The National Catholic Review
Lessons from behind bars

I stayed on the phone with my husband as I drove up to the prison, its jagged stone facade stretching outward from a large, pointed, central turret. If it had not been nestled within the beautiful, rolling landscape of the lower Catskill mountains, I thought, this building would look much more ominous. I had taught plenty of college classes before—but never inside a maximum security prison. This semester, my students would be incarcerated men, some of them presumably doing time for violent crimes. During the hefty two-hour commute from my apartment in New York City, I had plenty of time to conjure up some worst-case scenarios. Would the students be tough, I wondered, or intimidating? Was it really safe for women to work in this environment? “See you tonight,” I said to my husband, nervously signing off. “Wish me luck.”

When I agreed to work at the prison, I had not even been looking for a job. Tom, an old friend of mine from graduate school, had called me up one day quite out of the blue and said his prison college program was looking for an instructor, and he had thought of me. It was run, Tom said, by a highly reputable organization called the Bard Prison Initiative. In the absence of public funding, the program enabled incarcerated men and women to take college courses and get college degrees. Teaching in a prison might take some getting used to, Tom admitted. But they really needed someone. And, he promised, it would be extremely rewarding.

Once I was inside the facility and simply focused on the people around me, my apprehension started to fade. While I waited for my paperwork to be processed, a few employees entered through the main doors, passed through the security scanners in the lobby and chatted with the front desk officers. These folks obviously knew each other well; they shared stories about their children, their holidays, their health. Eventually, two young men dressed in sweatshirts and prison-issued khaki pants came to clean the front hallway floors. They worked steadily, quietly, occasionally exchanging a few words. To me, they looked tired and depleted. Worse, I thought, they barely looked old enough to be teenagers.

After almost an hour, a corrections officer took me back to the prison’s school. Every few minutes we stopped at a security gate and waited for a guard to buzz us through to the next checkpoint. Maybe it was because I was being led around, somewhat blindly, in an unfamiliar place; but each of these gates served as a sobering reminder to me that I was now in someone else’s protective custody, locked away, several times over, from everyone I loved.

Still, it was not the physical isolation of prison that struck me most. It was the spiritual bleakness. Being put away from the rest of humanity is just the beginning. For a number of years—or in the case of one man I met, possibly the rest of his life—the prisoner now has roughly four places to go: the yard, the cafeteria, the job site, the cell. He goes every day, whether he wants to or not. He can express individuality within that framework of control. He can sit and read a book, for example, in his cell. But he may well have to read it amid a constant din of yelling, clanging, chaos and commotion. The worst prisons subject people to physical cruelty. But within the normal bounds of captivity, it seemed to me, prison deprives people of even their freedom to rest, be restored and think. 

When we finally got to the prison school, the atmosphere changed. In contrast to other parts of the building that I passed through, the prison school seemed alive with hope and purpose. There were only seven or eight students there at any given time—one typing quietly at a computer, another talking to the program director, another sorting through books in the tiny side room they called the library. But their small number contributed to my impression that they had come together to do more than just study or learn. It felt like they were gathered there, inside that small intellectual oasis, to drive the bleakness away.

The course I was there to teach was a weekly seminar that focused on one 768-page book: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880. Initially, I had worried that the material might be too difficult or the focus too intensive. But in fact, the students demonstrated a degree of engagement that I had rarely encountered in a traditional college class. And far from being intimidating or tough, they were helpful and respectful. As I approached the small desk at the front of the musty classroom, one student brought me a chair and asked if I wanted some coffee. As we talked, I understood why this program was so important. It was designed partly to rehabilitate inmates through education. Ideally, it empowered them to manage life on the outside. But regardless of their sentence or ultimate chance for parole, it also offered them a chance for intellectual—and spiritual—transformation. It was one restorative place, deep within that warehouse of human deprivation, where men had the freedom to think. In that sense, it really was an oasis—and not only for those living on the inside.

