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Officials ax 'Maximum Security Book Club' at Jessup

An Orwellian experience for MICA professor who teaches Orwell

Imagine volunteering your time — two hours a week, several weeks of the year for four years — to do something that enriches the minds and maybe even the hearts of others. Then, one day, you are told your volunteer services are no longer needed because you broke a rule. But no one will tell you what rule you broke.

When you ask what you did wrong — because, as you might imagine, you are shocked to have been kicked to the curb like that — you are told, essentially, that it is none of your business.

This is pretty much what happened to Mikita Brottman within the last two weeks.

A professor of literature at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Brottman volunteered a few years ago to teach a class at the Jessup Correctional Institution. The class was essentially a reading and discussion group, with therapeutic qualities. Nine men serving life sentences read works of Melville, Conrad, Poe, Kafka, Orwell, Stevenson and Shakespeare.

During the last year, Brottman wrote a memoir about her experiences at Jessup. HarperCollins published "The Maximum Security Book Club" in June.

interviewed Brottman for the Roughly Speaking podcast. She was a featured author at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Salon published an excerpt of her book. On July 22, a profile of Brottman appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

Three weeks later, on Aug. 15, Brottman received a cryptic, see-ya-later email from an assistant warden at Jessup:

"Unfortunately you will not be permitted to volunteer at JCI due to your failure to adhere to rules set forth by our volunteer program coordinator. Although we value our volunteers' time and service to the population we cannot allow such breaches to occur. Thus your privileges are suspended."

Imagine being dumped like that.

Brottman says she tried to contact the assistant warden but never heard back.

She then wrote to Shari Elliker, the director of communications and volunteer and religious services for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Brottman wanted to know why her book club had been dropped, without explanation, from the fall schedule of non-credit classes at Jessup.

This was the emailed response Brottman received on Wednesday:

"Pursuant to the Volunteer Agreement and Acknowledgement form, as stated in your Volunteer Orientation guide, the following applies: 'The State or the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services reserves the right to terminate any volunteer for any reason or no reason at all, except as precluded by law.' Therefore, facilities reserve the right to sign up or terminate volunteers autonomously, and do not have to offer explanations for such actions."

Imagine that. The prison drops her because she did something wrong, but no one has to say what. This left Brottman in an Orwellian quandary.

I wrote to the department's communications office on Friday morning to ask for an explanation.

Gerard Shields, a media relations specialist, said: "We are revamping our volunteer programs throughout the state and new administrators at the Jessup facility thought [Brottman's] services were no longer needed. We have a new college program coming into the facility this fall … so there will be no reduction in the number of inmates receiving college instruction."

Good, but that's not what Brottman's termination letter had said; it said she had broken the rules of volunteering.

Friday evening, I heard from Elliker by email. She said Brottman was barred from the Jessup prison because the new warden has "concerns over the relationships that she has developed with offenders, as evidenced in her publications." Elliker also claimed that Brottman never received official permission to write the book.

Apprised of this later Friday night, Brottman bought none of it: "It sounds like a scramble to find legitimate reasons to get rid of me."

She says her manuscript for "The Maximum Security Book Club" had been vetted by at least three corrections officials, including a previous warden, before it went to press. In fact, Brottman says, she took pains to follow the prison system's rules, obtaining media waivers from inmates, changing their names and following victim notification requirements.

In her email, Elliker expressed general appreciation for people who volunteer in Maryland prisons.

"However," she wrote, "it is our duty to ensure that relationships remain professional and that personal agendas are not the motivation for the volunteer experience."

Brottman's response: "Isn't that what it means to be a volunteer — to be motivated by a personal passion, for justice, equality or the dignity of human life?"

"It's pretty devastating," she says of the book club's demise. "We really bonded and I thought we made enormous progress as a group. Some of the men had never read a book before, and I knew [the club] was making a difference…

"Maybe they felt I was too bonded with the men. But the idea that you can work with nine men for four years and make transformations without bonding is, to be honest, absurd."

drodricks@baltsun.com

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