UPDATE (7/1/2022): One day after this segment aired, prison authorities announced that they had “reconsidered” their earlier decision, clearing the way for Atiba to earn his degree.
Education is one of the few rehabilitative options available to incarcerated people, yet all across America prisoners are prevented from pursuing their education. “Atiba” Demetrius Brown, for instance, has been dedicated to improving himself and his post-incarceration prospects by taking correspondence courses while incarcerated in Maryland, but thanks to a draconian new decree by the Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services (DPSCS), Atiba can’t take his exams. In this installment of Rattling the Bars, Victor Wallis joins Mansa Musa to discuss the case of “Atiba” Demetrius Brown and the calculated cruelty of the prison-industrial complex.
Victor Wallis is a professor in the Liberal Arts Department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has been involved in prisoner support activities since the 1970s in Indiana, and he is the author of numerous books, including Democracy Denied: Five Lectures on US Politics, which has been used in prison education projects.
To contact “Atiba” Demetrius Brown:
Demetrius Brown #401226
18800 Roxbury Rd.
Hagerstown, MD 21746
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition Rattling The Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway. And before we get started, let me update you all on Eddie Conway. Eddie Conway is doing great. He’s recovering at a remarkable speed, and we hope to have him back in the space in the near future.
When we think of education and the education of people, or the lack thereof, very rarely do we look at the impact that education would have on changing a person that’s in the criminal justice system. Or, more importantly, the impact that education will have on changing people that are incarcerated. This is not the case within the Maryland Department of Corrections.
We have a situation where a prisoner, Demitrius Brown, also known as Atiba, has taken initiative to acquire an AA degree. He has taken initiative to have the discipline to study. He’s taken initiative to put himself in a position financially to make sure that he can get the corresponding course. He’s done everything along these lines to better himself. But the Department of Corrections, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service has thrown a roadblock in his way, and is preventing him from not only obtaining an education that might lead to a better opportunity for punished release, but also in this policy that they’re putting into effect, will have collateral consequences. Here to talk with me today about this is Victor Wallis.
Victor has a political science degree from Berkeley College in Boston. He’s been active in working with prisoners’ issues since 1970. His book, Democracy Denied: Five Lectures on US Politics, has been used to teach classes within prison. Welcome, Victor, to Rattling the Bars.
Victor Wallis: Thank you, man. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Mansa Musa: Victor, let’s start out by giving our viewers and our listeners an overview of Demetrius Brown, also known as Atiba. Who is Atiba?
Victor Wallis: Atiba is a… It’s hard to describe him. I would say he’s a model of someone who is forming himself. He’s not only educating himself, but he has built a tremendous prestige, I think, a tremendous degree of respect. I would say one of the things that most impresses me about him is the accounts he’s given of situations where conflict has arisen and where he’s served as a kind of mediator or peacemaker.
But the other thing he does also, to a tremendous extent, is educate other prisoners while he’s educating himself. And he’s led study groups. It’s getting a little more difficult now. He finds the prisoners there now less motivated than when he started. But he’s very eager to, let’s say, help them educate themselves. Obviously with a political thrust, because it’s a recognition of the kind of injustices of the system as a whole, which are felt with particular strength in the prisons. But that’s a motivational factor, and he builds on that, and makes it possible for prisoners to begin to discuss among themselves what to do about this situation that they’re in. I don’t know what else… He’s from Baltimore.
Mansa Musa: Okay.
Victor Wallis: He’s been in prison for the last 10 years or so, since he was in his early 20s, I believe.
He’s highly motivated, when he comes out, to continue doing constructive work of some kind. I mean, in the sense of whether it’s counseling or political work, certainly. But he’s very dedicated, I would say, to improving himself.
Mansa Musa: And so let’s pick up on that. So all things considered, he’s one person that has taken initiative to better himself at the exclusion of anything that’s going on within the system. Let’s talk about his education. You spoke on the fact that he’s done a lot in terms of educating himself on different levels. Let’s talk about his formal education. Prior to coming to prison, what was his formal education?
