Is it Government or Democracy?


In the first years of finding my way in my prison classroom, I had to teach a class called Government, always at 9:30 in the morning, making knots in my stomach as my students filed in. They were very eager to articulate the many ways they hated the government. They labeled it corrupt, evil, and racist. Given their long sentences for non-violent drug offenses, I understood. Given the fact that many of them were earning 11 cents/hour in the prison factory (going up to $1.25/hour), they felt used. Many called it slave labor. One of my first lessons was not to discuss the 13th Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Seeing that the Constitution permitted slave labor in prisons only fanned their anger. Some men sent their meager wages home.

Seeing so many people of color in prison for drug offenses made it easy to see why my students labeled the system racist. It was and it is. Michelle Alexander says in the The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

“People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than people of color.” 1

She goes on to say:

“Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men.” 2

All of these realities led to a profound sense of powerlessness. I could see it, hear it, feel it as I struggled along with the standard high school government textbook. We had few really good days. However, when I began to slip in other subjects like the Civil Rights Movement and non-violence, my students perked up, started listening and having lively discussions in class. As I watched them treat each other and me with courtesy and kindness, I created a short unit on civility. As they wrestled with what they valued and what is right, we talked about integrity. Discussions were lively with both of these subjects. Finally, with the help of Mr. C, my classroom assistant or “tutor,” we re-did the whole course and called it Civics.

Talking about and becoming good citizens proved successful as we wrestled with how to do the right thing, and they discussed how to live in together peacefully in prison, how to deal with the staff and rules. But, it took a while for us to figure out how my students could become empowered behind bars where so much power is taken away. Eating lunch one day with an assistant warden, he said, “One of our goals is to take responsibility away from them.” I thought about that a lot, realizing that being in school made them as responsible every day.

We decided together that the first duty—or level—of a citizen is to stay informed about how the system works and about the issues with as much unbiased, accurate information as possible. Citizens need to talk together about the issues important to them. Using a student’s idea to have students read and respond to a news article every week, the men then formed a circle to discuss everyone’s article. I’ve written about the success of this Round Table idea before. Nothing we ever did was as valued or successful as this was. The students loved the circle discussions, but it was being able to articulate their own reactions to the news they loved most. Finally, in a place that essentially silenced them, they had a voice—and it gave them a vital sense of their own power. People want and need to be heard.

The second level was to make their voices heard over the fence to the outside. I wrote about their correspondence with Dick Cheney in my January 25th blog called “Power to the People!” My students wrote to people in the state government and welcomed a state representative, himself an adult education graduate, to class one day. We were all evolving from the dreaded idea of a class in government to a class in democracy. Civics is a study in the ways we become good citizens. In a healthy democracy, the people vote for and create the government—on local, county, state and federal levels. We the people hold the power. If we simply call it government, we fail to take responsibility for allowing that particular government to be there—and nothing changes. Being good citizens means we are the current government’s watchdogs, holding elected officials accountable. Competent, responsible officials want and need to hear from their constituents.

Even people behind bars can make a difference. Mr. Glenning, incarcerated for a drug offense for many years, spent every day writing letters about the injustice of the drug wars. He learned who was interested in reform in his state legislature and in Congress and wrote them letters. Occasionally, they wrote back to him. He wrote letters to the editor. He was an active member of FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  If I had a question, he was in the library every day, and I went to him. He worked tirelessly every day for years.

Mr. Walls, also incarcerated with a long sentence, was a tireless advocate for the abolition of capital punishment. He too did research, talked to any group that would listen and wrote letter after letter.

A third level was to engage each other. The point of a democracy is to disagree, but my students were thoughtful and courteous when they argued. They listened carefully and respectfully to people from different cultural and religious backgrounds. They laughed together.

I cannot remember a time in this country when our fractures have been so painful and our divisions so deep and misunderstood. I want to engage people who don’t hold the same views and values as I do. I want to learn to listen carefully, ask questions and stay calm. I want to remember that that a lot of anger springs from people’s anxieties and fears about changes in the country’s demographics and growing wealth divides. I want to hear and understand the alarms about the future. I would like to find common ground. Within the radical changes we are experiencing, I need to remember my remarkable students. In spite of their anger, frustration and feelings of powerlessness, they managed to be exemplary citizens. I need them as role models of courage and wisdom.

  1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, New York, 2012, p. 99.
  2. Ibid., p. 100.