BALTIMORE -- It was pure coincidence that Drew Leder's book about teaching philosophy in the Maryland State Penitentiary was released the day that, according to the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, the number of Americans in prison passed 2 million.
Leder got to know a few of these souls in the two years he volunteered at the penitentiary, coming down from the ivory towers of Loyola College to discuss Socrates, Nietzsche, Foucault and such contemporary thinkers as Cornel West in a weekly seminar with men who earned their time in the state's maximum-security prison by robbing, killing, raping and assaulting.
''The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death and Hope'' (Rowen and Littlefield, $23.95) is a joint investigation of power, liberation, violence, sex, race, religion, right and wrong, good and bad. Leder's co-authors are 13 prisoners, most of them ''lifers,'' who share their deepest feelings in about 45 hours of taped seminar conversations in the mid-1990s.
Among the most memorable of Leder's students:
Tray, now in his early 30s, has been serving a life sentence since age 16. Tray is the cynic, quick to proclaim his genius and good looks, always with a smile. The youngest of Leder's students, Tray says he doesn't consider the penitentiary his home. ''It's just an experience that's necessary for me to get where I'm going.''
Charley, a Muslim imam (spiritual leader), exchanges holy books -- Koran for Torah -- with Leder, a Jew. Easygoing and warm, Charley greets his ''Jewish brother'' each week with a hug. He's in the 13th year of a life-plus-10-year sentence for first-degree murder.
Mark, one of the few whites in the penitentiary, refers to himself as ''a disorganized, schizophrenic idiot savant.'' Serving time for a double murder, he dies at 39 of a heart attack after being turned away at the prison hospital. But no one seems to care.
Then there's H. B., in prison for attempted murder and handgun possession. Known by his classmates as ''Skinny,'' H. B. is a poet, essayist and winner of two black playwrighting awards from WMAR-TV. Prison officials won't allow him to attend the ceremony honoring him for the first award, and eventually, in an exercise of bureaucratic pettiness, they take away H. B.'s typewriter.
His production increases -- in longhand. ''They could have my body, but they couldn't keep my words,'' H. B. writes.
Alas, H. B. contracts AIDS from a dirty needle provided by a prison guard. Leder leads a successful drive to have his sentence commuted by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and H. B. lives long enough to see the second of his prize-winning plays, ''Smooth Disappointment,'' performed by the Baltimore Arena Players -- and to bask in adulation for one brief, shining night described movingly by Leder.
H. B. draws a distinction between ''getting out'' and ''leaving'' prison. The former, he says, can happen before the prisoner physically departs, and prison can have ''nothing to do with your decision to change.'' But if you leave prison, H. B. says, you can be back after a few days on the streets with the old crowd.
Leder, 45, relates his own liberation after years of depression rooted in his mother's death from cancer and the suicides of his father and brother. Leder writes that he bears heavy guilt for the loss of his family, and it takes a second ''interior'' trial -- aided by the insights of his students -- to crawl out of his prison.
''I was exploring,'' he writes, ''what I had in common with these lifers - rage, violence, death, guilt and the potential for healing and transformation. But I was also exploring what set me off from the men. They did their crimes. I didn't. They lived in prison. I visited. At the end of each teaching day, I was able to leave.
In that experience of leaving prison, time and again, I was physically rehearsing for the soul-act that H. B. calls 'getting out of prison.' ''
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