Victor Wallis: He graduated from high school several years before he was arrested. That was the extent of his formal education, but in prison he’s done an enormous amount of reading. Like many prisoners, George Jackson was a tremendous inspiration. But he’s branched out from there in every direction, especially the history of socialist movements, of popular struggles of various kinds, the history of Black people’s liberation movements, and various topics. But stretching very widely, and I would say going into the philosophical aspects of things in depth, I would say.
Mansa Musa: And now based on this, he wanted to take a correspondence course. He went about taking this correspondence course. Walk us through what the course is and what type of degree he was trying to get, or was planning on getting.
Victor Wallis: Well, the correspondence course was possible through Adam’s State University, which is located in Colorado. He’s going towards an associate degree. He’s just starting it. And the two courses that he’s enrolled in right now, one is history of civilizations, and the other is called the sociological imagination.
Mansa Musa: And this correspondence course, is it funded by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service? Do we have a Pell Grant for it?
Victor Wallis: No. The Correctional Services has nothing to do with funding. It’s private support.
Mansa Musa: So he’s got private support to get an AA degree, which is two years. How much time does he have left before he’s released to society?
Victor Wallis: I would say three or four years, approximately.
Mansa Musa: So his plan is to get a degree, or AA degree. Is the credits transferable, to your knowledge?
Victor Wallis: I presume so.
Mansa Musa: All right. So he is going to get a degree, a AA degree. Two to three years left on his sentence, get a AA degree, that has transferable credits that would allow him upon his release to be able to get a BA degree. Is that correct?
Victor Wallis: Well, it could count towards a BA degree.
Mansa Musa: It could count towards a BA degree. What is the problem with him obtaining this degree, or continuing this correspondence? What exactly is the problem?
Victor Wallis: The exact problem is that all of a sudden, in the middle of his first semester of study, the prison refused to provide proctors for him to take exams for his courses. And this is a service which they previously had done routinely, but without any advanced warning, they suddenly stopped the process. And they said that it was because of a decree in effect from the Department of Public Safety that prohibited the prisons from cooperating in any way with external correspondence courses.
It set him back tremendously. It was tremendously demoralizing, because here he was doing very well in his courses, and suddenly they’ve put this roadblock in his way. So fortunately at the present moment, Adams State may be able to accommodate him and allow him to complete the courses without having proctored exams. But the only reason that they’re doing that is that they are still operating under a regimen having to do with the COVID pandemic, which allowed for certain flexibility. But they said when that is ended, they’ll go back to insisting that the students take proctored exams. And the proctoring has to be provided by someone in the prison.
Mansa Musa: In that regard, the proctor examiner – And full disclosure, I was incarcerated for 48 years. I’m familiar with the institution, [was housed] at Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown. So I’m familiar with that system, and I’m familiar with the educational system. But in terms of offering the proctor, exactly what would that entail? What would that look like? Educate our listeners and viewers on what that actually would entail.
Victor Wallis: Proctoring just means that you have some person in an official capacity who’s sitting there while you’re taking the exam, making sure that you’re not looking at notes, and setting a time limit for you to answer the questions. That’s all it is.
Mansa Musa: And I’m familiar with that. And the reason why I was asking that is because I’ve been in the space, and this is really all the proctor does. The system that they had set up when I was incarcerated was you go to the school, they put you in the classroom, and the proctor sits there while you take the exam. When you finish taking the exam, you hand the exam in, and you leave. The time it takes for the proctor to do its job is the time it takes for the person that’s taking the exam to finish.
So if the person can finish in 40 minutes, the proctor takes the exam, and the person will leave. And in most cases I’ve known from experiences that, because correspondence courses are rare in the prison system because of the ability for a prison to finance it, you have very few people in that environment that would be a classroom size, where you might have 15-20 people, where you have to have a proctor in that regard.
