History Behind Bars: Fostering Civic Engagement in a Prison

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The following is from a presentation I gave at the 2014 Conference on Faith and History at Pepperdine University.

In 1912, John J. Eagan, owner of the American Cast Iron Pipe Company, founded the Men and Religion Forward Movement (MRFM) in Atlanta, Georgia. The Movement was dedicated to motivating churches to social action pertinent to labor, immigration, temperance, Christian unity, and prison reform issues. It was an influential voluntary organization of white mainline Protestant denominations for men oriented toward a social gospel agenda. Notable figures such as Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, William Jennings Bryan, and Booker T. Washington spoke at the Congress of the Men and Religion Movement in April, 1912.[1] Two years earlier, Eagan became something of a mentor to a newly minted attorney fresh out of Columbia Law School named Philip Weltner. Eagan helped Weltner get named as the Chief Probation Officer of the Fulton County Children’s Court, and also helped Weltner get on the executive committee of the MRFM. Weltner had proven his worth as Eagan’s choice to head the Prison Association of Georgia from 1910 to 1911. Eagan founded this organization to help ex-convicts acclimate to society and to direct child offenders away from a life of crime. As head of the Prison Association, Weltner oversaw the creation of the first Children’s Court in Georgia devoted to rehabilitation of youth rather than punishment. And as a prominent member of the MRFM, he shared Eagan’s vision of making “the mind of Christ the rule and guide of Christian living.”[2]

The Georgia prison system was notorious for its cruelty in 1912. The lash was the officers’ preferred tool of motivation for the prisoners, hearkening back to the days of slavery. In fact, the state prison system was in some respect designed as a legal method of slavery after the war through the turn of the twentieth century. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of the old Bolton estate, a sprawling antebellum plantation in Dougherty County, Georgia. The estate was converted into a prison camp after the war, and Du Bois wrote that “it was for many years worked by gangs of Negro convicts . . . it was a way of making Negroes work, and the question of guilt was a minor one.”[3] The Thirteenth Amendment had abolished slavery to be sure, but it excepted slavery in cases of “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”[4] Du Bois wrote, “the black folks say that only colored boys are sent to jail, and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals to eke out its income by their forced labor.”[5]

In his new position as Deputy Solicitor General of Fulton County, as a member of the MRFM, and as a Christian, Weltner decided to do something about the cruelty in Georgia’s prisons. But what could he do? While staying in a Newnan, Georgia hotel, Weltner decided to get a first-hand look at life on the inside of a prison. He wrote, “I was lying in bed, when the idea popped into mind to become a convict myself.”[6] The next day, he “turned himself in” to a member of the Campbell County Commission in the town of Fairburn. He told him that his name was John Marvel and that he was under a five year sentence for forgery. Weltner explained to the commissioner that even though his appearance before him seemed out of the ordinary, he was there “because the Prison Commission of Georgia trusted me to give myself up to him.”[7]

So Weltner posed as a prisoner in a “convict camp” in Campbell County, Georgia. He was given a striped uniform, assigned to a hard labor gang setting up telephone poles and was locked in a cage at night alone with a convicted murderer. The next morning after breakfast, as the men were loading into wagons to go off to their work sites under armed guard, the camp warden asked “John Marvel” to stay behind. After the rest of the prisoners had left, Weltner learned that his story had been investigated and found to be a fabrication. He was handed his clothes and told to get out, immediately. His story was later picked up by the New York Herald and became a national sensation. It initiated ongoing newspaper coverage of prison cruelty by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which reported systemic brutality in the state prison system. Public demand for prison reform in Georgia, including the abolishment of the lash, ultimately resulted from Weltner’s courageous act.

This story is personally compelling to me, not only because it is a story about a man who was willing to make an enormous sacrifice to help rectify a moral outrage. It is also compelling because Philip Weltner is my great-grandfather. I was twelve years old when he died at age ninety-four, but even as a boy I knew that he was a great man and deeply admired by people rich and poor, black and white, all over Georgia.

