The examined life behind bars

A Duke Divinity School course helps inmates write their 'spiritual' autobiographies and share their insights

Staff WriterJuly 1, 2010 

  • The "Spiritual Autobiography" class at the Durham Correctional Center includes multiple writing and reading assignments. Among the books the class participants will be reading are six memoirs:

    "The Prince of Frogtown" by Rick Bragg, a story about the journey to fatherhood.

    "Let Justice Roll Down" by John Perkins, a story of a murder and a spiritual awakening.

    "Blue Rage, Black Redemption" by Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a story of the former Crips gang leader examining his life.

    "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" with Alex Haley, the life story of the black activist and his religious conversion and devotion to the Nation of Islam.

    "The Long Loneliness" by Dorothy Day, the story of the writer's early involvement with socialism and gradual conversion to Catholicism.

    "Born Again" by Chuck Colson, the former "hatchet man" to President Richard Nixon recounts his conversion to Christianity.

— In an institutional trailer on the grounds of the Durham Correctional Center, four inmates, three Duke Divinity School students and a schoolteacher read aloud a description of what they ate for lunch.

Inmate Angel Sanchez wrote about the slop on his tray consisting of "mystery meat," "so-called mashed potatoes spilling over into the other slots," and "an orange the size of a grape."

Dan Schwankl, a middle school teacher taking the class for advanced credit, wrote about a microwaved vegetable lasagna that bore little resemblance to the appealing photo on the box cover.

The eight men and a class leader meet weekly as part of a "spiritual autobiography class" offered at two North Carolina prisons. Started two years ago at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, the course stands out from the college-level classes available to inmates.

Not only does it offer the rigor of a graduate-level course, it forces students to examine their lives and write about them in a prison setting that makes no distinction between inmates and university students.

"We envisioned a place where the divinity school students wouldn't be teachers but fellow learners," said the Rev. Sarah Jobe, program director. "We focused on a class that allows for natural sharing."

Nor does the program take a traditional faith-based approach. There is no effort to convert the inmates to Christianity, or even to teach them a better way of life. Rather, the course is designed to allow men and women, incarcerated and not, to share their hard-won spiritual insights with one another. By the end of the course, each participant is expected to have completed a piece of autobiographical writing he or she can feel proud of.

"It gave me a chance to learn who I am and who I belong to," said Theresa Godfrey of Raleigh, who took the class in 2009, shortly before her release. "It opened up a new view on how I saw my life."

The course was conceived by two Duke Divinity School graduates, Jobe, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, both of Durham. Jobe had come to feel that students at the divinity school all shared similar cultural backgrounds. Wilson-Hartgrove had a similar feeling.

In 2005, Wilson-Hartgrove spent a night in the Wake County jail after being charged with trespassing for protesting an execution at Raleigh's Central Prison.

When he told his cellmate why he had been arrested, the cellmate responded: "The train that ends in the death penalty starts here."

Reaching out

That remark got Wilson-Hartgrove thinking. As a divinity school student, he never considered that his one-night jail stint might lead to additional criminal convictions and maybe even the death penalty. But his fellow inmate saw a radically different trajectory for his own life.

When he returned to school, Wilson-Hartgrove decided his classmates could benefit from greater interaction with people from other socioeconomic groups. In fact, he felt, his Christian faith demanded it.

"If the Good News is for everybody, it has to be Good News in the academy as well as the jailhouse," he said.

Together, he and Jobe developed the spiritual autobiography class and began selling the idea to N.C. Department of Correction officials.

Learning how to begin

Last Thursday night, the class began with a writing exercise. Later, students and inmates read aloud what they had written and critiqued one another. Wilson-Hartgrove encouraged the class. One of his friends, he said, rewrote a book draft 40 times before it was published. Then he offered a handy aphorism: "When you sit down to write, be kind to yourself," he said. "When you edit, be kind to your reader."

John Ballard, one of the inmates, said he has kept a journal for 10 years and knows he has a story to tell. "I just didn't how to begin," he said.

All four inmates said they signed up because the class provided an alternative to the corrosive atmosphere of the prison.

Treated like a human

Lauren Winner, assistant professor of Christian spirituality at the divinity school, said society assumes inmates are different from other people. But teaching at the prison reminded her of the essential equality of all human beings.

"We're all marked by sin," she said. "And some are incarcerated."

Winner said she was also aware that class responsibilities were considerably harder for the inmates. They don't always have access to computers or the ability to save a document once they get on the computer, which makes revisions difficult.

At the Durham Correctional Center, the inmates wrote their assignments in longhand.

Despite that technological hardship, several said they signed up because they wanted to spend time with people living productive, hope-filled lives.

"It's a hard thing to be incarcerated and try to better your life," said Matthew Tharington, 24, from Winston-Salem. "To be treated like a human being, it's comforting."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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