SAWSHANK REMEMBERED: My Life Behind Bars
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
The voice behind me ordered, “Would you please step aside, Sir?”
It was a sunny June evening, and I had been standing at the counter, following standard protocol, emptying my briefcase and my pockets, removing my belt because the buckle frequently triggered the alarm on the metal detector as I passed through it. Entering a prison every week for years on end is not an experience that everyone has had.
I turned to see a young black man attired in a prison orange jump suit, handcuffs and leg irons, accompanied by four sheriff’s deputies, three of them brandishing 12 gauge shotguns, the muzzles aimed at the inmate who was about to be admitted into the facility where I taught university English courses two evenings a week.
The procedures were in place for the protection of the deputies, the prison staff, teachers like me, and, ironic as it may sound, even the new inmate. Still, I felt somehow demeaned, as though I had witnessed some shameful scene that I should not have. The thought ran through my mind, “Is this the best that we humans can do?”
Sad to say, it probably is. I am no apologist for bad behavior. Still, while there may be no excuses for bad behavior, there are oftentimes reasons: Poverty, lack of wholesome role models, downtrodden neighborhoods, broken homes, immaturity, insufficient impulse control, bad companions, bad choices, all the old chestnuts. Prison is not a happy place, and those on both sides of the law live and work under dangerous conditions.
I used to speculate that in a room of up to 25 or 26 men, I might be the only person present who had never killed anyone. That probably overstates the situation. I generally did not know what offense had caused my students to be incarcerated. Sometimes, they wrote about it. For eleven years, I graded their essays, correcting grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, penning copious notes in margins, and reading journals. I was aware that among my classes were bank robbers, drug dealers, murderers, rapists, child molesters, those convicted of felonious assault, domestic violence, vehicular homicide, one for killing two men with his speed boat while he was operating it under the influence, one even for impersonating a police officer. They came from all backgrounds, all ethnicities. I had Christians, Muslims, atheists, existentialists, even a self styled Wiccan priest who wrote extensively about the historic persecution of witches.
One man, a convicted murderer who happened to have been a former police officer, wrote great fishing essays. A Vietnam vet wrote about his wartime experiences. A child molester wrote about his own victimization as a boy. Another described a bar fight in which he had stabbed an attacker to death.
Most of the time, my classes consisted of either University Writing Improvement or Freshman English, but on occasion I taught British and American Literature and Great Books. Almost without exception, the students were conscientious, intelligent, respectful, courteous. While we were discussing John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in an American Literature class one evening, a young Hispanic man whose family had been migrant farm workers for generations explained to the class that such a life was exactly as difficult, as cruel and unjust, as that experienced by the Okies fleeing to California from the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.
As a group, they did not care for Faulkner, praised Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, seemed to comprehend the hypocrisy of “Willy Loman” in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, loved some more recent selections by Pat Conroy and Chaim Potok. I generally assigned up to eight books in a semester, in addition to the text. Generally, when it came time for finals, most would write nonstop for up to three full hours. Education was a passion for them.
One would not suspect that a group of up to 25 convicted felons would become so immersed in the works of Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare that they would come to class arguing about plots and characters instead of the best way to knock off a convenience store or pull off a drug deal. I can say that they were among the very best students I had in a 36-year teaching career.
In eleven years, I never experienced so much as a discourtesy. It was explained to me by a guard on one occasion that the inmates protect outsiders from one another, that no one wants to return to the days when no outsider was admitted for any reason.
Our class discussions were unique. As is so often the case, teacher and students live in vastly different worlds. Lines from their journals remain with me yet. “When I came to prison, I had to say goodbye forever to my best friend,” the dog he had raised from a puppy.
“I never realized how cruel people could be until I came to this place.”
I read this, a letter to his teenage self, in the journal of a young man named John, “Dear Little John. You thought you knew it all. You wouldn’t listen to your parents or your teachers. Now, look at where I am because of you.”
Another wrote, “My eleven-year-old son came to visit today. Everyone says he reminds them of me at his age. I don’t want him to be like me. Look at where I am.”
One young man, doing 5 to 25 for armed robbery, provided some insights into prison life when he penned an essay entitled “Penitentiary Rat,” describing his daily routine as resembling that of a rodent among rodents. With his permission, I submitted it to an Ohio State University literary journal, and they published it. I sent him a carton of a dozen or so copies by way of the college office once the semester had ended.
One summer evening, I was approached after class by a student with a most unusual request. He was about to be paroled. Would I request that the warden allow him to remain inside for three more weeks so that he could compete his British Literature course. He was an “A” student. As a teacher, I was not allowed to interfere in such matters, but I did write to the warden informing him that the young man’s grade would suffer if he could not take the final exam. My request was granted.
When I entered college for the first time at the age of 20, I thirsted for education like a man dying in the desert might thirst for water. However, can anyone imagine a person’s passion for education being so fervent as to cause him to ask for three more weeks in prison in order to complete an English Class. What a statement for the value of education. What a statement for the young man’s system of values and for the role of education in genuine rehabilitation.
A few winters before I witnessed the young man being ushered into his new life in prison, I happened to be on a retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Genesee, a Cistercian monastery in rural New York. One dark, freezing evening, I watched as a novice arrived at the door, carrying all his worldly possessions in a cardboard box. At the entrance, the porter took the box from him, and the young man entered the monastery, in all probability, forever. The stark contrast between those two realities has remained with me ever since. Two young men of much the same age, entering total institutions, one voluntarily and one under duress, one for a life of prayer and service, one for long years of marking time.