I am currently engaged in teaching history in a fully accredited bachelor’s program with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at the Darrington maximum security prison unit in Rosharon, Texas. The Darrington unit is an official extension campus of Southwestern Seminary, and the school has enrolled 148 students in the program. The students graduate with a B.S. in Biblical Studies, and then are placed in other units within the Texas prison system to serve as inmate chaplains. The student inmates are, for the most part, never getting out of prison. But they have committed themselves to spend the rest of their lives serving others in prison. I like to think that I stand under my great-grandfather’s shadow as I play a role in their academic, spiritual, and ministerial training. Prison presents many challenges, but teaching history there has the potential to provide a basis for meaning, identity, and civic engagement for the prisoners as they exist day to day as individuals and in community with each other.

Ted V. McAllister recently wrote of the effects on the loss of place in twenty-first century America. This loss has contributed to the eroding of Americans’ exercise of civic engagement. According to McAllister, one of the aspects of the loss of place in America is the lack of a basic knowledge of history among Americans who are lost in the contemporary world that buzzes with the distractions and novelties of technology. Not only do human beings need an attachment to a physical place of birth, growth, and community. Human beings need a place in history, “the felt presence of ancestors, of inherited culture, a sense that as individuals and groups they played an important role in a story not of their making,” as McAllister said. Both physical place and place in history are threatened by our technology-fueled culture. McAllister wrote, “we have abandoned history for the ever-present now” and our break with the moral and social ballast of history “leads to a form of powerlessness.”[8]

Much of what McAllister identified in his critique of modern culture is true of the Darrington unit where I and nine other Southwestern faculty members teach. The placelessness and historylessness that McAllister warned about in American culture can also be perceived in prison.

For one thing, the prison at Darrington is a non-place, if we work with McAllister’s definition of the term and distinction between place and space. McAllister wrote that place “constrains but it also empowers.” He said that “it is important to create, preserve, and improve real places for real people . . . to find attachments, to empower them to engage meaningfully and well with neighbors toward collective purposes, and to help them understand their particular role in the larger story of humanity.”[9] In other words, place is like a cultivated garden, the product of a community living in active cooperation for the common good.

In contrast, McAllister defined space as that which lies beyond the walls of the garden, the expanse of the unknown beyond the place to which the community is tied. “Space can . . . be forbidding, mysterious, dark—the source for experiences of ennui, loss, and fear. . . . The horizon is vast, the terrain appears unchanging, time slows down as miles go by without detectable landmarks. One can easily feel insignificant, small, meaningless in such a space—a space that bears little trace of human contact and evokes no sense whatsoever of history.”[10] While prison definitely lacks the openness that McAllister described, it certainly has every conceivable aspect of the forbiddenness of a wilderness. Indeed, being in the prison gives one a sense of powerlessness, of being at the whim of the will of forces beyond one’s control, much like being in a wilderness. And in the prison, one lacks contact with the past. The changelessness inherent in the established grooves of prison life and the physical aspects of the facility gives one the sense of time standing still.

So prison is, in many ways, a non-place. It is physically ugly, institutional, somber, uniform, and (by necessity) cut off from the rest of society. Personal survival, not cultivation of a community, is the often the order of the day at Darrington. And prisoners are historyless. They have been (by necessity) sequestered from the public, outside of the flow of its identifying and unifying narratives, and beyond their ability to effect the course of the public’s future. There is no felt presence of the past in prison, and to experience the inside of prison is to experience McAllister’s “ever-present now.” By necessity, inmates exist in a strict routine without significant variation. And prisoners’ knowledge of history is limited. Much of what passes as history at the Darrington unit consists of bits and pieces of usable pasts prisoners have cobbled together as they have been exposed to writings of culture warriors representing every conceivable agenda. Usable pasts have the effect of shattering unity in a prison by pitting groups against each other—a dangerous thing indeed in maximum security lockup.

