As I walked through the door of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, I was directed toward a first-floor classroom. Instead of the lines of prisoners led by guards that I’d seen at a previous facility, the hallway was swarming with men in forest-green uniforms on their way to their classes. The scene reminded me of the time between periods in high school.
The men didn’t seem bothered by a newcomer in their midst.
An organization called Rising Hope had been looking for someone with a master’s degree in theology to teach one of their college-level courses inside the prison system. Originally founded by a seminary, the program offers a curriculum on Christianity from a scholarly perspective.
I’d volunteered to teach a Friday-night class at Sing Sing on spirituality.
I stepped into the classroom, where a few men were already sitting in the desks, arranged in a semicircle.
The class included 12 men of various ages, lengths of time served and faith backgrounds. That first day, we talked about how Ronald Rolheiser in his book, “The Holy Longing,” says, “Spirituality is more about whether or not we can sleep at night than about whether or not we go to church.”
Together we determined that our goal in the course would be to define and develop an awareness of what this statement could mean for each of us.
One of the students, Antoine, described his view of spiritual formation this way: In his estimation, 95 percent of the inmates and guards around him were caught up in “prison politics”—power moves and rumors. At the same time, he could see that 5 percent of the population managed to stay above these things. He saw individuals striving to be better by seeking knowledge and accessing their souls. He said he wasn’t one of them, but he wanted to learn how to become one.
The rest of the class agreed with Antoine’s assessment, though they said the number who avoided prison politics was closer to 1 percent.
For their first assignment, each student was to respond to the prompt, “What is the state of your soul in prison?” Some of the students groaned when they considered the task. One looked up from the page and said, “Hey! That’s not easy!”
But a few themes became apparent as I read through their papers the following week. There were descriptions of how constant noise and negativity affected their souls. Others reflected on the trajectory their lives were on before prison, and how, perversely, isolation actually freed them up to notice their souls in a way they couldn’t when they were on the outside.
And the majority of them pondered whether they had a soul at all, or if their souls had been damaged, permanently or otherwise.
“In order to discuss the state of my soul in prison, it’s imperative to recognize that I actually possess one in the first place,” Kevin wrote. “Upon incarceration, I endured such a rapid degradation from external influences that I almost believed I was the monster portrayed on television. Being able to reflect on this now, I retain the notion that at the time I came to prison, my soul was not actually absent, but so extremely mutilated that it was no longer identifiable to even myself.”
During the following class, I established an imaginary line on the floor, designating one end as “there is nothing you can do to get rid of your soul” and the other as “it is possible to lose your soul.” As each student found his place along this continuum, a fairly even split emerged.
A representative of the “you can’t lose your soul side” argued that it was impossible, like deciding not to breathe. “If you lose your soul you’re dead,” he said.
On the other side, other feelings surfaced. “At one point in my life,” one student said, “if someone had told me I had to kill my mom or my sister, I would have done it without hesitation. How can you come back from that?”
Halfway into the four-month class, I went to Sing Sing’s medical facility for a required TB test. As I walked through the halls with a guard, I told her about some of the engaging conversations we’d been having in our Friday-night class.
“Yeah, they do that when they’re in class. That’s not how they usually are,” she said.
Those words nagged at me. Leaving the prison that day, I wondered what the men in my class were “usually” like. I knew that I was afforded only a narrow glimpse into their experiences, and I wondered if I knew more of their history if I would still view them the same way.
So I decided to try an experiment. As a general rule, in my years of working with the incarcerated, I have never looked up the convictions of the men in my classes: I wanted to see each person as he is and could be, not reduced to his past actions. But now, I decided to do just the opposite: look up the crimes and media coverage of every single one of my students.
How might I react, spiritually, after learning of the potentially horrible things they’d done?
One evening, I opened my computer and entered the identification numbers of the students into New York’s Inmate Lookup website. Suddenly, I saw “sex conduct-child 1st,” “manslaughter” and “murder” flash across my screen.
And I saw pictures of the men I’d gotten to know dressed in state-issued jumpsuits in various courtrooms.
It was well into the night when I completed my research. I found it difficult to absorb everything I had read and seen. There was a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Learning these things did challenge the way I saw the men.
With one student in particular, I struggled to reconcile what I’d learned with the man I experienced in the classroom. It was Kevin. His crime was particularly brutal, while the work he turned in was particularly insightful. He’d been depicted as a monster in the news, but to me, he was thoughtful and engaged.
The following week, upon entering the classroom again, I was grateful to discover that it didn’t feel any different. We quickly fell into our easy conversations. It wasn’t until we approached the end of class that I could feel my heart beating as I told the students about the experiment.
I was expecting many to feel angry or complain that I had violated their privacy. Instead, a few of them said, “That’s O.K.” They mostly seemed surprised that I didn’t know already.
One week later, just before class, Kevin approached me and in a low voice said, “I’m sorry you had to see that.” To which I replied, “I’m sorry you have to live with that.” It felt reassuring for him to acknowledge that he knew I knew—and at the same time I felt uneasy, wondering if he could sense that I was still processing all I’d learned.
Around that time, I began to realize that the books I’d been assigning my incarcerated students had all shared a fundamental premise that life is about cultivating joy, forgiveness, generosity and compassion.
I wondered if, in a way, I was setting these men up for failure by asking them to focus on these virtues in their prison environment—especially knowing there was so much I didn’t know about life inside.
For our final assignment, I invited the men to choose a virtue the books described, and translate it into their prison context. I challenged them to identify real-life ways they could practice living out such a principle in an authentic way in prison.
In a place that often mistakes kindness for weakness, some wrestled with how to practice generosity. Deshaun said he’d noticed a man who had fallen into a severe depression—and said he would from then on remind that person every single day that he mattered. Another student described how he would search for joy in little things, including waking up before everyone else to revel in a moment of silence.
Kevin reflected on the virtue of compassion. He said, “You know, when they sentenced me, they thought my punishment was that I couldn’t be with my family, and I couldn’t be in society. But that wasn’t it. The real punishment was having to be alone with myself. That is torment.” Then he described the challenge of offering compassion to others in the context of having a hard time seeing oneself with compassion.
What does compassion for Kevin look like? We discussed. Can you offer both compassion and accountability, or are they mutually exclusive?
There are other questions in my mind as I walk away from this class, and my experiment: Are the spiritual reflections of incarcerated people credible, given what they have done? If spirituality is about finding a peace, what if those who are in prison are precisely the ones who can help us find it? Could it be that the people locked up in our penitentiaries have something to teach us about joy, forgiveness, generosity and compassion?
And if they do, are we open to what they have to say?
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
Kimberly Malone has been teaching weekly classes on spirituality, financial literacy and life skills in prison and jail settings since 2015.