By Luther Zeigler and Tiffany Curtis
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
~1 Corinthians 1:26-27
“My relationship with the Other as neighbor gives meaning to my relations with all the others.” ~Emmanuel Levinas
What does it mean to enter the world of another, albeit briefly? What if that world is far away, and yet paradoxically within our own neighborhoods? What if, further still, that world is one rife with shame, violence, fear, and loneliness?
In November 2012, the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard partnered with Harvard Hillel and Partakers, Inc., to launch Harvard Interfaith Prison Education (HIPE), a spiritual and academic accompaniment and mentoring program that brings together students and staff from across Harvard’s campuses to form interfaith prison teams. The teams are matched with an incarcerated individual pursuing his or her Bachelor’s degree through the College Behind Bars program. HIPE team members come from many backgrounds and places in the United States and abroad, and self-identify as Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist. Despite the diversity of experience and faith, none of the team members have had much interaction with prisons, and they have found themselves moved by the experience of entering the world of someone who seems so “other”, someone who may regarded as “foolish” by the world.
During our project, we have learned a great deal about the American prison system: we have learned that America today imprisons more people (over 6 million) than Stalin did during the height of the Russian gulags; that America imprisons vastly more of her people than any other country on earth, both in total numbers and on a per capita basis, more even than China, a country four times our size; that more black men are trapped in our penal system today than were slaves in 1850; that more women are imprisoned in the United States than any other country on the planet; that every day more people wake up in the cruelty of solitary confinement in this country than could fill Fenway Park; and that America has begun to hand over its prison systems to for-profit-corporations whose economic incentives are the exact opposite of what they should be – their interest is to build as many prisons as possible, to incarcerate as many people as possible, and to keep them there for as long as possible, all to make a buck.
But more important than these impersonal statistics, through our visits to the prison facility in Norfolk, Massachusetts, our team members have experienced in a very small way what life inside a prison is like and what it can do to a person. Through our relationships with our incarcerated companions, we have begun to put a human face on the prison system. We have listened to their stories, we have met their wives and children and brothers and sisters in the waiting room, we have shared their hopes and dreams for the future, we have sought to help them with their studies, and we have tried to be a friend along the way.
HIPE team members visit the Norfolk prison in pairs, and the travel time provides an opportunity for reflection on the experience. In between visits, team members also write letters to those they are mentoring, primarily to coordinate visits, but also to share ideas. Alice Kenney, a junior at Harvard College, and a faithful member of the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard, was so moved by her first visit to Mark (a pseudonym to protect his privacy), that she wrote this reflection:
When I visited Mark in December, I had never been to a prison before, and knew very little about the penitentiary system outside of what I had read in newspapers and seen in films.... During the drive to Norfolk I didn’t think much about the prison itself, but instead worried incessantly that our meeting with Mark would be awkward, that I wouldn’t know what to say, or that I would say the wrong thing. I had worked and talked with many different kinds of people, coming from many different backgrounds, but I had never talked with a prisoner. I was afraid that the questions I usually ask the people I meet would be inappropriate or offensive to Mark. I was afraid that I would make him upset or say something that he felt ashamed about. Was it okay to ask about his family, his daily routine, his childhood, and his life before coming to prison? I was afraid that he would feel the need to prove to me that he was a good person. I was so concerned with making him feel comfortable that I forgot how well simple respect and honesty can forge human connections.
My partner and I spent two hours with Mark, talking about everything from his courses...to the changes in airport security that have occurred since he began serving time (such as the 3 ounce limit on liquids and body scans). He was eager to have friends to talk to, but just as eager to hear about our experiences and ideas. Contrary to my fear that talking about the world outside Norfolk would upset him, Mark was delighted to discuss current events and public opinion. He had followed the presidential election much more closely than many of my politically-oriented peers and was devoted to the Cooking Channel, even though he has no way to cook while in prison. “People seem to be pretty into using seaweed in their dishes these days. Have you tried it? What does it taste like?” He was curious about the books he read for his courses and described himself as a poet and an artist. He explained the Norfolk prison to us without either filtering his descriptions or complaining, seeking neither to protect us from the reality of its difficulties and frustrations nor to elicit our pity. He treated us as colleagues and friends, despite our great differences in age, gender, and life experience. He did not patronize us because we were as young as his children, nor did he shy away from topics that might have been controversial, such as sexual orientation and race.
Alice sent her reflection to Mark, asking him to write back about his own experience with encountering her and her teammates. This was his reply:
My experience in meeting Alice, Hanna, and Omar far exceeded my expectations. Immediately, we seemed to fall into wonderful conversations about current events, our backgrounds, anxieties about meeting, our interests, and more. I found them all to be inspiring and they made me feel very comfortable.
I found this experience to be reassuring to my faith, feelings about humanity, and restorative in giving me the ability to communicate honestly and openly to people out in society.
I am very respectful of this privilege and will honor it so. I have found this experience very rewarding and helpful.
Alice concluded her reflection:
After visiting Mark, I feel I better understand...why [this work is important]. I understand that the program isn’t about tutoring inmates, but is instead about forming relationships that support inmates as they complete their degrees. These relationships involve helping out with academics, but they also involve supporting all aspects of an inmate’s life. [This] relationship is about being academic, social, and spiritual friends. These kinds of holistic friendships are part of what makes a faith-based community so special. Unlike groups of people who are drawn together because of work, school, hobbies, or geographic proximity, communities of faith form around ideas of how to live a good, happy, fulfilling life. Values such as kindness, empathy, and mutual support are expected in a community of faith. An interfaith community like HIPE is particularly special in this respect because it celebrates both diversity of opinion and shared values. Talking with Mark, becoming excited about the friendship we were forming, I felt the joy and peace my Church has promised.
The Reverend Luther Zeigler is the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard. Tiffany Curtis is the Chaplaincy’s Micah Fellow for Social Justice and a co-founder of Harvard Interfaith Prisoner Education Project.
*Name changed to protect privacy
1. From Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, p.159
2. Statistics taken from 2012 report of Bureau of Justice http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/press/cpus11ppus11pr.cfm