Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1999
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APRIL 1999

Tutoring behind bars can lead to painful lessons.

O N    C A M P U S E S

Morality Tales
A first-person essay By Michael Rosenbloom '00
Illustration by Jordin Isip

On a Saturday morning in late fall, the atmosphere of the Baltimore Detention Center seems more fetid, more sickening than usual. The cleaning crew had left the temporary cells unsanitized, and the noxious smell of human waste overpowers our group, causing a violent eruption of gags. Inside the cells, which are enclosed by a layer of Plexiglas, sit the most recent additions to the center. Some of the men stand with their bare chests pressed against the glass; others sprawl on the stone floor. The 10 of us take the usual passageway past the cinderblocks and up the elevator to the enclosed study room.

We will spend the next 90 minutes tutoring female inmates, cultivating their interest in high school-level academics with the help of General Educational Development (GED) books. Many of the center's female prisoners, who were being held for sentencing for committing "petty crimes" such as drug possession and prostitution, never completed high school and are looking for a second chance to learn. We are that second chance.

It takes a certain type of college student to voluntarily spend Saturday mornings in a minimum security jail. Our group's student director is Dolores Velasquez '99, a California-raised Mexican-American. As a child she had become familiar with the situations that put women behind bars; she frequently witnessed family members experience hardships. Dolores genuinely empathizes with the women in the Baltimore prison. When an inmate is distressed about some personal issue, Dolores talks to her softly, urging her to express herself by writing. If a woman became pregnant as a teenager or has wasted her adolescence on drugs, Dolores tells her, "If you have made it to this class, I know you can keep on going." And as the sessions end, the group shuffling toward the exit, Dolores lags behind, often embraced between the chestnut-colored arms of her student.

Our assistant director, Robby Fisher '00, is also co-chair of the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium, the student-run lecture series. Robby spends many of his Friday nights drinking with his guests, notably Jerry Springer. He shows up Saturday mornings with a grin stretched across his face and proceeds to crack jokes all the way to the detention center. Robby makes the tutoring sessions fun, sometimes going so far as to initiate political debates between groups of inmates.

Our group also has its selection of regulars, people like myself who come semester after semester. We push ourselves to begin our Saturday mornings at an hour when many of our friends are still recovering from their hangovers. Casey Langer '98, a club veteran of four semesters, never conforms to any standards that the GED textbooks laid out for her but rather gears her lessons for the individual, bringing in nursing textbooks for inmates who want to enter the field upon release. Before joining the program, Olayemi Ikusika '99 would drive her mother, a nurse, to the detention center, always curious about the events that went on inside. She's been satisfying her curiosity for almost two years. Then there is Jai Eswara '00, a soft-spoken young man of Indian ancestry, whose bronze skin and gentle approach to teaching are always warmly appreciated by the women.

I ask the women to find the moral of the story. As Vanna meditates on the futility of battling death, Della remains silent, not even attempting to find a moral. "I don't know what the meaning is and I don't care," she says.
I joined the Jail Tutorial Project as a sophomore and I've found that in jail, everybody listens to you and everything you say matters. Tutoring the inmates allows me to end my long weeks knowing that I have made a difference in somebody's life.

On this day, we wait for several minutes in the study room. Then the blue pressurized door opens, and 25 female prisoners step through. Dolores, Robert, Jai, and Casey catch up with their respective tutees and begin their lessons. I watch as my student, Della, a standard-issue yellow jumpsuit hanging loosely from her body, strolls into the study room. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) Her dark eyes are bloodshot. She is a short black woman with a preference for math. She can add and multiply faster than anybody else in her dorm, pretty much perfecting the art of numerical manipulation. But on this day she doesn't look like she can do anything. The left side of her mouth is twisted into a scowl. She looks pissed. Usually, the female prisoners keep their shoulders free of chips, anxious to fill their minds with the rudiments of reading comprehension, algebra, and science. It was the men who gave us the most trouble. A couple of years ago, we worked primarily with them rather than the women, but eventually our meetings stopped--ostensibly because of an asbestos problem in the tutoring room. The asbestos wasn't the only problem. The guards shepherded the men around in clusters, and whenever the men noticed someone young and vulnerable, i.e., college students, they would let slip all their inhibitions. As the young female tutors passed, some of the male prisoners would drop their pants. Others would strip off their shirts. The male tutors took some of the slack too. As we passed, they liked to mock us with chants such as "Scared as shit. Scared as shit."

But the women are always sure to refine themselves for us. They douse their bodies with baby powder and tie their hair into bundles. They sit in their chairs with folded hands, sometimes leaning over the table to absorb fully the newly presented information. Their ambitious fronts don't solely reflect an inner quest for knowledge. After months of isolation, they want a man. As one inmate told me, "When we see a man...we happy." They are always pretty blunt. "Are you going to be tutoring us every week? Yes? Well, I'll be sure to be here every day in this chair right next to you." They bring up provocative subjects, complimenting my "beautiful green eyes," or debating whether or not they would ever consider "getting with a white man." A few of them even ask me for my phone number: "Come on, Mike. What are we going to do when we get out of jail? We need you to guide us."

Yet in addition to the playfully vulgar comments, the women are quite appreciative of our efforts. At the end of one semester, the oldest woman in the group stood up and made an announcement.

"I'm speaking for all of us when I say I want to thank all of you from Johns Hopkins for taking your Saturdays to tutor us ladies. We have nobody to help us, and we needed your help badly."

