College student’s philosophy program brings Plato and Buddha to a Md. prison

September 1, 2011

Donald McColl was ready to start his PowerPoint presentation on the questionable origin of some early Christian artworks, but the equipment was acting up. A student asked, “Does anyone have a paper clip?”

It was a joke. No one has a paper clip in prison.

This summer, a caravan of scholars and students has been traveling 65 miles from the rustic Chestertown, Md., campus of Washington College to the barbed-wire fortress of Jessup Correctional Institution to teach ethics to prisoners.

Thirty-two inmates, the majority serving life sentences, read Plato, Kierkegaard, Frederick Douglass and Buddha over the course of 15 classes, culminating in term papers, most of them written longhand.

The Partners in Philosophy course was organized not by the college, or the prison, but by a student: James Schelberg, 26, a senior from Towson, Md.

Schelberg came to the college in 2007 after serving seven months in Iraq as a heavy machine gunner in the Marine Corps Reserve. He learned philosophy from his sergeant, who liked to engage the crew in metaphysical discussion on the communications system during long, boring missions.

He got the idea of teaching philosophy to prisoners from an article by John Waters, the Baltimore filmmaker, about teaching film classes to inmates.

“My sense was that everybody, whether they’re a convicted criminal or not, everybody has the potential for philosophical thought,” Schelberg said.

The class was still just an idea when Schelberg’s unit was reactivated in 2009 and sent to Afghanistan. There, he said, Schelberg watched an undereducated citizenry suffer at the hands of the Taliban. He said the experience hardened his resolve.

“The ignorance over there is just astounding, and I saw how that leads them to be exploited by the Taliban propaganda,” he said. “I got home and started wondering if there’s a parallel between Afghan villagers and guys in downtown Baltimore.”

Jessup is a maximum-security prison, formerly the annex to the infamous, shuttered Maryland House of Correction. It sits off Interstate 95 in a rural stretch of Anne Arundel County.

Schelberg has enough fans among the Washington College faculty that it was easy to persuade four professors to make the trips to Jessup. He secured permission from prison brass with help from its librarian, who also rounded up students. There was no need for formal approval from the college, because Partners in Philosophy is not an accredited course.

“There aren’t too many students who could’ve convinced me to do this, but Jim Schelberg is a pretty exceptional guy,” said Adam Goodheart, a Civil War scholar who taught sessions on Douglass and conceptions of freedom.

Schelberg didn’t know quite what the inmates would make of this delegation from the Eastern Shore liberal-arts school that presumed to come in and teach them about right and wrong.

But the inmates were intrigued. More than that, they were grateful for a break in the monotony of prison life, the opportunity to exercise their minds and the chance to be taken seriously as thinking adults.

“For me, education is, like, transcendent,” said John Woodland, 55, of Baltimore, who is serving a life term for murder. “Whenever I’m in a class or I’m reading a book, it’s like I’m out of prison.”

The class met in a seafoam-green, concrete-block room outfitted with chairs, a projector and a dry-erase board. Schelberg himself led a discussion on ethics in war. McColl taught about ethics in art history. Philip Walsh, from the English Department, taught Plato and Borges. Kevin Brien, a philosophy professor, talked about Buddhism. Everyone tried to avoid preachiness and moral absolutes.

“The Buddhist tradition has a lot to offer people who have found themselves trapped — in this case, literally trapped, in prison,” Brien said. “I was trying to convey to them that there’s a way to be free, in a sense, even in prison.”

The professors found the inmates strikingly cerebral and attentive. Most of the inmates had never set foot in a college, but some had spent their time in captivity earning degrees and writing memoirs.

“I asked the students, ‘What do we mean when we say ‘conscience’?’ ” Goodheart said. “And one said, ‘Conscience is like a nerve that you can feel when you touch it, but if you burn it too many times, you kill it and you don’t feel it anymore.’ I have a sense that they think about this stuff a lot more than we do.”

Ethics matter in prison, said Shakkir Talib Mujahid, 53, an inmate from Baltimore. Inmates learn to respect one another’s personal space and property. People learn not to cross those lines.

“Conflict resolution is key in here,” he said.

Wednesday was the last day of class. Schelberg walked around the room, handing back essays. He told the students, “It was really incredible seeing the differences from the first analysis to the final papers.”

Then he presented each inmate with a certificate of completion. Partners in Philosophy doesn’t count for college credit, but Schelberg is working with college leaders to change that. He thinks the college experience is incomplete if students and scholars don’t occasionally venture out into the real world.

“If it’s not rooted in actual problems,” he said, “your theory’s useless.”

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