Works and Days

PSF Project, Campus Within Walls, Part 3

I went to where we are supposed to find society’s worst. What I found were people working to be their best.

I spent five weeks attending class with our outcasts, our pariahs, our unseen. The ones we place in shadow and in darkness, out of view, all the better to construct them as distant abstracts, faceless and certainly heartless causers of violence and tragedy and badness. Criminals. Violators. Undeserving of society, deservedly stripped of rights.


If only that were the case. If only I found monsters.

If I had spent my summer with monsters, it wouldn’t hurt to see them locked up. It wouldn’t tear at my heart to hear it had been years, decades, since they had seen anything beyond the cold cement of their barracks and the razor-wire wrapped courtyard. Since they had seen the inside of a grocery store, or been allowed to own more than ten books, or spent even a moment in true privacy, away from other inmates or free from the eyes of a guard.

If only I had listened to the stories of demons. Then I wouldn’t have to lie awake and wonder what it feels like to watch your son grow up during permitted visiting hours only. I wouldn’t have to know that a room of drug dealers and embezzlers and murders and gang bangers are also yogis and grandfathers and dancers and kids who adore Jimmy Hendrix.

 If they had been evil, I wouldn’t have to question what it means to put humans in cages.

Walt Whitman writes about America words that are as true for the individual soul as they are for a nation: “I am large; I contain multitudes.” We are massive. We are complex. We contradict. We have astonishing potential for transformation. Are we more than the worst thing we’ve ever done? What kind of chance should we be given to become so?

On the last day of their student development class, the students gave presentations reflecting on what they had learned and received from their time in class. Nearly all of the students talked about change in one form or another. One student told us a story, a Native American parable in which a young man, about to depart for his first long journey from home, is told by his grandfather that each person has two wolves fighting inside them, one that is driven by anger and jealousy and pride and desperation, the other by honor and love and selflessness.

                  “Which wolf will win?” The young man asks.

                  And his Grandfather responds, “The one you feed.”

                  The Campus within Walls students have managed to turn their prison from a cage to a cocoon.  In the small windowless classroom, in their prison-issue blue button downs, they discuss A Raisin in the Sun and Maya Angelou and The New Jim Crow and they transform themselves.

                  “I’ve always heard, ‘time heals all wounds’.” An inmate says. “But that’s simply not true. If there’s one thing you have plenty of in prison, it’s time. That time doesn’t do anything on its own. Time is neutral. It’s what you do with the time that matters.”

                  They can see themselves working to change their circumstances, empowering themselves to, as Maya Angelou says, “Know better, so to do better.”

                  The students inspire me. That’s the ultimate compliment I can give. They make me want to be my best person, to devote myself constantly to improvement, and to bring honest, thoughtful analysis to my life. I was inspired by their wisdom, their sincerity, and their compassion.

                  In the end, the simple message I want to bring out past the razor wire and the guards and the auto-locking reinforced metal doors is that people live in there.

That may seem obvious. I hope it is. But I think it is too easy to forget. Too easy to ignore their humanity. Everyone has a story. Each and every one of them laughs and hurts and dreams.

It comes down to the question of what defines a person. Passions? Loves? Fatherhood?  A favorite book? Religion? Insecurities? Hopes? Hobbies?


Tags: presidents summer fellowship, prison, justice, psf, education, virginia