Once You’re Inside: A Visit to Patuxent Institution

This essay was first published in the Little Patuxent Review’s Blog. Since this essay was published, I have become a regular volunteer and continue to work with these remarkable men in the writing group. Working with them has been a life-changing experience and I am grateful for the opportunity to get to know people I would never ordinarily be in contact with. 

Note: All the men’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

I didn’t know what to expect when Linda Moghadam and I visited the men’s writing group at the Patuxent Institute. I had a clue as to the motivation and tenor of the men from reading a brochure Linda had given me about the creative group. Working together, the members had this to say about the purpose of forming a group and the power of the arts:

“The group wants to have a positive impact on people involved with the street culture, prisons, and policy makers who can re-introduce educational programs into the prison systems.…

“The arts are not something people think of when they picture a maximum security prison. ‘Tough guys’ in small tank tops in a prison yard dominate the general idea of what prison is like. But far from joining gangs and delving deeper into the criminal lifestyle, these young men spend their time learning how to express themselves, work in groups, give and receive positive feedback, and effectively communicate with others; all important skills that are critical to functioning in the world outside of prison.”

Patuxent Institute

When I arrived at Patuxent, I was struck by how I had to let go of things I take for granted —beginning with what to wear. With the June temperature rising over 90 degrees, I wanted to wear a skirt, but Linda told me ahead of time that I was required to wear slacks. My purse had to remain locked in the car, along with my cell phone. Little by little, even before I met the men, I yielded some of my personal freedoms, albeit temporarily. Still, I felt unnerved by the lack of control.

I surrendered my license at the front desk and in return, they handed me a temporary visitor’s pass. They permitted me to carry a copy of my book, a pad of paper, and a pen for my interviews. After I had walked through the metal detector, a female officer patted me down. Once the formalities were out of the way, Linda and I began our long walk to the education room in another building.

The officers seemed pretty friendly as they chatted with each other. They recognized Linda —perhaps because she’s been a volunteer writing instructor at Jessup for seven years — nodding at her and me as we walked through the long, tan-colored hallways, every so often segmented by half-opened black, iron, barred doors. I sighed with relief when the doors weren’t locked behind us. We snaked through several long, airless halls until we came to another guarded entrance. We were waved outside and followed a path, lined with marigolds and bluebells, to the education building. Good to see some color in this bleak, brick and barbed wire area. Whoever planted those flowers had my gratitude.

We entered the red brick building that was home to the education program—more long hallways, more half-barred doorways. I noticed a few Baltimore-themed murals decorating some sections of the walls. The pipes were wrapped in insulation, which peeled off in large chunks. The air felt still and hot.

I felt closed in, striding deeper and deeper into the prison as if I was being sealed into an airless container. The only inmates I saw were escorted in the hallways by guards whose hands rested lightly on the prisoners’ arms. There seemed to be a quiet calm to the facility, and I couldn’t help but think of some of the troubled young men who had been my students just a few years ago. A picture of teachers punishing entire classes flashed in my mind. Yes, I was now in the prison end of the school-to-prison pipeline.When we finally arrived in the multipurpose room, an officer wearing tinted glasses nodded to Linda and then opened the locked door for us.

“Hey, Ms. Moghadam!” The students almost cheered Linda as she strode across the floor. One by one the six young men introduced themselves to me and shook my hand. As we exchanged names, they welcomed me to their writing group.

The room, about the size of half a gymnasium, had a stage toward the front. The following quote, written in a flawless script on a huge sheet of yellow paper, filled the back wall of the stage: “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.” The men sat around a large, old, wooden table and each had a writing notebook. A couple of them had brought reading materials as well.

I had only 90 minutes in which to interview all the members of the Jessup writing group. I decided to use as inspiration Betty May’s Faces women and the guiding questions that had formed the basis of their play. The women featured in May’s book shared a common thread no matter their stories—they all felt they had changed and were not the same people they were when they committed their crimes. They wanted to give back.