How does the teaching of history serve as a grounding agent for meaning and identity? It does so by fostering civic engagement within the local community—the public—made up of the inmate students in Southwestern’s B.S. program at Darrington. Darrington as a prison may be more of a “space” than a “place.” Ironically however, the seminary at Darrington bears the marks of a place, of a cultivated garden in the midst of a wilderness. The student-inmates at the Darrington extension campus of Southwestern have found their community, their place—and have found a path toward meaningful engagement with each other for their common good, and ultimately for the good of the inmates of the entire prison. One way they do so is through their learning of history. As they learn history, they also learn to apply history to the real issues they experience together in the prison. As they do so, they learn how to productively engage in community with one another.

A model for a public’s healthy civic engagement is found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of what he found in 1830s New England. Specifically, Tocqueville provided a detailed description of the animating “spirit” of New England townships in Democracy in America. People in each New England township were members of their communities. As invested members, they found their communities to be worth the effort necessary for their care and management. Tocqueville noted that among the individuals in the various local groups, social distinctions and rank were non-existent. All were equals, thus there was no oppression of one group by any other. Each person’s cooperation for the flourishing of the community brought them a sense of attachment and affection to it. Tocqueville wrote, “in the United States it is believed . . . that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance. In this manner the activity of the township is continually perceptible; it is daily manifested in the fulfillment of a duty or the exercise of a right; and a constant through gentle motion is thus kept up in society, which animates without disturbing it.”[11]

To be sure, the key to the spirit of the New England townships, according to Tocqueville, was their independent and self-governing status. In this regard, the model presented in Democracy in America is necessarily unattainable to a certain extent. But even though the Darrington students will never have the opportunity for self-rule, either in the school or the prison as a while, they will still have smaller opportunities to plot their courses forward. For example, they’ve established a church called Makarios, a Greek word meaning blessed, happy. Makarios is led entirely by student inmates, and prisoners who are in the general population are invited to attend their services. The students are part of an academic program in which they are organized by cohort. They are accepted into the program together, matriculate together, attend classes and study together for four years, and graduate together. They forge strong bonds in this common experience of growth, challenge, and trial. And since the program is highly selective and defined by a vision of service to others, the students are a part of something that goes far beyond simply securing an education. They see themselves as part of a transformative movement of God. Byron R. Johnson conducted a study of an experimental faith based program attempted in the Texas prison system in the 1990s called InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI). He found that because the program was strongly oriented around service to others, the prisoners involved in that program felt “an overwhelming desire, if not obligation, to make a positive contribution to the community.” Furthermore, their visceral experiences of “going ‘to hell and back’ especially qualify them to reach out and help others not to make the same mistakes they have made.”[12] What Johnson observed in the IFI is clearly perceptible among the students in the Darrington unit.

So while the inmate community of students at Darrington is not independent and free to the extent of the New England communities that Tocqueville visited in the 1830s, the differences between them are mitigated by elements essential to the program. One of those essential element is the teaching of history. For example, I teach four history courses: Western Civilization, History of Philosophy, American Cultural Issues, and Principles of American Politics. In Western Civ, the students learn that they are part of an old and developed tradition that has not seen the end of its development. In History of Philosophy, they engage with the thinkers of the past and see that they are not the first to think deeply about the nature of things, the meaning of knowledge, and the application of right and wrong. In American Cultural Issues, they learn that though they are in prison, they are still Americans and still have a voice and can definitively shape their own culture in positive and productive ways. And in Principles of American Politics, they learn that our experiment in self-government is still an experiment, and a continual process of learning and engagement with others who have different perspectives and beliefs about what defines good government.

