I recently finished teaching a four-class course on the Book of Psalms to medium security inmates of our state ACI (Adult Correctional Institute). The course was organized through a student group at Brown. The reasons I choose to do this are too complex to get into here; perhaps that will be the topic of another post. I had never taught in such an environment; it was quite a learning experience for us all.

First, the context and caveats. The course introduced the academic study of the Book of Psalms to students. I picked this topic because (1) I could identify few things within my area of expertise that I thought could interest this group; (2) as poetry that deals with existential issues, psalms could generate interesting discussions; and (3) I didn’t know much about Psalms and wanted an opportunity to learn. I had about 15 students, all of whom (I was told) applied to get into the course. I make no claims to being an expert in prison life. I entered the prison through several sets of double-locked doors and gates; went straight to the educational/communal wing (I never saw living quarters); chatted briefly and superficially with students before class; taught; and left. I was told by the student facilitators that my students were almost all convicted of violent felonies and due to good behavior had been moved down from maximum security. I never spoke to any of them about their crimes.

I expected the class itself to be more different than other teaching that I have done. The truth was more prosaic. My students were on the whole engaged and smart, although they sometimes had difficulty expressing themselves. They prepared for class (usually a psalm or two a week), and occasionally even did additional research in the prison library. They sincerely struggled with understanding the differences between an academic approach to religion and a more engaged or “emic” one. They wanted to learn.

This is not to say that they did not have unique insights. One psalm was read as an inner spiritual struggle of resisting the temptations presented by one’s evil friends. One of the funnier comments was when, having read together a psalm in which the author called on God to strike down his enemies, a student spontaneously blurted out, “Hey, he’s calling for a hit!” During an off-topic discussion of the Ten Commandments (we compared the different versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy) one student perceptively pointed out that the last four commandments might actually be seen as sub-categories of “do not murder” – they summarize the reasons that people kill. They were in class, but they never forgot that they were still in prison.

As banal as this sounds, I was most struck by how typical and how human my students were. To the extent that I could see, they accepted their sentences and patiently ground through their time in a setting that minimally could be said to be drab and overbearing. They adapted to their environment.

The experience brought to my mind Foucault’s ideas about the development of modern notions of discipline. We have created a penal system that quite literally takes people and makes them disappear, safely tucked away out of view. This is not to say that they themselves don’t deserve this punishment, or perhaps even far worse. The question is the extent to which the system is designed to shield us from the violence that we inflict (again – perhaps correctly) on others.

For the Rabbis of antiquity, as in most societies in antiquity (and until fairly recently, in fact), punishment was understood as a communal activity – most typically a public flogging. I am in no position to say whether this different understanding of punishment would have made most people more careful about inflicting it, or more bloodthirsty. Clearly, though, the community was not shielded from its own violence.

I did not end this experience feeling sorry for my students or with any dramatic revelations about our penal system. Rather, it highlighted to me our desire to make unpleasant things disappear, and makes me wonder about the potential costs that we pay for it.