I would ask only two questions: Who were you when you came to prison and who are you now? I think their answers provide significant insights into the people behind the barbed wire fences, so many of us drive by every day.

Ryan had long braids, tattoos on his arms, and wore a warm smile as he told me his story.  “I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I’m from East Baltimore, and I went to the Harford Institute—an alternative school in Baltimore City (now it’s called the Fairmont-Harford High School). I was only reading at about the 7th-grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15 and now I’m 28.

“Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. I think the first thing I read that helped me to change was called As a Man Thinketh by James Allen. That book made a powerful impression on me. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”

Matt had close-cropped hair and black-framed glasses. He smiled when I asked him to tell me about his experiences. “I was always a searcher. When I was 20, I was traveling a lot and exposed to lots of different environments and people. I was trying to find my place through looking at the world with other people’s eyes combined with my experiences. I grew up in East Baltimore and went to the Harford Institute like Ryan, but I went to college as well. My home life was pretty unstable. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. When you’re lost, any road will take you there. I’m a people person, but listening to my peer group back then—that was the blind leading the blind.

“One thing that I’ve always had is I like to read. In my old neighborhood, some people moved out of their house, and they left a bunch of stuff on the sidewalk—VCR tapes and a large collection of books. I remember seeing an entire set of books by Mark TwainTom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and more—I grabbed all those books and took them home. When I read and found words I didn’t understand, I’d ask my mother or my friend’s sister what they meant. Learning that way sparked my creativity.

“But I couldn’t connect what I was reading with what I was experiencing out in the world. I wish I had had a mentor, someone who could have helped me make sense of the world. The first time I was in prison, there were no programs and no education classes. But now, I take every program they offer here. I know how to make sense of my life. That took maturation. What I want to do now is put a new vibe into the system—something that will be beneficial for myself and others.”

Timothy carried with him a notebook and reading materials. He had a serious approach to language and the intentional use of words. “One thing you won’t find me doing is using sayings without knowing what they mean. Like a lot of people in here talk about ‘rule of thumb’ and ‘Tomming.’ I won’t use either one of those sayings because I don’t like what they mean.”

Timothy went on the explain that “rule of thumb” refers to an old English law that allows a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it’s no bigger than his thumb. “I won’t use that phrase because of its original meaning.”

I had never heard of “Tomming,” so Timothy explained that it refers to someone in prison who sucks up to the guards and does them favors, someone who’s subservient to get in good with the people in charge.

Timothy told me, “’Tomming’ comes from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. After the Civil War when the slaves had been freed, and people were unhappy with the freedom and rights that African Americans had gained, they discredited the real story of Uncle Tom. Instead, of Uncle Tom being revered as a hero who cared for his fellow slaves and went to great lengths to help them, calling African Americans an Uncle Tom became an insult. The term was used to mean they (African Americans) were subservient to white people or wanting to gain favor with white people and forsake their own race.”

Timothy was articulate and thoughtful as he continued speaking. “We used to get the Catalog of Dover Thrift Classics, and I loved all those classic books. But we can’t get them anymore.

“You know, ideas are dangerous—being a writer and a teacher are revolutionary acts. People who think outside of the box are feared. Pretty soon teachers will realize their own power and then they can create an alternative education system.”

The other men in the group agreed as Timothy continued, “Change has got to come. People are suffering—no jobs, the schools are bad. Lousy homes. But it’s just like in here—the more they [the guards] take away, the less you have to lose, the more people fight back.”

Initially, Vincent, who sat to my left, did not want to talk. He listened thoughtfully and nodded his head while the others took their turns answering my questions. He was very polite and spoke softly when he had something to add. When I asked him a second time if he wanted to speak, he answered in a clear voice.

Vincent: “When I came here, I had just turned 15. I grew up in the child-care system, so I lived in lots of places. Coming to prison was like crossing the Rubicon for me. Since I’ve been here, I’ve developed my values and formed better habits. I love reading—one of my favorite authors is Proust.

