Probably not an oft heard sentiment. But we volunteers have had such a terrible time getting in or getting the men into the school for months that when it all comes together it’s a happy relief. The person who had been doing our call outs (very unreliably as was) left the position, they’d no plans to replace him, and the all important paper work was falling through the cracks. Fortunately the Dep has agreed to take over for the immediate future, and the gate clearances and call outs were in place.
We started by talking about the promise of iPads they are supposed to get soon which led to the observation that this educational perq will confirm some widespread false beliefs about how well people in prison are treated: you know, three squares, lots of free time, free TV, all kinds of free stuff. We talked about the challenge of prison reform activism with the old dilemma that the first step calls for a massive public re education campaign, but that once people get a grasp of how massive and interconnected the prison problems are with wider social inequities it is easy to feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Where to begin? At this point in the discussion J. jumped in with a connection between our current situation and those Montaigne wrote about surrounded by religious persecution and indeed the Spanish Inquisition, and for that matter by humanity and conflict for as far back as we know, facing towering problems, from a minority position, and having to fight the feeling of helplessness in order to try to do anything to change. “This book definitely gave me insight into how some people in history handled gigantic problems, and how debate can be a normal part of figuring out what you believe and should believe.” Another man talked about how, inspired by Montaigne, he’s been writing every day, and what had previously been a “dead exercise” to him required by a rehab program he’s in: to record his core beliefs through “The world is ____,” “I am ___,” “Others are______” has become a great springboard for reflection. And a third talked about the strange power closeness to death had had over Montaigne’s previous fear of death. He was moved to read several passages about death he found particularly beautiful and interesting. We discussed them in turn, and they expressed regret that Bakewell does not include more primary material. Next time I’ll take a copy of the Essays.
I don’t know if I’ve made clear in the blog that though the men are actively grateful to us volunteers they do not from all appearances say things about what we are reading or discussing to curry favor with me: my favor is pretty worthless there, for one thing…no grades, no credit, no certificate. It is a motivated, self selecting group who are there for the conversation about books and ideas. And boy do they regularly affirm the value of what we do. I often arrive anxious about pretty much everything: will I get in, will they get released to the school, will some people still not have the books I’ve sent several times over, will they be unprepared, will someone hijack the discussion to follow a personal biographical tangent to the ends of the earth. All of these fears have been born out at one time or another. But I have very rarely left a meeting not feeling keenly that we’ve done some good, solid philosophy together, and see that they are the better for it, and that they take themselves to be so.