I recently finished a fascinating six week Vanderbilt University class called “Justice, Mercy and Mass Incarceration” presented through Coursera online. The course goals were “to discover alternatives to the current systems of crime and punishment in order to imagine a more inclusive, just and moral society”. It was taught by Graham Reside, Assistant Professor, Vanderbilt University Divinity School. This is my second online class in the area of justice and criminology, the first being “Crime, Justice and Society” by The University of Sheffield, presented online by FutureLearn. I am both interested in the topic and in the MOOC (massive open online course) method in which these classes are presented.
Since 2015, I have developed and led a seminar at Elmwood Jail in Milpitas, California, in the Silicon Valley. Our seminar curriculum and books are from the Education for Ministry (EfM) program of the University of the South – School of Theology. EfM is a four year college-level certification program, started in 1975. So far as we know, ours is the only jail-based EfM program, although there are two dozen prison-based programs in the USA. In addition to covering the official EfM material, in the seminar we also work on listening, respectful group interactions, study skills, and basic leadership skills – like how to open and close a class with prayer.
This jail-based EfM program is supported by the Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy, Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (Saratoga, California), and the University of the South – School of Theology. I worked with a group of volunteers from St. Andrew’s to start our first weekly seminar in a medium security dorm, and we have recently added a second weekly seminar in a minimum security dorm. Two of the EfM students at Elmwood are in Year 3 (Church History), two are in Year 2 (New Testament), with the remaining students in Year 1 (Hebrew Bible). The EfM year is only nine months long but my Co-Mentors and I run the jail-based seminars back-to-back (since inmates do not get summer vacations). About two thirds of the inmate students in our EfM seminar are men of color – mostly Latino – and the rest are white. We conduct discussions in English (and Spanglish) but provide Bibles, Books of Common Prayer, and Dictionaries in both English and Spanish.
In leading this EfM seminar, I have observed many consequences of incarceration. One of my reasons for taking “Justice Mercy and Mass Incarceration” was to understand more of the context of what I am observing when I am teaching in jail. Last month, I told the seminar students about the “Justice, Mercy, and Mass Incarceration” class and asked them to tell me one good thing and one bad thing about being in jail. Here is what six of them said:
What is Bad About Jail
- I don’t see my family.
- Some innocent people are punished (but not many).
- I am not there for my kids.
- I can’t be there to help my wife when she needs me.
- Not being there for loved ones: I am frozen, unable to do anything.
- Being a number – losing who you are.
- I never get the time back.
- I have no say. I am less of a citizen.
- I am treated as low in the hierarchy.
- There is no mercy, no leniency.
- I can’t be there for my babies, my wife. I am hurting.
- I am missing my family.
- I lose my job, my apartment, my wife and kids, my paycheck, everything.
What is Good About Jail
- Takes evil off the street.
- Families are safe from bad people.
- I have a clear mind. I am closer to God.
- I have more belief, more faith, more spirituality. I am more close to God.
- I have free time to spend on prayer, sobriety, like the worst-ever vacation. We can be with ourselves without a phone or Facebook.
- If I stay clean, I have a clear mind, can reflect and prepare for becoming a better person out there.
- I can clear my mind, rethink decisions on things I have done (and things I did not get caught for).
- I can stay off drugs, not putting poison into my system.
- It has made me think, be a better person. Reflection, closer to God. I am learning a lot.
- There is free medication (health care).
There are connections and discrepancies between what “Justice, Mercy, and Mass Incarceration” teaches and what the EfM student inmates say. They agree on the benefit of taking violent, evil, bad people off the street. They also agree that imprisonment has the potential for supporting personal reform – inmates rethinking who they have been and who they want to become. “Justice, Mercy, and Mass Incarceration” does not spend a great deal of time on effective reform but in the recommended 1998 documentary film “The Farm: Angola Prison”, several of the long-term inmates had clearly over time become very different people, positive forces in the prison community. My hope for my EfM students is whether they are inside or outside, they can make a positive difference in the world.