“I’d say the biggest influence on helping me develop my values is learning that I have the right to make up my mind. When I was younger, I never thought I had that right. I never really knew I could make up my own mind.

“I’d describe myself as a lover of language, and I live in my imagination. I’ve developed a value set and for me, the most important value is compassion. I see myself as part of the human family. I know that spirituality is omnipresent, and it connects all of us through one language—the language of love.”

When I asked Vincent what he was currently reading, he smiled and said, “I’ve been sleeping a lot. It’s too hot to read in here.”

Williams seemed eager to talk and grinned when he finally had the attention of the group.

“I was 16 when I came here. I grew up in Hyattsville. I’d say that I was a person who was very aware of the disadvantages in my life. I thought of myself as someone who could level the playing field, but I went about it in the wrong way. My mother was a single parent, and she worked all the time, but we never had enough of anything. That put pressure on me that I couldn’t handle at the time.

“I’m a Hispanic male, so there are a lot of expectations from my culture. To be a man means you are aggressive. You have to protect your self-esteem. Now, thanks to Ms. Moghadam, I’m a feminist. I understand the position of women in America.

“I’ve been in prison for 12 years, and I know the best way to spend my time is to educate myself. I participate in every program they have. I believe that knowledge is power, and I’ve dedicated myself to education. I’m still trying to level the playing field. I grew up in poverty, but now I’m trying to do it the right way.

“I’m working on my character by being honest with myself. I ask for help now. I’m committed to learning and striving to get where I want to be. I want a respectable position when I get out of here, so I can help people. I want to give back. I know there’s a stigma against ex-prisoners. I love the arts; they’ve been a godsend for me. I’ve been able to develop my ideas through arts and writing.”

Our time was nearly over—Linda, and I had to leave the room by 4 o’clock sharp. There is no leeway for long good-byes in a prison, as I found out. Before we left, Mark had one last comment to make about the arts. His words struck me as important.

Mark said, “When people are in a state of disconnection, it’s much easier to harm the environment, to harm each other. The arts build a connection. That’s why they’re so important.”

When the session was over, and the men filed out of the room accompanied by a guard, I had only a few minutes to collect my papers and retrace my steps back through the maze of the prison to return to the outside world. A flood of images filled my mind, and I couldn’t help but reflect on their ages again. Nearly all of the men have spent half of their lives in prison. And even though I knew that most of them were under 30 years old, it was still a shock to learn that many of them had entered prison as 15-year-old boys. I thought of the mistakes my son made at that age, and I shuddered to think how his life might have been different under other circumstances.

The whole time I was with them I had a lump in my throat, but refused to let any tears leak from my eyes. When I concluded the interviews, I told them, “I’m very sorry all of you are still in prison. But I want you to know that the positive energy you carry and share benefits everyone around you. You make this prison a better place. “ I hope all who read their words will feel the same way.

I’m going back for another visit in a few weeks.

Inspiration from Lawrence Ferlinghetti

According the to Poetry Foundation’s biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of his main goals as a poet and publisher was “redeeming poetry from the ivory towers of academia and offering it as a shared experience with ordinary people.” I think Ferlinghetti does that quite well with this little poem, “Airplanes of the Heart.”

Airplanes of the Heart

The little airplanes of the heart
With their brave little propellers
What can they do
Against the wind of darkness
Even as butterflies are beaten back
by hurricanes
yet do not die
They lie in wait wherever
They can hide and hang
Their fine wings folded
And when the killer wind dies
They flutter forth again
Into the new-blown light
Live as leaves.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I don’t know much about Ferlinghetti, but I do know that he was one of the main poets of the “Beat” generation and he started a famous bookstore in San Francisco called City Lights. I know that he published Allen Ginsburg’s anthem “Howl,” which certainly fulfilled Ferlinghetti’s mission to bring poetry out of the ivory towers.

