During the three years I taught English at this prison, some of my stereotypes were challenged. Most likely, the standard stereotype of a prison inmate is that of an unsavory, evil person who is mean and dangerous. Mug shots at the post office feed this stereotype, which is apt for many inmates, but not for all.
I have taught inmates who were lawyers, ministers, truck drivers, mechanics, successful businessmen and ne’er-do-wells. The ne’er-do-wells were usually uneducated misfits, or had been. They were intelligent, but by their own testimony had been reared with little parental supervision or counsel. The professionals usually came from more stability, though not always.
Prisons are great equalizers. It doesn’t matter who or what you were before the prison doors slammed behind you. Now you’re an inmate. You dress alike, line up like children, eat the same food and endure the same indignity. Within months, few people outside the wire will care enough to communicate.
But such a plight for a felon is deserved, you say. So do I. As much as I came to love the men I taught, my belief in stern punishment for crime or even in the death penalty never diminished. I still found it defensible to believe in “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.” All of the men I taught over the three years had either “shed blood” (murdered) or committed armed robbery.
But believing in the death penalty doesn’t mean you can’t love the sinner, especially since you’re a sinner yourself. Here are a couple of scenarios that portray my fellow sinners:
Jeffrey is a minister’s son. Even at 19, when he got two girls pregnant, he was an otherwise obedient son, never missing church or any of his father’s sermons. According to Jeffrey, it was fear, not overt evil that drove him to obtain a gun to protect himself from one girl’s father and the other girl’s other boyfriend.
Even so, the girl’s boyfriend is dead, and Jeffrey is now a “lifer.” Jeffrey is a vibrant, outgoing leader in class. From his father, he has learned a modicum of Hebrew and Greek with which he fascinates the class.
Although Jeffrey and I share the same faith and talk of it at break time, I wonder if I could remain as positive as he does if I were a “lifer.” Jeffrey, no con artist, is simply inspiring.
Jeffrey had a good father, but Kevin did not. Kevin is in the three-fourths of the class who say they either never knew their father or saw him no more than a couple of times. Unlike Jeffrey, Kevin fits the stereotype. He purposely sought to do harm.
Kevin has been mellowed, however, — actually transformed — by Jeffrey’s outlook and temperament. They study together. On his day to give the devotional (which the state allows) Kevin singles Jeffrey out: “Jeffrey and the rest of you guys have really been special to me. I’ll probably forget ‘affect and effect’ — sorry Mr. Hines — but I won’t forget how y’all have changed me.” Kevin is 31. Prison brotherhood provides what his family did not.
Gerald has helped Kevin as well. Gerald is 74 and a fortunate father figure for the entire class. Crime is a young man’s game, so I wonder how long Gerald has been in, but instructors don’t ask such questions.
The expression, “There but for the grace of God go I,” bombards your mind when you’re amongst seemingly hopeless men. If my father had not been around, if as a child I had been passed from pillar to post, or if I had never been taught self-restraint … what if, what if …
Staring at the dreadful wire from my car, I recall that I learned the pattern: wives and children of inmates eventually fade away, but parents don’t. They wait forever. Now, I must fade away also. My men have taken all the English their degree program requires. I miss them. My thoughts race to their faithful, aging parents.
I drive off feeling a little better for having dropped by, though not much. What I do feel better about is how the prison changed me. I now understand freedom, forgiveness and grace.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.