In Western Civ II, the students read Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. They are exposed to his ideas, they write about them, and they discuss them in the open. Their interpretations of and insights from Tocqueville are scrutinized and critiqued by their peers in the open, and they are guided by their professor who cares about them, and who is ultimately training them to minister to others who are also in prison. They read, for example, about those people who lived in the 1830s, those people whom Tocqueville encountered and wrote about in his classic work. They see that those people were members of a local community. They had a place among their fellows with whom they lived, breathed, and had their being. They see that those people in the past loved their communities, nurtured them, sought and fought for their best interests. They were emotionally attached to their local groups, and their communities were unified around the goal of securing and sustaining the common welfare. In reading texts from the past, like Tocqueville, the students come face to face with real people who went before them and found meaning, identity, and purpose to their lives. Even in prison, the students see themselves in the people of the past. And even in prison, the sense of historylessness is lost when they immerse themselves in history.

Du Bois wrote about the plight of African Americans in the south at the turn of the twentieth century in his Souls of Black Folk. African Americans in his day had suffered nearly 300 years of uninterrupted injustice against their families, their dignities, their minds and souls, and their persons. Slavery had been a series of grave injustices to African Americans, but it had also inflicted its violence on the land itself. The soil was eroded and exhausted, and by the end of the nineteenth century, much of the land that had been fruitful and productive was good for nothing. “The hard, ruthless rape of the land began to tell. The red-clay sub-soil already had begun to peer above the loam. The harder the slaves were driven the more careless and fatal was their farming.”[13] When injustice reigned, the people and the places suffered alike.

Prison is much the same. Injustice defines everything about the reason why the inmate resides at Darrington. The Darrington prison itself bears witness to injustices of unspeakable loathsomeness, and it is not a pleasant place. It is not air-conditioned, so it is hot and it smells like sweat. It is crowded and loud on “Main Street,” the main lane that goes down the length of the prison. The prisoners, as they make their way to a classroom on the other side of the prison, are stripped searched stark naked in front of each other and their professor as their bodies are examined by correctional officers. To be certain, this is necessary, but it is a part of a regular routine for the Darrington students that is outside the realm of reality for most people.

History teaches them that, in spite of their realities and in spite of their offenses, they are still men. Du Bois wrote of African Americans in 1903—“This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten.”[14] Although Du Bois was writing about a different group in a different time experiencing different circumstances, these words are broadly applicable to the students at Darrington. History teaches them that, even though they have been expelled from free society, they are members of another society. And in that society, they have the opportunity to be co-laborers for their “kingdom of culture.” While they are isolated from their loved ones—many from their wives and children—history can teach them that they can yet use their “best powers” and “latent genius.” While society may want to forget them, history teaches them that they still have dignity, their decisions still have moral content, and they are fully capable of supplanting injustice acts with just ones. Du Bois teaches them these things, as do a host of other voices from history.

The Darrington prison is a hard place. All of the students enrolled in the program are serving life sentences, many for murder. But as they read, think about, discuss, grapple with, and interpret history, they find their own place in it. In and through their courses in history, the students find their place in community with each other; they find their place in history; and they nurture their community within the prison as a husbandman tends a garden. They are not placeless, neither are they historyless. Thus, they are not powerless. They see injustice and justice in history, and they learn that no offense excludes the possibility of reconciliation and redemption; that every individual is valuable and every community is worth nurturing and advancing for the sake of human flourishing. In many ways, the prisoners at Darrington have a keener awareness of these facts than we who live in the free world have. History fosters this awareness, and serves as a catalyst in their endeavor to pursue healthy and beneficial civic engagement in their local community.

[1] Messages of the Men and Religion Forward Movement (New York: Association Press, 1912).

[2] Philip Weltner, Recollections, p. 32.

[3] W. E. B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk in Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: Library of America, 1986), p. 451.

[4] U. S. Constitution, Amendment 13.

[5] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, p. 450.

[6] Weltner, Recollections, p. 32.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ted. V. McAllister, “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood,” in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, ed. Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister (New York: Encounter, 2014), p. 190.

[9] Ibid., pp. 190–91.

[10] Ibid., pp. 191–92.

[11] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1 (1945, repr; New York: Knopf, 1994), pp. 67–68.

[12] Byron R. Johnson, More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2011), p. 129.

[13] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, p. 449.

[14] Ibid., p. 365.

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