And all of that information is valuable. But for me, the most valuable information is the inspiration and feeling that I get from a poem. And I feel hopeful when I read “Little Airplanes of the Heart.”

The Butterfly Beetle
The Butterfly Beetle

The first image that comes to me is that of the seedlings that will soon fill my patio–the propellor-like gifts that cover the ground in the spring as we wait for plants and flowers to wake us up in the spring. But more than that, the poem contains the seedlings of hope and of life that continues despite set-back and loss. The phrase “butterflies of loss” conjures images of friends and relatives that have passed away. I can still see their faces, hear their voices, and I know they are as close as a breeze.

And sometimes don’t we feel like the butterfly beaten back by a hurricane? Still, there is something so powerful about the human spirit, that no matter what challenges confront us or what losses we bear, we flutter forth and spread our colorful wings , buoyed by the winds of hope.

Thank you, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for your beautiful gift of this poem. Enjoy!


Failing More, and Loving It!: Lessons from Creativity

When I was growing up, the worst thing that could happen to me was to fail, especially in school. My parents prized good grades, and I dutifully complied, racking up lots of 100s, gold stars, and honors commendations on my report cards. Until I got to the 7th grade. I hit a wall with math that year–must have been the “new math” that was in vogue at the time. I remember the strange terminology about sets and confusing word problems. One day when I got a test back, the was a big red “D” at the top of the page. I can still remember the sick feeling that spread over my body. I remember feeling like my cheeks were on fire. I dreaded going home. How would I explain that failure?  What would my parents say? Would I be punished?

Ann in 1st grade

I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember the awful feelings I carried and the angry self-talk chattering away in my head about failure. Thankfully, my teacher helped me to understand the concepts, and I moved on. I think that was the last “D” I ever got. But no one ever told me that failure was really part of learning and mistakes were a necessary part of moving forward. No one ever got honors for mistakes. And no one talked about the value of failure until I found the creativity people.

The Florida Creativity Conference in Sarasota, Florida, has offered a rich array of workshops and presentations over the course of a March weekend  every year for the past 13 years. I started attending in 2008 with the encouragement of Anthony Hyatt, a wonderful violinist who uses his talents to bring joy through music in retirement communities and hospitals.  Anthony and I met in 2008 at a networking event for creative entrepreneurs, and he spoke so positively about the conference that I decided to go–in 2008 and every year since.

I remember telling a friend, “It’s really a shame that I had to be an adult in my 50s before I could experience learning in such a playful environment.”  And because learning is actually experimental to a large degree, there is always the possibility of failure. But the creativity folks don’t shy away from failure–they embrace it. In fact, one of my first experiences at the conference involved an improv game where we formed a big circle in a large classroom and played “Celebrate Failure.” As soon as the leader named a brand of car, the person he pointed to had to name three models of that car–three two-syllable models and we had to snap with each syllable.

What happened next was the big surprise. As soon as someone had a turn–and could’t snap and name the cars, we all cheered and said, “Congratulations!  You failed.”  It probably sounds silly when I say it to you, but the lesson resonated with each one of us who played the game. After we had all “failed,” we discussed the power of reframing our experiences and asking what we learned from something that didn’t work out.


“Did you learn anything?” became my new mantra whenever I tried an experimental  lesson  in my writing classes, especially when I didn’t get the results I had hoped for. No more sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. No more cheeks flaming with shame. Now I think about the “Failure Game” and remember the fun of everyone cheering together.

I’d like to leave you with a thought from one of my favorite poets, David Whyte. In one of his talks about being authentic and being willing to take risks, he talks about the tasks of the soul. David says something like, “The soul doesn’t care if you failed or you succeeded. All the soul cares about is did you learn something?  If you did, then the soul celebrates.”


