No one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to learn about the JCI Scholars Program. Based at Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security men’s prison in central Maryland, the program offers volunteer, non-credit, college-level courses in a range of subjects including advanced literature, criminal justice, games and game design, and history of economic thought.
Should you feel inspired to support this work – and I hope you do – you can do so at patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.
You can even skip the rest of this post and just head over there and donate now. I won’t be offended. Go ahead: patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.
This work strikes me as an important, intrinsic good – especially since prison-based education was decimated after President Clinton and a Democratic congress made inmates ineligible for Pell grants in 1994. It’s easy to confuse tough on crime with being tough on people who’ve committed crimes, I suppose.
But when I started thinking about this post I realized…I didn’t know why I find this work important. Or at least I couldn’t articulate it. Perhaps it was just the words of Oscar Wilde ringing through my head:
I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
…This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.
Of course, Wilde wrote these words while imprisoned for his own “crime” of sodomy – a point which emphasizes that not all those imprisoned are imprisoned justly. There is, for example, healthy debate about the appropriateness of prison sentences for non-violent drug related crimes. Additionally, the Innocence Project estimates that between 2.3% and 5% of U.S. prisoners are innocent of the crime they’ve been imprisoned for.
Furthermore there is deep injustice and racism inherent in the system. Mandatory minimums have disproportionately increased black men’s admissions to prison. The school to prison pipeline systematically segregates and disenfranchises predominately poor, black men. The United States, with 5% of the world’s population, has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
There is much work to be done. Much justice which needs to be achieved.
And, yet – that is not the point.
The bulk of the scholars who benefit from this program are violent offenders. Some are innocent perhaps, but others surely guilty. Yet the JCI Scholars Program boldly states, no one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.
Is that truly so bold?
I am close with people who have been the victims of violent crimes. Do I risk pulling a Michael Dukakis if I respond with something besides hate?
I am reminded of the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Would it truly be moral for me to hate, knowing that indeed, hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. Shall I willingly continue the plunge into the dark abyss of annihilation?
No. I could not in good conscious go down that path.
And here we get to the heart of the matter – for as much as I may wish it, good conscious is not enough. It is not the only force which guides me.
That is to say – it is easy to take comfort in the language of personal responsibility, so often encountered when we talk about incarceration.
Whether you advocate for harsh punishments or thoughtful rehabilitation, whether you imagine criminal acts are caused by a failure of the individual or a systemic failure of society, it is comforting to imagine there is a defining line between us and them.
And perhaps these men, incarcerated as they may be for violent, perhaps brutal crimes, perhaps they have crossed a line I have not crossed. Perhaps we as society should regulate such behavior. But we as individuals cannot neglect our humanity.
It would be foolish to think them so different from myself.
That darkness, that capacity for terrible acts, exists in all of us. And we have each touched that darkness more closely than we might like to admit. It may be comforting to claim superior self-control or personal virtue, but wishing does not make it so. We have each committed our own terrible acts. Broken no laws, perhaps, but not without sin.
Wilde writes, each man kills the thing he loves, yet each man does not die.
Betrayed by his lover, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor. His heart nor his health ever recovered. The conviction that each man kills the thing he loves was an acute truth for him. He was imprisoned, but his lover, free and unbesmirched, had conducted the more heinous act. The kindest use a knife, because the dead so soon grow cold.
We do need laws and regulations and a system of justice. And as a society, we should work to make that system as just and equitable as possible.
But as people, as individuals facing other individuals, we should know better than to sit in judgement. We are none of us Good.
I hope that the education provided by the JCI Scholars program helps empower incarcerated citizens to address some of our system’s terrible inequity. I am no expert on prisons, and while I seek justice, I couldn’t think to speak for them on this matter.
I hope that the education provided by the JCI Scholars program provides some measure of peace, some insight on the Good Life, for those confined and perhaps haunted by their past deeds.
But ultimately, these outcomes are not what matter. What matters is that no one in society should be deprived of access to ideas.
And that is a good in its own right.
Support this work here: patreon.com/prisonscholarsprogram.