Danger in books, and in people who read them

Concerned about security, state officials cancel book clubs for offenders led by MICA professor

The 21st annual Baltimore Book Festival opens on Friday, with hundreds of authors, exhibitors, chefs and booksellers, as well as a "thoughtfully curated food, craft beer and wine program" along the Inner Harbor promenade. Among Saturday's featured writers: Mikita Brottman, Oxford-educated scholar, professor of literature at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and author of "The Maximum Security Book Club," a memoir of her time as a volunteer leading discussions of Shakespeare and Melville among a few inmates at the Jessup Correctional Institution.

It's grand that Brottman gets to appear at noon on the Inner Harbor stage for a reading before an audience of book lovers. But the public recognition in her adopted city is bittersweet: Maryland prison officials last month unceremoniously scrapped Brottman's book club, halting, for dubious reasons, her effort to introduce men serving long prison sentences — in some cases, life sentences — to great literature.

Then, two weeks ago, the top man at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital, the state's maximum-security psychiatric facility, also in Jessup, scrubbed the reading group Brottman had led there since 2012, citing passages in "The Maximum Security Book Club" that he felt raised concerns for his institution.

The decision to cancel Brottman's "Focus On Fiction" class at Perkins, where she and between 10 and 20 patients at a time had discussed works of Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates and other writers, came less than two weeks after I reported on the scrapping of her class at JCI.

In both cases, at Perkins and JCI, Brottman was accused of violating rules for those who come into contact with inmates while volunteering for various programs in Maryland prisons. In both cases, Brottman received termination letters that were terse and cryptic. And in both cases, she says, she was accorded no opportunity to discuss her alleged rules violations with state officials.

Brottman found that maddening, and I can understand why. When I first inquired about the decision to drop her book club, I was told that there was no longer a need for it. A new college program was being introduced to JCI inmates, supplanting the book club, and so Brottman was told thanks and farewell.

But that was not the reason at all. The real reason, the communications director for the prison system later told me, was a rules violation, resulting in JCI's new warden having "concerns over the relationships that [Brottman] has developed with offenders, as evidenced in her publications."

Brottman's apparent infraction occurred when she had contact with two inmates, members of her book club, after they were released from JCI.

"One guy went to court to get a sentence reduction and I testified that he had been attending the book club, reading, doing his homework, was polite and well-behaved," Brottman says. "Another guy was released after 30 years and, yes, I have kept in touch with him — talk on the phone, try to give him moral support. He needs it."

But apparently that made Mikita Brottman some kind of a safety or security threat — not only at JCI, but at Perkins. John Robison, the CEO at Perkins, gave his reasons for scrapping Brottman's "Focus on Fiction" group in a follow-up email to the MICA professor 10 days ago. With one exception, every infraction he cited came from his reading of Brottman's book:

•Putting her return address on a letter to a Perkins patient who had asked for information about mail-order college classes. (Brottman acknowledges the mistake, but notes that her contact information is available on her website.)

•Wearing red apparel during a visit to JCI. ("I was turned away but I always followed the dress code," Brottman says. "As I explain in the book, the guards would make up specious reasons to turn me away.")

•Asking a JCI book club member to remove clothing to expose a tattoo. ("I admit in the book it was bad judgement," Brottman says.)

•Her admission in the book that she has "always struggled with personal and professional boundaries."

The latter goes to the heart of the conflict between Brottman and state officials who have nixed her efforts to take literature inside the walls. What a college professor sees as an opportunity for revealing, even intimate, discussions of literature — "Reading can bring up subjects that make people very uncomfortable," Brottman says — a warden sees as a threat to prison security. What Brottman sees as the human condition — her life and work fully interwoven — a warden sees as a boundary violation.

The apparent clincher for Robison was this passage from Brottman's book about her time with the JCI book club members: "Toward them, at various times, I felt compassion, sympathy, concern, exasperation and, although I wasn't aware of it at the time, now, looking back, I think I may have been a little in love."

Such candor will not be tolerated. As Brottman says: "Who knew book clubs could be so dangerous?"


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