But let’s dial down on why you think they’re doing this to Atiba? Because you outlined a lot of things that’s going on with his character in terms of him being an impactful individual within the prison environment, and being a person that’s there to educate and raise the prisoners’ consciousness about their environment, and try to get them to change their thinking. Why do you think they’re doing this to him in particular?
Victor Wallis: Well, they’re not doing it just to him. It’s a general ruling that applies to anyone. And there I see it as part of a general phenomenon that’s taking place all over the country of making things more and more difficult for prisoners to rehabilitate themselves in every way, especially in the form of disrupting their contacts with people in the outside world.
I’m in communication currently with a prisoner in Pennsylvania and one in Virginia. In both those states, in order to write to them, you have to write to an address in Florida, where they photocopy it and send it back. Now, I just heard from a prisoner in Missouri. I just got this letter today. He says the state of Missouri has started a new system where mail has to be sent to a digital scanning system after August 1. You’ll no longer get mail into the prison. It says all you can send in is books and literature.
It’s incredible what they’re doing. I’ve heard of other states… Well, in Indiana, they’ve [privated] greeting cards and other places like that. They’re doing everything they can to make it more punitive, more isolating for the prisoner to be in the system. They don’t recognize, or at least they don’t care that separating someone from society is itself punishment. But they have a kind of philosophy, it’s not in their official idea. Correction means you’re improving someone, supposedly. But their working philosophy is punishment, punishment, punishment, and more punishment. And this is one aspect of it.
Mansa Musa: And we recognize that the prison-industrial complex overall is the new plantation, and the prisoners are the chattel. This is a recognition that we see throughout the United States of America. 2.5 million people are incarcerated. Beyond that point, it’s over 10 million people that’s locked into the criminal justice system in the form of parole, probation, the county jail, detention center. So your observation is correct in regard to… And this being a concerted effort on the part of the establishment and the prison-industrial complex and these bloodsuckers in terms of minimizing or dehumanizing or relegating prisoners into a sense of hopelessness.
But in terms of Atiba, how has he responded to… I heard you say earlier that it brought on a sense of depression. But how is he doing thus far in regard to him maintaining his focus and continuing to educate himself and others around him?
Victor Wallis: Well, his immediate response in terms of the courses is that he’s writing to his instructors, requesting them to accommodate him and to allow him to complete the course without having to take proctored exams. And for the moment, that’s possible in terms of Adam State ruling, but it may not be possible after they lift the special rulings they had during COVID. So he’s doing that. But it was a terrible disruption and very demoralizing at first. And so he’s apprehensive. The moment the COVID rules get lifted, Adam State will once again insist on having their exams proctored. Which means, in addition to what I said about their being present in timing, that all the correspondence about the exams is through the proctor. In other words, the institution sends the exam to the proctor, and the proctor sends the exam back to the institution.
So there’s going to have to be that kind of collaboration. And again, this is not just for Atiba, but for everyone, for anyone who would be taking correspondence courses. As far as Atiba is concerned, he’s highly motivated, and he’s continuing to read and study on his own. But this was a big setback for him. He told me for the couple of weeks after it started, he wasn’t sleeping. He was so angry that they were doing this totally arbitrary interference with what he was trying to do to improve himself.
Mansa Musa: And it’s a recognition that the prison-industrial complex is primarily used for warehousing people, and that very few institutions in the United States of America… And rural, I know for a fact in particular has a lot of programs, often a lot of program services. So when someone takes the initiative to better themselves and have this impediment, it will be demoralizing. But I want to look at the collateral consequences of this decision. Because like you said, it affects everybody. Have you looked at it in terms of the overall impact it would have on the Department of Corrections in general or the Division of Correction in general?
Victor Wallis: Yeah. Well, of course the immediate thing in Maryland, what’s important is to put pressure on the Department of Public Safety to lift this ban. This is something that really is a responsibility for anyone who is concerned about the prisoners in Maryland. And in a wider sense, what this kind of practice reflects is a general increase in the repressive responses of those in power to anything in the nature of a threat that they perceive just in people preserving their humanity.