Practice: Holding On and Letting Go of Friends with Barbara Morrison

I first met Barbara Morrison at The Maryland Writers Conference in 2011 when her book, Confessions of a Welfare Mother, was published. Barbara’s memoir is full of heart and wisdom, and I was hooked from the moment  I started reading it.  For the past year, Barbara and I have read together all over Baltimore in a series we designed and call “Looking Back to Move Forward.” Welcome, Barbara!

Barbara Morrison
Barbara Morrison

Everything changed this year. The two volunteer activities that had taken up much of my time since I retired faded away. Even after retiring I had continued to do occasional jobs for the small company where I’d worked for 26 years, but it was time to make the final break.

By far the biggest change, though, came when a couple in my apartment complex moved away. More than friends, we had become family.

It started in a grocery store, where I ran into Eva and her 21-month-old son in front of the spinach. We’d seen each other around, so stopped to exchange greetings. Before we could say much, though, Alec started reaching for me, wanting me to pick him up.

“He never does that,” Eva said. “He’s terrified of strangers.”

I didn’t know it then, but she was pregnant and worried about finding someone to care for Alec while she and her husband were at the hospital. She and Noel came from overseas and had no family in this country, much less in our city. She needed someone to be a local grandmother.

I enthusiastically volunteered, and Alec started coming to spend one day a week with me. We built block towers and knocked them down, read books together, and went for walks. We danced to music; he was fascinated by my records and turntable, insisting on helping to remove records from their sleeves. He developed a deep attachment to Blue, my cat, and spent a lot of time communing with her.

Sometimes he came more often, when Eva needed to go to various appointments or desperately needed to sleep. A carseat made its way into my car and I sometimes drove him to and from the preschool he attended a couple of times a week. Then when the new baby came, Alec stayed with me for a few delightful days.

Alec with puzzle and cat

During this time, a group of us in the small apartment complex—including Eva—became close. We began our own book club, went for walks, and did Qigong together. After the baby was born, Eva had a difficult recovery, and we took it in turns to provide meals and help out in other ways. Alec spent a lot of time with me, to give his mother a break.

For another year, Alec’s visits with me remained a regular thing. When Eva became ill, he came and stayed with me again. During her recovery, I ferried him about and took him on excursions. He loves trains, so I would sometimes take him on the light rail, up to the end of the line and back. Lulled by the movement, he would crawl onto my lap and fall asleep.

Then, this year, Noel’s residency ended, and he accepted a job out of state. Alec stayed with me during the move, and then I delivered him to his new home. I left the carseat with them that day.

As though that were the signal, our tight group of friends began to break up. Several people moved away, reluctantly, sadly.

My days now stretch in front of me. Oh, I have plenty to fill them, but sometimes I think about what has been lost, not just Alec and my adopted family, but the friends from my volunteer activities and my job whom I’m not likely to see much of anymore.

It’s not the first time that the things that filled my day suddenly disappeared. In August of the year I turned fifty, my last child left home; I sold the house; and my elderly dog died. None of these events were unexpected or even unwelcome, but I was surprised by the space that opened up in my days with no children to greet, no dog to walk, no grass to cut or rooms to paint.

Yet I have been happy in this apartment, and I found my lovely group of friends here. If this time is passing, as it seems to be, I have no doubt that the next phase will be equally fortunate.

David Hinton, who has studied and translated ancient Chinese poetry, talks of the Taoist concept of tzu-jan, the constant unfolding of things. Instead of seeing time as a linear narrative, the ancient Chinese thought of time as a constantly changing present, with things appearing and disappearing.

It is this way of seeing existence as waves washing over a persistent present that I am practicing now.

Note: Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

Bio: Barbara Morrison, who writes under the name B. Morrison, is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara’s award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops, provides editing services, and (as the owner of a small press) speaks about publishing and marketing. She has maintained her Monday Morning Books blog since 2006 and tweets regularly about poetry @bmorrison9. For more information, visit her website and blog at http://www.bmorrison.com.