Back in prison: yay!

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.


How to Live? Be Born

is the name of the third chapter in the Bakewell book, and it is a good way to sneak in some interesting and basic biographical information about Montaigne. But for my group reading about his circumstances exaggerated the differences that made writing so attractive, and, well, positive, for him. As we’d discussed last time I was in Montaigne’s heightened attention to detail struck them as a clarifying luxury; their heightened attention to everything is born of life and death necessity, and they think it highlights almost entirely abnormal things about their lives in prison, which they regret they predict they’ll never be able to shed. One man asked me last night how getting a jumpy dog had affected my attention to detail. Oh boy, a good question — my walk to work or around the neighb had never been the same since this hyper vigilant — to other dogs, chipmunks, loud trucks — came into my life, and definitely not in a good way. That’s not to say that we can’t learn interesting things about ourselves and world. But it’s at least as much through a distorting lens as a clarifying one.

Excellent news here for the segue: the NY State college credit program has finally made it to this prison, and two of the men in my group of five last night have been admitted, and two are on the waitlist. 23 admitted out of more than 50 applicants. They are thrilled and excited, and I believe them when they say they never would have applied if not for having done work in our book groups. No confidence in their academic abilities before; quite a lot now: the main reason (whether connected to formal college credit in prison or not) I do this work. And the feeling of happiness was palpable in the room last night.

In spite of the fact that we turned the attention from Be Born to To Decide to Die. Suicide has been in the local news, and we took up the question of whether we can ever know why other people do drastic things (jeez, LV). They argued, interestingly, that there are many instances when the agent is not the best judge of what is going on in his life or even mind and a third party might actually know more than the person him or her self (self deception confusion, salience, and more), but they thought that when it came to suicide the person making the decision *probably* does have a good sense of the reason and cause (we did a sidebar to discuss this distinction), at least a better one than other people. We also discussed whether it is ever rational to kill oneself — actually the right thing to do (and not just in cases of, say, heroic self sacrifice for others) — no agreement at all on this question (and strong conviction on both sides of the spectrum). A good, lively discussion, and for all the bleakness of the topic, quite fun.

I was very happy to be there, and I know they too were happy I made it in this time.

Turned away, yet again

No call out, though the person in charge had confirmed in an email a week ago that one was set up. No call out, no class. You might think that I’d have learned by now to call to find out whether on any given scheduled day the gate clearance and call outs were in place. The last time I did that though — at a meeting on Memorial Day I’d gotten clearance for weeks in advance — I was told by the guard who took the call that no, I should not come because there would be no call out because they were too short staffed to have a guard in the school that night. Made sense, indeed that’s why I called to double check. But at our next meeting I learned that there HAD been a call out, and thus of course a school guard. And when that happens the men just sit in the room for the allotted two hours. Demoralizing to have read and prepared material, also to have to push back the discussion of that material, but not the worst thing for them.

The scheduled reading and discussion last night of chapter three of the Montaigne book How to Live, “Be Born,” would have been eerily timely in the wake of Charlottesville. Bakewell ends the chapter with a discussion of a formative salt tax riot in which Montaigne saw a man beaten to death and lynched. Something he — and the region he was later in charge of politically — of course never forgot.

How to live?: Pay attention

Small group but lively discussion about Bakewell’s second chapter, with everyone pointing out what should have been obvious to the reader in this context, but was not to this obtuse reader: that Bakewell contrasts the laudatory way that Montaigne pays attention with the inattention of the ordinary person without seeming to consider the other contrast: namely, with the constant, vigilant attention to what might normally pass without notice that prison demands, for example, to what every passerby is doing with his hands. It’s exhausting. To be sure the men get crucial information they’d otherwise dangerously lack, but the need for it reflects something intrinsically bad and abnormal about prison life. It put me in mind of the time early on in my career at the prison when on a bitterly cold night I ran from the gate I’d just been put through to the pick up van 50 yards away. One does not run in the prison yard, no matter how natural it might otherwise seem in punishing weather conditions. Of course as soon as the guard who yelled from the van said it it made perfect sense…

The men were also intrigued by the differences among paying attention, reflecting on what one had noticed, and writing down (or writing about?) what one had noticed. And yes, Montaigne’s essays inspire them to think about the everyday, and the fact that anybody can in theory at least do it. Pay attention, that is.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Last night we talked about Montaigne’s exhortation that we not worry about death, an interesting springboard into ideas and fears about death, existentialism, Buddhism, the self, and more, including of course thoughts about the afterlife. At some point I threw in a butchered version of the quote from Hamlet above (ending it with something like “than we can imagine.”) An avid reader in the group gently corrected me.