She then presented the group with a card of gratitude. Mickey Mouse's cheerful face, outlined in pen and scribbled in with crayons decorated the front. The inside message read:

I just like to say we appreciate yall taking time out of your busy schedule.

To come here and teach us things that will help us when we take the G.E.D. test. Thank yall so much. "God bless." Especially Jai.

The card was signed "Central Booking/A-Dorm."

Today I've brought several selections from Grimm's Fairy Tales. My goal is to help the women cultivate their critical reading skills. Fairy tales seem to contain the most fundamental aspects of both a plot and a meaning, and I've found they serve as a useful foundation for analytical reading. And because morals are buried within the stories, these readings enable me to make certain points that might be useful for the inmates to keep in mind.

"What is this shit? Why do you have us reading this?" Della cries in a rare display of disrespect.

"This is where stories begin." I reply. "What is literature but merely a type of story? If you don't want to do this, fine. Tell me what you do want to do."

"No," she replies sheepishly. "We'll just do this."

Another inmate with whom I usually worked, Vanna, strolls over and sits down beside me, a sly grin across her face. Vanna loves to mess around. She is young, probably in her early 30s, with bleached patches of blond hair and broad shoulders. After being assigned math problems for homework, she'd take a quick glance at them and shake her head. "This is too hard. Why you making us work so hard?" And then there was the pen episode. For several weeks, she had pestered me to give her my pen that was marked with the logo of some pharmaceutical company and the words, "urethral suppository." "Come on, Mike, you said last time, you'd give me the pen. How am I supposed to learn if I can't write?" Finally, I decided to let her have the pen. She then proceeded to ask for a pencil.

Running their fingers across the pages, Della and Vanna slowly read their way through the fairy tales. They begin with the tale "Godfather Death," a story about a boy who must contend with the Grim Reaper. Della struggles with mere paragraphs while Vanna whips through a page at a time. I ask the women to find the moral of the story. As Vanna meditates on the futility of battling death, Della remains silent, not even attempting to find a moral. "I don't know what the meaning is and I don't care," she says. As the session moves along, Della becomes more and more distracted, her eyes continually floating above all of us, directed toward the pale wall of cinderblocks. After a while, Vanna speaks up.

"What you be doing last night, girl?" she asks with a big grin on her face. "You partying?"

"No," Della replies, her face stern.

Vanna turns to me and mouths the words "she's sleepy."

Della is more than sleepy, but we move on. After finishing "Godfather Death," they begin another tale. This story, "The Wolf and the Seven Kids," describes a mother goat who leaves her children alone to search for food; before she is able to return, a wolf invades her house and devours her seven children. After they finish reading the tale, I ask Della and Vanna to write down the meaning of the story.

"What's the moral of 'The Wolf and the Seven Kids'?"


"Well, what happened when the mother goat was away?"

"The wolf ate her kids," Vanna says.

"That's right. The moral is that you should never leave your kids alone."

Della's face suddenly contorts, tightening to hold in the emotions that are slowly escaping. Vanna quickly pushes the papers and books aside and looks Della straight in the eyes. Vanna feels something, somehow realizing that Della is struggling with her demons.

"What's with you, girl?" Vanna asks gently. "Is it something in the jail? Something outside?"

Della pauses, looking over to the right.

"Something outside," she replies, shaking her head.

"Tell the tutor. Maybe he can help. That's why he's here. Tell the tutor."

Della's tightened lips suddenly recede into a slight smile. "Yesterday, I found out my kids was abused," she says, her smile slowly folding into a grimace.

Her eyes swell with fluid, and slowly tears drop, splattering against her cheeks.

"They been living with their father and his wife and her sister. I hear that they beating on my two boys, and there's nothing that I can do about it. They pounding on them and whipping them with a belt. My babies."

Vanna leans over the table.

"I'm sorry, girl," she says. "I didn't know."

"My son ran away from the house and found a policeman. He was afraid to go back home."

"They got to do something about that," Vanna says. "They gotta put them in jail for that."

"Now my 9-year-old is in the hospital," Della sobs. "And they gotta give him...what's it called? A clinical evaluation. They have a psychologist that's seeing him too."

"Did you talk with Ms. Anim? Ms. Anim could help you," says Vanna.

Anim serves as director of social programs and activities at the detention center. She also is our contact for the Tutorial Project.

"I did. They contacted Social Services, and they're going to look in on it. But my 7-year-old is still with them. I'm afraid something's going to happen to him."

"Is he [the father] hopped up on drugs?" asks Vanna.

"He used to be. I don't know if he is anymore."

"That's a shame, girl. I didn't know. I'm sorry."

Della finally composes herself.

"I'm sorry I wasn't paying attention, Mike. All I could think about was my boys. And then you was reading the fairy tale and that made me think back on it."

I tell her that I understand.

Suddenly, the metal door slides open, and a massive guard with a blue vest stretched across his torso enters. "Ladies, let's go," he barks. The tutoring session is over.

As we leave the room, Robby walks over to me. We stand in a corridor across from the gym where a group of male prisoners are engaged in a basketball game.

"Nice job, Mike," Rob says facetiously. "Making women cry."

"What happened?" asks Dolores.

After some hesitation, I tell her everything, revealing my disgust that one child had still not escaped the beatings. The group slowly creeps around me to listen. As I let my words slip, I notice mouths open in shock, heads shaking with disgust. With steady eyes, our leader Dolores nods sharply, fully aware of the wolves that prey on children.

"That's how it always is," she says softly. "That's how things always work."

Epilogue: Della was eventually released from jail. Her children were placed back in their father's custody.