Teachers with convictions

May 18, 2006, midnight | By Bridget Egan | 15 years, 6 months ago

Blair staff members face law and order

With scribbled notes about notorious liberal Michael Moore written on the whiteboard and Gandhi quotes decorating the walls in teacher Joann Malone's classroom, it may be hard to envision this ex-nun in a jail cell. However, with the classic prison film "The Shawshank Redemption" on her desk, it suddenly becomes believable.

Malone, who teaches Peace Studies and Diversity Workshop, remembers the day, March 2, 1969, when she and eight others, nicknamed the DC-9, went to the Dow Chemical Lobbying office in Washington, D.C. and trashed it to protest the office's profitable dealings in the Vietnam War. "What we did was basically break into this office," explains Malone, mentioning that the office profited from products like Napalm, a dangerous chemical agent that played a major role in Vietnam. She and the rest of the DC-9 smashed windows and destroyed equipment in the office, which resulted in her incarceration and made her the first nun in the United States to ever be convicted of a federal crime.

Malone, who incorporates this experience into her teaching, is not the only staff member to have been arrested and incarcerated for standing up for their beliefs in a non-violent manner. Both History teacher George Vlasits and Principal Phillip Gainous share similar stories, and all claim they have never regretted their actions.

Let the punishment fit the crime

In the early 1960s, when Gainous was a college student at Morgan State University in Baltimore, the student government organized a non-violent protest against a local theater that did not permit entrance to blacks. "There was a big demonstration at the movie theater, and these were peaceful demonstrations," Gainous says about the protest. Gainous chose to be part of a group of students who would enter the theater, be arrested, fill up the jail, pay bail and repeat. But an unsympathetic judge set the bail higher than expected and Gainous and his companions were unable to get out.

After spending a total of two days in jail, he and the other incarcerated protestors were transferred to a prison where males and females were separated and before undergoing the normal entrance process. The guards "stripped you naked and sprayed you with DDT… and gave you prison clothes," reveals Gainous, who ended up sharing a one-person jail cell with two other men.

While Gainous was only arrested once, Vlasits estimates that he has been to jail approximately 10 times, mainly for anti-war and civil right reasons. Vlasits was once arrested for resisting the draft, which he still believes was a necessary action. "It's necessary at times for people to stand up for what they believe in," Vlasits says.

Vlasits maintains that the hardest part of his various stays in jail was the psychological reaction to being imprisoned. "That feeling that you have no control is one of those aspects of prison [that] is one that is hard to understand unless you've been in prison," he says.

We all fall down

While in prison, Gainous and his fellow students lived on two tiers that overlooked a common area. When in their cells they would comfort and encourage each other with talk of the importance of what they were doing. While many of the inmates were scared to be in prison, the guard in charge of their tier was a graduate of Morgan State University and looked out for Gainous and his fellow inmates.

Gainous recalls the metallic taste of all the prison food that he and his fellow inmates ate. Fortunately, after the third day in prison somebody arranged for milk, soap and toothpaste to be provided for them.

While males were almost always separated from the females during Gainous's time in prison, they were able to meet in the prison chapel to study and talk. During his incarceration, many outside groups asked Gainous, an unofficial leader of his companions, to come south and help with the Civil Rights Movement there. Gainous declined because racism was much worse in the south, and he did not want to jeopardize the college scholarship he had earned.

Vlasits recalls another time when he was jailed with GIs in North Carolina. At first Vlasits was hesitant because he did not know how they would react to a man who had resisted the draft. He later found out they were all in jail for being AWOL, Absent Without Leave. Vlasits befriended the men and shared his books that he had brought to jail to pass the time with them.

On another occasion, Vlasits was arrested and incarcerated for allegedly attacking an officer, which he adamantly denies, maintaining that he was arrested solely for his controversial beliefs. "I served that time because of my politics, not my actions," he explains.

While Vlasits verbally denounced what he believes were unfair punishments, Malone rebelled during her incarceration in a different way. Once Malone went on a seven-day hunger strike demanding to be released. She only drank liquids, although she later switched to more nutritious liquids after the guards threatened to make her eat raw eggs for the protein.

Another difficult experience that Vlasits recalls was one time when he was expecting to get out of prison after serving his time and he did not. After serving his time and getting off early for good behavior, the prison decided not to release Vlasits at the expected date. "It's the anticipating and the let down," says Vlasits. Additionally, the prison did not allow him his standard phone call to his lawyer when he learned that he was not going to be released. Fortunately, a sympathetic guard alerted Vlasits's lawyer, and Vlasits was released.

Vlasits, like Gainous and Malone, strongly believes that it is of utmost importance for students and adults alike to stand up for their rights, if they are not being upheld. "I would encourage everybody to stand up for their rights when they are being violated," Vlasits says, "because if you don't stand up for them, they'll disappear."

That's a wrap

While Malone was supposed to serve four years, she and the rest of the DC-9 did not serve the complete sentence. Malone won the appeal after the jury ruled in her favor.

Gainous's time in prison ended when white students from northern universities joined the movement and got arrested. Because of the new arrests, the theater finally decided to let blacks in, according to Gainous. Gainous and his fellow students returned to Morgan State University at 11. After their release, they were all herded into the university cafeteria, not knowing what to expect from the president of the college. He ended up surprising the students with steak dinners, because he was proud of what his students had done.

MCPS does have a policy concerning hiring teachers who have been arrested, but Gainous says that protestors do not fall into that category. "They did not count being arrested [for a protest] as a regular arrest," he says.

While it has been decades since Vlasits, Malone and Gainous were incarcerated, all three adults believe that their arrests were very prominent parts of their lives that they find difficult to forget. According to Gainous, the harshness of the prison life still remains stamped in his senses. "You know, sometimes I can still taste those iron plates in my mouth," Gainous says.

Bridget Egan. Bridget Egan is a Communications Art student (graduating in 2007) who loves "CSI" and The Who. When she isn't doing anything related to school work, she is drawing abstract art, reading comic books and normal books and learning to play the bagpipes. Bridget also has … More »

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