“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.”