They would love to have the people in prison fighting each other in gangs, spaced out on drugs, and so on. What they don’t want is purposeful prisoners who are developing a consciousness and who can become effective organizers both in the prison and later when they get out. And the repressive measures that they’re taking are just horrendous. Of both this interference with the correspondence by having to send letters to another state, and then only sending the prisoner the photocopy, and then digitizing the incoming mail, and so on. And another thing… You mentioned some of the things with… Well, for example, in some jails, they don’t even allow direct visits anymore. You have to do it through video. It’s all also a money making opportunity for these outfits that provide these services.
But I was also saying that the repressive aspect is consistent with the wider phenomenon of repression that’s manifested in the voter suppression methods, preventing people from voting because you’re afraid that what they would vote for would be programs and people that would push the society in a more… Let’s say just direction, a more redistributive direction. And that would take power away from those with privilege. So the prison system is a part of this larger apparatus which controls and limits the capacity of citizens, of ordinary people, working people, to speak for themselves effectively in an organized way, and not just in the form of random protests or frustrated acts of despair.
Mansa Musa: Right. And [inaudible] educated prisoners or educated persons is dangerous. We know that slaves weren’t allowed to read, and the prison-industrial complex being the new plantation and prisoners being the new chattel, it seems consistent with the thinking of the establishment, the fascist government, that anyone educated, any person is more likely to resist the oppression and the dehumanization that capitalists are inflicting on people throughout the world. But Victor, you have the last word on this. What’s your last word on this?
Victor Wallis: Well, just picking up on that point of education, where education is dangerous to the ruling elite, to this ruling class, is when it takes the form of consciousness raising among the people who have suffered injustice, especially in the prison context, who can communicate with each other about it. In a way, the prison is an ideal learning environment because people are surrounded by demonstration or proof of the injustice of the society. And they’re thrown together with others who are experiencing the same thing at the same time, and they may even have time to engage in study. While it’s a terrible situation to be put into, there’s a way in which it can backfire on those who are doing it. And as people have said, prison can become a school of liberation.
And I always remember George Jackson’s statement that, it’s not an exact quote, but it’s roughly to the effect that prison will either break you or make you indestructible. Something along those lines. And that’s educating oneself within the prison context, in the light of all these conditions, is exactly what’s necessary and what’s important. But I think, more generally, education is a basic right, and people shouldn’t be prevented from pursuing it. And it’s not necessarily the case that every prisoner will educate himself or herself in a political direction, but it’s important that this be allowed. And this is part of the process of rehabilitation, of reentering society.
Mansa Musa: Talk about what can be done to support not only Atiba, but anyone that’s confronted with this situation.
Victor Wallis: I mean, I would say of course, on the one thing that they should contact the… I guess the Department of Public Safety, but whoever oversees the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, that this is an outrage. That should be made a public issue in itself.
But in the wider sense, it involves all the general things we talked about, that the changes that are needed in the society to… Since this is part of a national repressive trend, it can only be fought politically at the widest level. People have to get involved in revolutionary struggle of some kind or other, in whatever situation they find themselves in.
Mansa Musa: And there you have it, the real news about the prison-industrial complex’s continued oppression and repression of people. The new plantation, they are constantly inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on people throughout the United States.
Here we have another example of something as basic as education. They want to control that. Atiba might be an individual, but he’s the face of how repressive the prison-industrial complex is when it doesn’t allow a person to educate himself and spend his own money or solicited support to educate himself by taking a correspondence course. To block him from doing that, they block him from being able to take the exam and putting a hardship on not only him, but the institution that wants to support him.
There you have it, the real news about the repressive educational system policy in the Division of Corrections and Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service in Maryland. Thank you very much, Victor. We enjoyed this conversation. Can you send the information where people can contact Atiba if they want to correspond with him and interact with him?
Victor Wallis: Yes. I will send it to you and you can post it.
Mansa Musa: Yeah. Please, I’d appreciate that.
Victor Wallis: Thank you so much, Mansa. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Mansa Musa: Definitely. Thank you.