Unlearning Long Divisions: I Am Because You Are


The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.

One fall, another teacher brought Mr. C down to my classroom a week or so after the semester had begun. He had quickly passed the basic skills test, and his teacher told me he needed far more challenges. He was a new inmate who had arrived the previous summer and was eager to learn, but a  dark cloud seemed to hover around him for several months. When I asked after a few weeks if he was okay, he told me he was out of energy and often depressed.

There were lots of questions I learned not to ask my students: their crimes, the length of their sentences or the number of their children. I did not think any of that was my business, and the one time I did look up a student’s crime, the information did nothing to improve a rather strained relationship between us. Knowing how long they had to serve and how many children were left fatherless in the world depressed me. News got around, however, and my teaching staff learned that Mr. C had a 33-year sentence for a drug offense. With good behavior, he would have served 27 of those years.

Once he regained some balance, Mr. C was one of the most outstanding students I had ever taught. He took every class our high school program offered and graduated after several years with a long list of “A’s” on his transcript. Jobs were available to inmates as classroom aides or “tutors” in our program, so when I talked to him about helping me in my classroom, he eagerly agreed. He was a part of the program for over 20 years with his sense of calm, his sound advice and his creative ideas about course material. In day-to-day interactions with my students, he kept a sharp, but discreet, eye on them and would flag problems or talk to men on the side. We made few important decisions in the program without his wise counsel.

I soon learned that Nelson Mandela was his hero and guide about how to do time in prison well. We both noticed that Mandela’s sentence was also 27 years, and I could not take in enough books, articles or videos about him. Mr. C sparked my interest in South Africa too, and we watched as Mandela was released from prison, as Apartheid ended, and as he was elected president. My students, Mr. C, and I learned about and followed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it was established with Desmond Tutu, human rights activist and retired Anglican archbishop, as its leader. Talking about how the victims of Apartheid were given a voice and about the whole concept of amnesty created many rich discussions in my Civics classes. I’ve been interested in other countries that have successfully used truth and reconciliation programs like Kenya, Namibia, Chile and Canada.

We learned about the African concept of ubuntu, the philosophy that we are all bound together and cannot be fully human without caring about each other. Ubuntu knits the bonds of kindness and sharing that connect all of us on the planet. Tutu says, “A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons.” Ubuntu says, “I can’t do well unless you do well.”

I was pulled into South Africa too, and in 2006 I went to Cape Town to volunteer in a center for  children who had been orphaned by AIDS, rescued from abusive situations or abandoned. South Africa is a powerful place, and my experience was life-changing. In addition to the many beautiful children who still haunt my heart, I had two other unforgettable experiences.

I took a ferry to and then a bus around Robben Island. When we got to the prison, our guides were former inmates, making it even more poignant as we stood in the corridor and gazed at Nelson Mandela’s small cell and saw the garden he had tended so carefully. We heard stories of how the inmates developed communication to continue their political work while incarcerated, and then we gathered for questions. One came from a woman who asked, “How did you possibly keep your spirits up for all of those years?”

The guide smiled at her and said, “You’re an American, aren’t you? I’m surprised you would ask that question, because we knew about the American Anti-Apartheid support and it made a huge difference to us.”

As volunteers, we were driven back and forth from Cape Town to Khayelitsha, the township where we worked. Moss, a high school teacher, was one of our drivers. He and I became friends, and he wanted to take me on a tour of Gugulethu, his township. As he drove me around, he told me how much South Africans admire and try to model their struggles after our Civil Rights Movement. I met some of his friends and neighbors in the township, and then he was eager to take me to the place where Amy Biehl was killed. Amy was a young American college student who was in Cape Town to study and work on voter registration as an Anti-Apartheid activist. She was murdered by four young men when she gave a friend a ride home. Moss went on to tell me how her parents came from America to be present when the young men applied for amnesty in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after serving prison terms. He wanted me to know that her parents not only extended their forgiveness, but they also created the Amy Biehl Foundation. He seemed proud to tell me that two of the boys involved in Amy’s death worked in its after-school programs.

All of the pieces of Amy’s story are compelling and inspiring. (See theforgivenessproject.com and the Amy Biehl Foundation on YouTube and Facebook.)

Mass incarceration is a kind of apartheid in the United States, as millions of people are banished to our jails and prisons, apart and exiled from the rest of us. We could do so much better. We could see drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one. We could create our own Truth and Reconciliation programs. We could move forward as a country and figure out our own ways of doing restorative justice. We could understand ubuntu and how it could make us a better people and a better country. I see hope on the horizon as people are beginning to understand the healing power of restorative justice for victims, perpetrators and the community as a whole. I will be writing more about this.

When Congress passed new legislation addressing inmates with very long sentences, Mr. C was released after “only” 22 years. He is back home in Kingston, Jamaica and is equipping and programming a community center in his old neighborhood. After securing enough grant money, he  has been able to employ many people and supervise its construction. He also works with a group of at-risk young men and tells me, “I’m doing all this for me.” Many of my students talked about wanting to work with vulnerable young people when they returned home. Like Mr. C, they also understand ubuntu.


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