Anyone who has spent time on the faculty of a college in the last 50 years has almost certainly been a party to a fractious discussion and decision about the merits of distribution requirements (say, that all students have to take at least one (or two) art, science… etc., course). One paternalistic argument in favor of such requirements usually appeals to the speaker’s own experience of having taken something they would never otherwise have signed up for and discovering a real passion for the subject. Something like that happened in the book group last night.

New guard in the school decided that anyone who signed up and made it on to the call out sheet should be forced to attend. I told him emphatically that this was not the case (at best the call out sheet bears a passing resemblance to our actual groups, with several people who go to one group but not all, and several people who long ago were transferred or discharged). The call out is in short necessary but far from sufficient for attendance. He managed to force all of the men on the list and still in the prison to come, including a regular who was quite sick we’d all have much rather he’d not come, so by the end of the first half hour the number had swelled by 13. Thirteen men who, to a person, looked really pissed off to be coming in. Oh, and that is one of the arguments against distribution requirements — who wants people in your courses who are forced to be there?

I asked all of the men who’d been forced to come to give me their info so I can write to the person who does the call outs to insist that they be taken off the list in case this guard is now a regular, also because several of the regulars repeated that there are still people interested in joining the group who’ve they’ve heard been turned away because we are (supposedly) at the maximum.

We then ended up having a great discussion — death is sexy! — with three of the new people eagerly participating. On their way out of the room those three and a couple more men crossed their names off the removal list. I would never have tried to rope anyone into the group that way, but I’ll happily take these once reluctant additions.



“Wait, how is that not about ethics?”

July 3. Not a holiday, but close enough that there was lots of confusion — as usual — about my gate clearance, ride to the school, and whether there had been call outs. I got to the school late, as a result, even so, COs, but no men in the classroom. Eventually three men trickled in from three dorms, one because he saw me get out of the van and could show his CO a call out print out, even though there’d not actually been a vocal call out.

We were to start a new book, the first three chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s philosophical biography of Montaigne, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

A lively, interesting book, so far. I didn’t want to get too far into it since we were five or six men short and would want to cover the new material with the whole group, but two of the men really took Bakewell to task over her claim in the introduction that (of Montaigne’s Essays project):

Although it is not quite grammatical in English, it can be phrased in three simple words: “How to live?” This is not the same at the ethical question “How should one live?” Moral dilemmas interested Montaigne, but he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did. He wanted to know how to live a good life — meaning a correct or honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one.” (p.4)

starting with my titular question: What makes for an honorable, flourishing life? Wait, how is that not about ethics? Aristotle would famously agree, and so would many of his philosophical descendants. We shall see how the ought/is distinction pans out in the rest of the book.

Not all three men agreed, I should add, with the hold out eager to link morality and ethics to divine law. He asked passionately Really, why do you do this, I mean apart from what you might get out of it? In other words what’s the story of why something is the right thing to do (justification?) that doesn’t rely on a higher sort of ethical law or demand? He knows I am an atheist, and still cannot get his head around the idea of actions having moral worth, or agents having moral intentions, or even life having meaning or other value (honor, flourishing) if we believe in a godless universe. I have never been moved by the tension between godlessness and being committed to an ethical life — I just don’t feel a gap at all — but I can see the difficulty of positing value in a world of purely physical objects. He tried to give me an out by asking me if maybe I was spiritual (if not religious) :).

We will take up these questions again soon.

Last week

19437474_10154688550150866_6540423640056587117_nWhen I left our meeting at 8:40 p.m. last Monday June 26 the setting sun was illuminating the tops of some trees and the fronts of others with a surrealistic cross between glow and shimmer: incandescent. It was stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks breathtaking. By the time I got to my car and phone a few minutes later the illumination moment had passed, but the last minute of the sunset was pretty spectacular too.

I took some measure of comfort and pleasure knowing that the men walking back from the school across the yard must have seen it too. And I was reminded of the wonder that we are lucky enough to be the sort of creatures that appreciate beauty.