A part-time English teacher at the Prince George's County jail has been banned from the institution because she gave an inmate a personal letter. The letter described the teacher as "one of the earth's true free citizens."
Peggy Nolan, who taught at the jail for a year under a program sponsored by Prince George's Community College, said she hears from "sources in the jail" that the reference to her in the letter led jail officials to think she might arrange a jail break.
Jail officials denied yesterday that Nolan's dismissal had anything to do with the letter's content, but said it resulted from a clear security violation of delivering "contraband" -- a letter -- to an inmate.
The letter in question was written by Washington Post syndicated columnist Colman McCarthy to Cornelius Gaskin, an inmate with whom McCarthy has corresponded.
After Gaskin, who is serving 10 years for armed robbery, was denied parole recently, McCarthy said he wrote him a friendly letter to boost his spirits, and having lost Gaskin's address, asked Nolan, a friend, to deliver it.
In his letter to Gaskin, McCarthy urged him to "use the days well... You owe it to yourself," and pursue his education while incarcerated.
"The educated man is one who learns that he is worth something because he has put something of worth into his head and soul... It won't get you out of jail, but it will get you out of the other one -- that imposing structure built by the self to imprison the mind," McCarthy wrote.
The letter says, "I'm sending this via Peggy Nolan, one of the earth's true free citizens."
Nolan said she took the letter to class with her last Wednesday. A guard inspected her materials on her way into the jail, she said, removed the letter from its envelope, read it, replaced it and said nothing, Nolan said. She said she then delivered the letter to Gaskin in the cellblock.
"I didn't hide it," said Nolan, who added that she has "bent over triple backward" to obey jail rules.
"That place, I just love it," she asserted. "I was doing more good inside than I'm now doing outside."
Two days later, a jail official informed Nolan's superiors at the college that Nolan was banned from the jail because of the letter incident and two other security infractions.
Nolan said she has been told that the other violations were taking a tape recorder into the jail and having a comb in her pocketbook. She said she had permission to have the recorder and a guard removed the comb from her pocketbook.
McCarthy, informed of the jail's banning of Nolan, said, "You'd think Prince George's officials would be glad to have someone like Peggy Nolan around to educate -- and not incite -- the prisoners."
He said the jailers "need to be educated about the difference between the spirit of the law and its letter" and accused jail officials of "bone-headed overreaction."
Jail spokeswoman Norma Gluckstern insisted yesterday that Nolan knew the rules. "She's gone to orientation classes," Gluckstern said.
Nolan said she worked at the jail for a year before having her first orientation session, two weeks ago, partly at her own request. She said written rules were handed out then, but she didn't get a copy because there were too few to go around.
Della Donaldson, who conducted the briefing, said there is no written rule banning carrying letters into the jail, but "we discussed notes and letters to prisoners a full 20 minutes when someone raised the question."
Nolan says she doesn't recall that discussion.