosophy though :)) but the main way people come into the group is through word of mouth. I aim for group continuity across each of the books — in other words I open up the enrollment to new people only when we are about to start a new book. A very imperfect system.
It is always a challenge to get the books into the members’ hands. I can’t bring anything into the meetings except my own copy of the book, and the way the books are distributed by the authorities in the prison bears at most a passing resemblance to the reality of who is in the group. So some men who haven’t been coming for a long time (say, because of a job conflict) are given copies, and new people get them mid way through the new book — or never. The call outs (sheets listing who can leave their dorms to come to the ed building, a necessary condition for being let into the building) are also usually laughably out of date — including men who have not come to meetings for a year, and several of whom had long ago been transferred. It is hard to get into the group, but nearly entirely bureaucratically so. When we meet weekly in the summer the group is generally at capacity of 12 (with about 10 showing up in any given week), but otherwise there is room.
Okay, back to group constitution: there are between 4 and 12 in any given meeting, and they range in age from 18 to 60. Education level likewise covers a huge range: some have failed the GED multiple times, some have had some college, and some — two — not at the same time, but two periods of about a year, have law degrees. About half the men are black, a couple are Jewish, some Christian, and some Muslim, and one committed Wiccan. Most of the men have been in prison for some time, even the younger men, and many of them are repeat offenders (more on that in a later post). Though I could easily find out what anyone in the group is in prison for, I have chosen not to be told by the prison, or the men, what they are in prison for, rather, I rely on the system not to allow anyone in the group who poses a threat to me. It’s a medium security prison, but many members of the group started out in max prisons, in particular, Attica.
The most committed member of the group, and probably the person I’ve seen the biggest transformation in, is in his late 50’s and has been in prison for 29 years (and has had two visitors in that time). Though he doesn’t seem to have any friends in prison either, he is clearly respected by the men in the group. He was a drug addict when I first met him — for one thing he has MS, and was on a range of drugs prescribed to him, including some, as they say, controlled substances — but he is now off everything.