What I learned from taking a class in prison

This past semester, I spent more than 30 hours in prison as part of my non-violence as a way of life philosophy class. I was one of 9 MIT students who made the hour-long drive from Cambridge to Norfolk every Thursday to attend class alongside prison inmates. I’m still trying to make sense of my prison experiences, and though I can’t say that I’m necessarily a changed person because of the class, I can certainly say that this class has made me think more about issues I hadn’t thought about before, and it has helped me learn more about myself and my own beliefs.

Each week, we covered a different non-violence-related topic (e.g. anger, forgiveness, honesty, and punishment). During our breakout sessions, we would split up into groups of 3 MIT students and 3 inmates and discuss the week’s topic. As the semester went on, many of the inmates started opening up more about themselves, and something I really appreciated was their honesty. The forgiveness discussion was a particularly riveting one, and I think it was primarily because seeking forgiveness from others requires demonstrating vulnerability and opening oneself up to the judgment of other human beings. I think it was at this point when I started developing a soft spot for my inmate classmates.

For my final class assignment, I wrote a paper on how the criminal justice system should prioritize educational programming for the prisoners because it helps rehabilitate offenders and sets them up for success upon their return to society. My initial thesis also mentioned releasing prisoners early if they could convince a panel of judges that they were ready to contribute positively to society. Looking back, I realize that I wanted so badly to believe that all my classmates were wonderful people and that they all deserved a second chance. After all, I listened to them tell their stories, and many of them seem hungry for the chance to help make the world a better place.

To be honest, I’m struggling a lot with writing this blog post because I’m not entirely sure what I think anymore. Transitioning into “stream of consciousness” mode…

My cousin’s three-year-old daughter has nightmares whenever she watches movies or TV shows with bad guys in them, so her parents simply stopped showing her movies and TV shows with antagonists. It occurred to me that I was doing the same thing to myself by convincing myself that there are no truly bad people out there in the world. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and believe that there is good in everyone. I guess it makes me feel safer, and because I’ve been living in a bubble all my life, that way of thinking has been completely fine for me. But maybe that’s not the smartest way to think.

Many of the prisoners are serving life sentences. I know what some of them are in for, and I still struggle to comprehend how anyone could commit such atrocities to other human beings. Like I said earlier, I have a lot of respect for all my classmates, so it makes it difficult for me to understand why or how they could have committed those acts. I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance for sure, and quite frankly, I don’t think it will ever go away.

I guess if anything, this class has reminded me just how complex the world is and how much I don’t know about it. I’m sorry this post doesn’t have a “punchline” or anything. I just wanted to get something out there before I forgot all my thoughts.

Advertisements