A Captive Audience

A Captive Audience: Teaching Henry George in Prisons

RSF supports the efforts of educator and long-time Georgist Mike Curtis by providing free and discounted books to the federal prison inmates he teaches.

In his own words, Mike's story of his work with inmates

After teaching the Henry George classes in Arden for about ten years, I started teaching classes in the Delaware prisons. That was 1980. I had Henry George literature at a community booth in Wilmington Delaware, and next to my space was a guy from the Nation of Islam. He told me that he had classes in the prison, and I told him I would like to teach the Henry George thesis to prisoners. That is when he offered to take me with him so I could teach the course there. Well, he was a big and rather scary guy, and as the prison door slid shut with big clang, I was more than a little unnerved. He started introducing me, and he free-associated for about a half hour to 45 minutes. Of course, we had to be out of there at a certain time, so I had about half the time I had prepared for the class. This free association at the beginning of class continued each week for the full ten weeks. For some reason I thought that this could be an important opportunity, and I should see it through in spite of my frustrations and resentments.

At the end of the first ten weeks, I went to the treatment superintendent and asked if I could offer the Henry George courses on my own. He asked if I was any relation to Dee Curtis who had run an AA program there years before. And based on the fact that Dee was my father, I was able to hold classes there once a week for the better part of 20 years. Because of the inmates, the classes spread to another prison and a weekly seminar at a halfway house. In time, there were inmate teachers. At one of the prisons the inmates read the books, supplied by the Schalkenbach Foundation, and did some serious study with them. 

I had taught classes in Arden for about ten years, but they were traditional—read the book, answer the questions, discuss the questions in class. With the exception of the one prison where I had books, which came a decade later, I had to explain the thesis using some charts and draw on the students’ own observations and experiences. If I am a good teacher, my experience with prisoners was a big part of my becoming one. I had hundreds of prisoners go through the classes. There were murderers and robbers and drug dealers. I consider some of them my friends to this day. 

At the halfway house, thanks to the efforts of a parolee, I was able to lead an independent seminar each week. It laid out the basic thesis of George, and I called it the Law of Rent Seminar.  It was a mandatory program for everyone who stayed there, and it averaged about a dozen students each time. On many occasions one or two inmates would express resentment at having to sit through an hour and a half when they had just worked the night shift. But, by the end of the seminar, they usually apologized and thanked me for the presentation.

There were two memorable characters. The first one had been the Highway Commissioner, imprisoned for taking a bribe. He secretly gave advanced information to a land speculator as to where the proposed highway would be built. As the seminar progressed and each student claimed a homestead on a topographical map of what would become the City of Wilmington, he advised that it would be a good idea to get possession of a large portion of the land along the river. He said, as the population increases, and especially if they build a railroad along it, its value would increase enormously.

The other memorable character was Wilmington’s quintessential slumlord. He was finally sent to jail for not fixing dozens and dozens of housing code violations. I wondered what he would think of land value taxation. I got to the part in the seminar where I say, “Let’s see what would happen if instead of building, wages, income, or sales taxes, the government simply collected the rental value of land from each person that holds the title.” He raised his hand and said: “That sounds just like Henry George’s Single Tax.”

Around 1988 Lindy Davies conducted the weekly seminars at the work release center for a year or so before taking the job as assistant director at the Henry George School in New York. At the same time, Lindy taught correspondence students with Bob Clancy at the Henry George Institute, and several of his students were prisoners. After the CGO Conference held at Lafayette College the summer of ’91 Lindy and I went to see three of his prison students who were incarcerated at the maximum security prison in Center County, Pennsylvania. Tony Drayton Lloyd and Tommy Lyons both became correspondence teachers, and Tony Lloyd was elected vice president of the Henry George Institute a couple years ago. The third person we saw was the famous or infamous Mumia Abu Jamal—Philadelphia’s “voice of the voiceless.”  Lindy told me recently that Mumia had taught more correspondence students than any other volunteers at the HGI since he became its director.

Since Lindy’s passing in April, seventeen new correspondence students have been mailing lessons. They responded to the most recent ad Lindy placed in the Prison Law Journal. Some of them have completed Lesson 7 so far, and I am scheduled to address eight of them who are in the federal prison a hundred miles or so south of Pittsburgh after the conference.