SAWSHANK REMEMBERED: My Life Behind Bars

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart

PART I
“Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here”

Shawshank

 

Those dolorous words of Dante’s trailed helter-skelter across my mind as I sat at a table in the reception area of the old Ohio State Reformatory on that spring evening so many years ago.

A huge stage curtain separated me from the world’s largest cell block. Shrieks, cries, curses, whistles, and shouts emanated from behind the curtain, adding to the overall sense of dread and foreboding. I asked myself, as I have on many occasions in life, exactly what I had gotten myself into.

I had signed on as an adjunct English professor with my old alma mater Ashland University the previous semester at a different penal institution farther north. This was my first time inside the walls of OSR, the setting for the award winning movie Sawshank Redemption a few years later. I was to teach there during the final two semesters before the prison was closed, the walls and buildings torn down, and the edifice, constructed in 1896 and modeled after a European castle, converted into a museum.

During the years 1896-1990, 200 inmates and two officers died inside. I was told that there were four unsolved murders during the final seven years that the facility was in operation.

Over the course of the next eleven years, I was to teach evenings and summers inside four prisons and two honor farms. My assignments generally consisted of Freshman English or University Writing Improvement, although I sometimes taught Great Books, British Literature and American Literature.

Soon, a burly, red-haired officer who bore a striking resemblance to Henry VIII appeared to usher me inside the gray walls and across the prison yard toward a squat, brown building that served as a high school during the day. The prison yard appeared little different from scenes in the movie, filled with inmates and guards. We passed several men in white robes standing morosely behind a fenced enclosure. I asked who they were. Our escort replied that they were in the “hole”, prison jargon for solitary confinement.

My students were ushered in, I introduced myself and began my class in University Writing Improvement, much as I would if I had been back on the main campus. All was well. The men, generally about 25 in a class, were quiet, polite, respectful.

During those years, I never experienced so much as a discourtesy from one of my incarcerated students. With one exception, a man who insisted that he was doing time for an offense committed by his brother, no one ever complained that he was the victim of a bad rap, that he had been framed, that the world had been out to get him. Most took responsibility for whatever offense caused them to be incarcerated.

On the outside, in a sense, they had been victimizers. On the inside, they had become the victims, denizens of a total institution, a ponderous and often unresponsive bureaucracy. When I assigned Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to my Freshman English students, they identified with Phaedrus, the protagonist, the victim of a mental health system that cruelly obliterated his personality by means of a program of electro-shock therapy.

Many of their compositions remain in my memories yet. One man had been a successful drug dealer before his arrest. He had flown in and out of New York regularly to make his connections, wore the most expensive clothes, dined at the most upscale restaurants. He toted around, among other items, a $1500 cigarette case. “Now,” he wrote in his powerful compare and contrast essay, “My entire wardrobe cost the state of Ohio $14.”

Another penned an essay entitled “How to Survive in the Penitentiary”. I remember his advice. Always walk erect. Always look straight ahead. If you ever bump into anyone, apologize at once. Say, “Yes, sir,” and, “No, sir.”

Never accept favors from anyone. They will sooner or later want something in return, sexual acts, for instance. Kindness is a sign of weakness. Everybody wants something. Everything has a price. Everyone does his own time. If you are physically imposing or have been convicted of a violent crime, others will give you a wide berth, unsure of how dangerous you may actually be. If you have the reputation as a hit man or hired gun, you have respect, you are at the top of the pyramid.

If you are a rapist, you have no respect because you have preyed upon those weaker than yourself. If you are a child molester, you are at the Bottom of the prison hierarchy. He told of pedophiles having their hair set afire, being forbidden to eat in the cafeteria, being presented by their fellow inmates with a hand woven rope and ordered to go hang themselves.

Prison is a terrifying place. One powerfully built young man, physically fit and formidable, wrote that he had been so frightened his first day in prison that he had fainted. No one emerges unscathed.

One man wrote that he hated black people. He had killed a black man during an argument. The prison population was 40% black. The clerks were all inmates. As soon as a new inmate passed through those dark portals, everyone knew the nature of his offense. Black inmates had his number.

What I believe I experienced during my eleven year tenure was the spark of hope smoldering within the souls of the hopeless, those whose lives consisted of endless days and nights of mind numbing routine, endless ennui. Most were passionate about education, many hoping to return someday to their communities to prevent young people from repeating their own mistakes.

I usually included lengthy comments as I graded their compositions, sometimes even in their journals. I suggested to the person that as he continued his education and his consciousness expanded, he might find that his views would change, even soften.

Years passed. I received a letter from him in my mail at Ashland High School. He had completed his degree, was about to be paroled, had kept all his papers with my comments on them. His attitudes had changed over the years, and he had been accepted at a seminary to become a minister.

One gray Sunday afternoon, I was standing in a Cracker Barrel restaurant waiting for a table, when a young man approached me. “Hey, Dr. Swinehart, I still have all of my papers from your class.”

Assuming that he had been one of my high school students, I searched my mind, trying to place him. Then it hit me. He had been in one of my writing classes at OSR. He was living with his parents, raising his small child, working as a welder and taking night classes toward his degree.

I have always taken to heart John Henry Newman’s words regarding the purpose of education, to foster a philosophical habit of mind. In my prison classes, I aimed not only for improved punctuation, grammar and sentence structure but for self examination, introspection, soul searching. Education can be a powerful impetus toward rehabilitation.

 

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