The Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 15, 1997
Dec. 15, 1997
VOL. 27, NO. 15


Civility Explored Behind Prison Walls

A unique class gives students an inside look at community dynamics

Leslie Rice
News and Information

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Last week, when a group of Hopkins professors and undergraduates made their way through careful security checks, past endless coils of razor wire, through the chilly night and into the maximum security prison, then through more checks and head counts and past the staring eyes of hundreds of convicts, the topic of the discussion group they were about to participate in--civility--was beginning to seem a little, well, sketchy.

And yet, when they arrived at the activity room of the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup, where a dozen inmates greeted the Hopkins Civility Project group with warm handshakes and an earnest enthusiasm for the discussion about to take place, all the metal detectors, razor wire and head counting began to seem strangely remote.

Richard Francis (left), a Hopkins senior, exchanges views with prisoner Ted, while Humanities Center Professor Richard Macksey watches.

The project was created by Hopkins Professors Pier Massimo Forni and Giulia Sissa, co-directors of a yearlong project sponsored by Hopkins and the Maryland Humanities Council that reassesses the relevance of civility in America today. To examine the codes of behavior in prison, they enlisted the help of Brenda Vogel, coordinator of the Maryland Correctional Education Libraries. For the past five weeks, Vogel has led a course with this group of inmates, most serving life terms, that looks at the role of manners and civility in society and examines codes of prison and non-prison behavior.

Meanwhile, this semester at Hopkins, Forni and Sissa have led a course for undergraduates that studies the role of civility from historical, sociological and anthropological points of view.

Mandala, an inmate, talks with classics Professor Giulia Sissa, co-director of the Hopkins Civility Project.

"Both the students and the inmates have been reading some of the same materials," Forni explained last Monday evening. "All semester long, the students have been studying the role of civility in a community. Well, prison is a community, though a walled community. And we're asking the prisoners what are their perceptions of civility and whether there are certain codes of conduct for getting along in a stressful, sometimes violent, imprisoned community."

A good portion of the 12 prisoners, whose last names will not be used in this article, have been in prison for 20 years or more; many have known Vogel for years through her book groups and her work in continuing education in prisons.

Larry Sullivan, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has been studying prison life and will speak at the Civility Project's international symposium to be held in March at Hopkins, began the discussion by asking the inmates why they thought violence in prisons was increasing at such an alarming rate. The number of convict-to-convict assaults, he said, has increased 20 percent since 1995, and assaults on guards have increased 32 percent. Though there are more people in prison than ever--1.2 million--there are also more prison facilities than ever, and the increase of prisoners per prison is not climbing nearly at the same rate as that of the violence.

From the left: Hispanic and Italian Studies Progessor Piero Massimo Forni, co-director of the project; prisoners Steve and "Z"; and Emma Cunningham, a sophomore.

"I think it does have to do with the number of prisoners, and that more and more people have longer lengths of stay," Mandala answered. "So now you've got generation on top of generation in here. You've got kids bringing in the attitude of the streets. That, along with the absence of social programs that used to be around, leads to more violence."

And don't forget, John added wryly, that people don't tend to pick up good manners in prison.

"I was raised to be a civil person because I was part of a community, but I became an uncivil person," he said. "I'm a Muslim now, and I follow the Koran, I pray five times a day, and now I act within the limits I place on myself and then [within] the limits placed upon me. But in general--let's be real--you don't take a lot of uncivil people, put them in an uncivil place and then expect them to start acting with civility."

Nonetheless, the prisoners said, there are codes of behavior that most inmates learn early in their sentences.

"Face has a high premium here; you can't escape the consequences of losing face in prison," Eddie said. "If somebody does something to you, and you don't address it, then you've lost face and you're going to suffer from it for the rest of your term. Remember, for an inmate, there's nowhere to go. You're going to see that same guy at mealtime, in the weightlifting room, in the yard, and it's not like you can call the police. If you don't do anything, you leave yourself wide open to get everything taken from you and to be subjected by others. Sometimes, saving face requires you to take action regardless of whether it's something you want to do."

So it is important, he said, to learn how to negotiate, to diffuse tension before it gets out of hand. It has to be done before the confrontation escalates, because when it gets full-blown, walking away is a luxury belonging only to people on "the outside."

"The talk about face saving is what interested me a lot in terms of our course and what we've been studying," said Emma Cun-ningham, a Hopkins sophomore. "We're studying civility as a code of behavior. In our society, violence isn't civil. But in prison, violence is part of the code. And what I sensed from the discussion was that in some ways, violence, or the threat of violence, is the only tool the prisoners have to maintain their reputation and not become a victim.

"But," she continued, "I have to honestly say that what I really got out of the discussion had nothing to do with my class. I walked into that room with a lot of prejudices about convicts and prison and what these men would be like. But they were well-educated, thought-provoking and civil people. Of course, they were all quick to point out that they were not typical of the prison population; they were the ones who had pursued their education in prison. They had, from what I could see, rehabilitated themselves through education. I walked away learning how integral education is to rehabilitation."

The inmates clearly enjoyed the opportunity to have an intellectual conversation with people from "the outside." After the discussion, over a table of shortbread and hot herbal tea set up by Vogel, the men mingled from person to person, answering questions about social conditions in prison and asking about life at Hopkins.

"I think everyone in the group had some interesting things to say," Mandala said. "What was nice for me is that I didn't get the sense that there was a lot of prejudices from everyone. I felt like I could talk freely."