Monday, July 1, 2013

My Morning in a Texas Maximum Security Prison

with John Wilsey at the Darrington Unit, Houston TX

I spent last Friday morning teaching American religious history to forty or fifty prisoners in a maximum security facility outside of Houston, Texas.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Let me explain. 

The Houston extension campus of Southwestern Theological Seminary (Ft. Worth) operates an accredited college program for prisoners at the Darrington Unit in Brazoria County. Prisoners from all over the state, distinguished for their records of good behavior and academic potential, are transferred to Darrington to pursue a B.S. degree in Biblical Studies.

Courses in the liberal arts disciplines, Bible, and theology are offered in a specially constructed wing of the unit that includes two classrooms, an impressive library, and a computer lab.  Students take roughly fifteen hours of coursework per semester and if they complete the entire three years they will be placed in prisons throughout Texas to minister to their fellow prisoners. The courses taught in the prison are built into the teaching loads of the Southwestern Seminary faculty. 

I arrived at Darrington—my first-ever visit to a maximum security prison--early Friday morning.  I was accompanied by John Wilsey, a professor of history and philosophy at Southwestern.  He teaches two courses in the prison every semester.  The students love him for his commitment to high academic standards and intellectual rigor.  Miles Mullin, a church history professor at the seminary, was also with us.  Miles will teach his first course at Darrington in the upcoming semester.

After going through security I met Ben Phillips, the cheerful and enthusiastic director of the Darrington extension program. The prisoner/students were waiting for me.  Classes were over for the semester, but this would be a special lecture. They were eager to learn, but I think they were also glad to get a break from their summer work jobs.  It was 100 degrees in Houston and the education wing is one of the only places in the Darrington Unit with air-conditioning.

Ben, John, Miles, and I entered the classroom to wild applause.  The prisoners were obviously happy to see us and very eager to learn.  I must admit that I didn't think the topic of religion and the American founding (many of them will be reading Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? in Wilsey’s Constitutional History class next Fall) would be of interest to them, but I was sorely mistaken.  I spoke for a little over an hour to one of the most attentive audiences I have ever had in my life.  These guys were hanging on every word I said. They were smiling and nodding their heads as I spoke.  I wish this would happen more when I teach my middle-class 18-22 year-old students.

After my lecture we had almost ninety minutes of Q&A.  Again, these prisoners far exceeded my expectations. They asked me about David Barton, the 1947 Everson case, original intent and the Constitution, the British roots of American liberty, Jefferson’s Danbury letter, and the relationship between virtue and republican government.  I can honestly say that it was the best Q&A session I have ever had with a non-academic audience.  

During a break I chatted with some of the guys.  Many of them read Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic in Wilsey's Constitutional History course. One prisoner, in an attempt to write a required book review, told me with great pride that he read Creation three times before he felt he was able to write an adequate review.  I told him that I first encountered this book in graduate school and continue to consult it regularly, but I still have not read every word!  (As many of you know, Creation is a 675-page tome).

Another prisoner had a copy of Thomas Fleming’s new book on the Civil War.  He said he was really enjoying it and asked me a few questions about the conflict.  Someone else had a copy of Wood’s Revolutionary Characters and Wilsey’s One Nation Under God?  They asked me if I had any other “professor friends” who could come to Darrington and teach them. When I finished lecturing they gave me a standing ovation. Wilsey said that this happens at the end of every class period he teaches in the program.

After the class was over, Phillips took us on a tour of Darrington.  As we moved through the “general population” I was told stories about how the gangs who control the tables in the "day room" (usually used for cards, chess, and television) "reserve" a few tables each day so that students in the program have a place to study.  I heard about prisoners who were expelled from the program for minor infractions such as pushing a prison guard.  I moved from locked gate to locked gate at the mercy of the guards as the prisoners, lined up for lunch only a few paces from where we were walking, watched us and said hello.

I left Darrington with mixed emotions.  I was amazed at the deep Christian faith, intellectual maturity, and academic curiosity of these men.  But I also had to come to grips with the fact that most of the men in the classroom on this hot Houston morning were murderers.  Their crimes were horrendous and unspeakable.  As I write this I am sure that there are people “on the outside”—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, spouses—whose lives have been forever changed by the violent acts that these men committed.

I am still struggling with this. I learned some good lessons about redemption and some good lessons about justice. I left Darrington with a visible reminder of how learning and education can transform lives.  I felt blessed that I could participate in that transformation in some small way.  I was pleased to give a lecture that was part of a program in which the dignity and worth of these men were respected and celebrated, despite their crimes.

But I also left with a sense of sadness. Southwestern's Darrington program offers a beacon of light in a very, very dark place. Indeed, I had just experienced, in a way that few of us have, one of the darkest corners of this broken world.

I still can't stop thinking about the whole experience.

8 comments:

Jimmy Dick said...

I've been on two Residents Encounter Christ missions in the last decade and they certainly raise many questions about the inmates and our penal system. I've thought a lot about this and I've come to a conclusion that while we will never solve the problem entirely we do have it within our means to prevent some people from ending up in prison.

As you noticed, they're getting an education NOW, but what education did they have prior to committing their crimes? From my experiences, the majority but not all had a low education rate. Most came from a lower class background. One guy I met mentioned that his entire family was in prison at one point except for minor children.

While I do not think this would solve the problem entirely, I really think the poverty situation in the US has a lot to do with the higher rate of crime and incarceration rate in this country. Education is one of the ways out of this mess.

cg said...

Thanks for this moving post.

Mark Brennan said...

This was the best post ever on this site. Let us hope it goes viral.

Gabriel Loiacono said...

Really interesting!

Miles S. Mullin, II said...

Thanks for coming, John.

Brenda K. Holder said...

Wow! What an amazing story. May God bless all of you involved in this mission. Many worthy servants of God spent many years in prison and were "murderers" that didn't get caught! Look how God transformed Paul and Moses. God can forgive and transform all people. Praise God for allowing this light to shine in our prisons. Thank you for all that you do.

Tom Van Dyke said...

After my lecture we had almost ninety minutes of Q&A. Again, these prisoners far exceeded my expectations. They asked me about David Barton, the 1947 Everson case, original intent and the Constitution, the British roots of American liberty, Jefferson’s Danbury letter, and the relationship between virtue and republican government. I can honestly say that it was the best Q&A session I have ever had with a non-academic audience.

I trust the answers were as good as the questions, then. Cheers, Dr. Fea.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I really think the poverty situation in the US has a lot to do with the higher rate of crime and incarceration rate in this country.

Hm. I'm sure you do.