Teach the
Free Man

Peter Nathaniel Malae
Once, long ago, when I was in my save-the-world mode, I volunteered to teach a class in literature at the local reformatory. Every Sunday my friend P. J. and I would commute to Monroe, carrying twenty copies of this or that novel or collection of short stories for the coming week. The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, or The Red and the Black, Winesburg, Ohio, the stories of Crane or Cheever. One week, we even brought in The Thief's Journal. (We were roundly chastised by the authorities for that one: no coals up there in Monroe's Newcastle.)

For two hours, P. J. and I and the students would forage through the prose of Hemingway, Anderson, Stendal, Fitzgerald, Crane, Moravia or Greene. It was a good class. The time would race by. Not only did we have a captive audience, they had plenty of leisure to study their homework. Those who participated, we were told, might gain time off from their sentences. It was strictly books. The students never talked about why they were there, or when --- if ever --- they expected to leave.

I was in school too. I learned some truths of prison life ... or thought I did. One was that the guards as well as the prisoners were "doing time." Another was that there was always a snitch somewhere around (which is how the warden found out about Genet and his three virtues, "thievery, treachery, sodomy.")

And then there was the undertone of violence. Underneath the reserve one could feel something going on. It finally broke out during our class on Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, of all books. There was some dispute as to whether Ida Arnold was a kind-hearted woman or a cold, nosy busybody. Before I knew it, two of my prize students were on their feet, face to face, hands clenched, ready to settle their difference of opinion. They only retreated when I got between them and said "You two are scaring the shit out of me."

I thought I learned something about prison systems and its effects in the three years I was at Monroe, but I think I was still pretty innocent. After all, I was out of there by mid-afternoon. I was finally disabused when I invited a few of them, once released, to come visit me. They did, and some of my prized possessions followed them out the door.

Mark was especially fetching. He came to my place the day he left Monroe. He could sit for hours at the dinner-table, smoking, moveless. I presented him to my friend Diedre and he went off to live with her. They broke up a few weeks later when he offered to murder her if she took up with anyone else. She had to go into hiding. She never forgave me.

§     §     §

There's good irony in the title, Teach the Free Man. All of the characters are doing time, whether they are going into prison, living in prison, or getting out. In "Gut and Viscera in the Chicken Farm," the prison farm overseer learns quickly about race, and prison ethics, all "discovered without asking a single question."

    He was picking up on the finer nuances of prison life, such as addressing lifers as "'mister," and never approaching a man from the rear.

"He once made the mistake of crossing up on the same assembly line northern and southern Chicanos, but not twice." He read the warden's pamphlet:

    1. The lines: Mexicans from Southern California loathe Mexicans from Northern California, and vice versa. 2. The reason: A stolen book back in the '60's. 3. In the event of a riot: Norteños fight with blacks, and sureños with whites.

Two percent of Americans are now going to jail, in jail, or on probation. The figures for Blacks and Chicanos hover between 10% and 20%. Those who should be reading this book will probably never do so: the legislators, the governors, those who lobby for and run the "commercial" prison operations in the name of free enterprise.

A pity. They would learn a great deal. They would learn how to build a shiv with nothing more than a single sheet of paper and the elastic from socks. They would learn that the guards are "the most powerful gang in prison." They would learn about "the baptism of silence" used on newcomers. They would learn how drugs and condoms --- condoms are still illegal --- are distributed in prison, and how to get drunk on "pruneo." They would learn the vocabulary of "tags" (tattoos), or the "car" (the gang), and the name of the one who got them in there, "the public pretender," he or she who works with a gang known as the "DA's and judges."

They would learn the most serious of unwritten rules, that even "the dumbest cat can pick up on in the pen:"

    he eats on our side of the chow hall, he showers at our spigot, works out in our little spot at the bars.

And they would learn the saddest of mots: "You can't help a lifer do life."

Most of all, they would learn of the poison that runs everyone: the whites, the homies, the eses. For in a place where there are so few choices, the population is made up mostly of losers: all got tangled in the law. Even if not guilty, they lost.

    Prison is many things, after all, but mostly it is the gross simplification of life's complexities.

It is this smoldering bitterness that runs through Teach the Free Man that curses all: Black, white, Chicano ... guards, nurses, staff. With its prisons --- we beat the rest of the world in ratio of inmates to population --- America is breeding a huge underclass of losers, schooling them in a diabolical vision of the rest of humanity, teaching them, as Bo Lozoff has it, We Are All Doing Time. For many, the only way out is the way taught in this enormous university complex --- guile, violence, and bitter bitter racism.

§     §     §

Most of these stories are gripping, the tension of unmitigated anger of those inside, the fear that those who finally get out will, as the old saying goes, somehow break back in. Haimona in"Turning Point" is sent by his parole officer to "The Healing Room." Athena runs it, has the psychobabble down pat. "Did you want to share how you feel about it?" is her favorite question.

Haimona's name, says Athena, "sounds maybe Kenyan? Or is it South African. I was once in a loveship with a young Kenyan poet: But he was a projector. He shot at all his problems with life off on me. I'll never date a Kenyan again. Or a poet. Jeff says he wasn't my type anyway. Well, what kinds of a name is that Ma ... su ... i ... su ... i?"


    "What's your ethnicity?"


    "That's why you're so big," she said. "Well, welcome, Haimona. Did I say it right?"

"Though she hadn't, Haimona was indeed brown, but he wasn't an ese, and he wanted a silent confirmation from Pablo [another member of the class], who'd drawn a race line when Haimona first walked in. In the passing moment, Pablo raised his head back, the same gesture. No bond between them, no sweat or debt, Pablo looked off to another starting point just as hard as Haimona."

The gestures, silent confirmations, the eyes, looking down, or up at the ceiling, out the window. The things most people don't catch. Unless they have been in the pen.

The notes don't tell us whether Malae has been there. If not, he has been studying the prison culture, hard, for a long time. And he has it down perfectly. He knows how to tie you into a story, make you feel trapped, like you are doing time too, with all these cons around you, so pissed off, so liable to explode at any moment.

    At least in the penitentiary a man had a little silence to ruminate. To let the anger build and do bad with it, or let the guilt build and try to get out. No good come from the penitentiary, but sometimes you got out.

--- L. W. Milam
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