When Tom called me, I was struggling with a new life transition. After spending eight years in a doctoral program, one year in a postdoctoral fellowship and another year as a new assistant professor, I had become pregnant—happily, fortunately, but unexpectedly. Because my husband could not find a new job—and because I really didn’t feel we could raise a child in a household dictated by two intense and demanding full-time careers—I quit my job.

Frequently in academia, biological clocks and tenure clocks conspire to knock women off their predicted career paths, and I had known this. But my professional detour was rather sudden and severe. I didn’t regret my choice, but I regretted having had to make it, and I missed my career. I also found new motherhood more challenging—and isolating—than I had imagined. Raising a toddler full time requires you to be present and engaged for 12 to 14 hours a day with someone whose own attention span is roughly 15 seconds. I spent a lot of time feeling suspended, unfulfilled and unresolved. As my world narrowed into a life that centered on my daughter’s immediate needs, I waited for a time when I’d feel ready to leave her in someone else’s care and go back to working full time. But somehow that readiness never materialized.

I decided I could manage the prison course because it didn’t require me to make a huge time commitment. I found it exhilarating to teach again. This was not a career-track job like the one I’d left. But it was an opportunity to share ideas with students—people who clearly appreciated my efforts. As we made our way through weighty topics like land redistribution, slavery and emancipation, their thoughtfulness inspired me. The fact that I was sitting in a prison completely receded into the back of my mind. And gradually, so did my professional angst. Regardless of my traditional career prospects, I realized, I could still make a valuable contribution. I could still do rewarding, meaningful work. That simple fact made me feel peaceful and restored.

During my short tenure as an instructor at the prison—and later, as a thesis advisor for one of the students—I talked with people about the job. I talked about its bleakness and its transformative rewards. But, more privately, I knew the job was also transforming me. Growing up Catholic, I had learned about the concept of mercy. Or as a less religious person might call it, compassion. My Catholic instructors taught about mercy in terms of specific acts: feed the hungry, for example, or give drink to the thirsty. And most of them made intuitive sense to me. But I never really understood why visiting the imprisoned was considered an act of mercy on a par with tending to basic human needs. Were prisoners really so needy? Did mercy really reject a distinction between supposedly deserving and undeserving souls?

When I experienced life inside a prison first-hand, it became abundantly clear to me why prisoners are on that list. Black Reconstruction always has been one of my favorite historical texts. “Easily the most dramatic episode in American history,” Du Bois writes at the outset, “was the sudden move to free four million black slaves in an effort to stop a great civil war, to end forty years of bitter controversy, and to appease the moral sense of civilization.” It is a beautiful and powerful book. In the prison, however, these words took on even broader relevance than they had before. Talking about freedom with people who had lost it—but who were so diligently and painstakingly striving to make their way back to it—was a profound experience. Getting to know these men as individuals gave me personal insight into the meaning of mercy that my religious education had not given me. It reminded me that compassion can have unexpected rewards, in the smallest of ways and the unlikeliest of places.

Not long ago, I got a letter from one of my students. He had been one of the most engaged students in the course, and the following year, I had served as the primary advisor for his senior thesis. When my family moved away from New York, I had missed his graduation by just a few days. But before I left, I had driven up to the prison one last time for his thesis defense. The faculty committee who sat with us roundly praised his work. It was one of the proudest and most rewarding moments of my professional life.

In his letter, he thanked me profusely, again, for working with him. I would never know how much it meant, he wrote, that I had come all that way to teach at the prison when I could have just stayed home with my own children.

I wrote back, yes, my children were very important to me. At times, the teaching and driving schedule had been difficult for me and my family. But I had gained so much from it. Working at the prison school—for such a worthy program and with such deserving students—had been more rewarding than I could ever have expected. So, I said, let’s just agree to be mutually grateful.

Erin Elizabeth Clune is a writer in Madison, Wis.

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