Literature on Lockdown: Seph Murtagh
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at email@example.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Seph Murtagh.
In the spring of 2008, I taught a literature course to a small group of inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. I was a graduate student at Cornell at the time, and I was participating in a program that connected Cornell faculty and grad students with teaching opportunities in local prisons. The class I taught was on “literary existentialism” – my own inexpert coinage – and I put the syllabus together chiefly because I thought it would be an interesting thing to teach Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to a group of inmates.
As it turned out, it was an interesting thing, but not for the reasons I expected. I think anyone who steps foot inside a prison to teach a class to inmates is grappling on some level, whether they are aware of it or not, with the question of forgiveness. One of the dynamics of being a college instructor is that you tend to be relatively unfamiliar with the personal lives of your students: their embarrassing acts, their family melodramas. When you teach in a prison, though, there is one aspect of student history that is impossible to ignore: at some point in the past, your students were arrested, and they were put in this place. In New York State, if you’re interested in learning about the specific nature of those criminal acts, it’s not hard to do, because the New York State Department of Corrections keeps an online database tracking the criminal history of every inmate in its system.
While teaching at Auburn, I couldn’t resist looking up my students in this database, and one of the things I realized as I examined their criminal histories was that in many cases the decisions that had resulted in them ending up in prison – horrible decisions, with earth-shattering consequences for themselves and others – had been made when they were very young men. I don’t want to excuse the heinousness of these crimes, because in some cases they were very bad, involving grievous harm to innocent people. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that many of these crimes had been committed in a matter of seconds at the age of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and the consequences of them would continue to haunt these men for the rest of their lives.
We know from the study of neuroscience that the human brain isn’t finished maturing until around the age of twenty-five. We know from the evidence of our own senses that young people – and especially young men – are capable of doing some really dumb things. We know too that people are capable of astonishing transformations, that no human life follows an unswerving path, that people break off marriages, alight on new careers, change genders, reinvent themselves so radically that they seem like different people when you bump into them years later. The prisoners who signed up for my class at Auburn were obviously trying to change something about their lives. It wasn’t like anyone had forced them to be there. The very fact that they were in the classroom at all seemed to indicate a willingness to change, a desire to achieve better things in life.
So a question that was continually on my mind as I taught at Auburn was, what do we owe these guys, if indeed we owe them anything at all? What as a society are we able to forgive? And how do we go about systematizing that forgiveness in a way that is fair? In answer to the question of what we’re able to forgive, I hope the answer is that we’re able to forgive a lot. For those who are personally touched by the tragic consequences of a crime, of course, this can be a nearly impossible thing to do, and there are some crimes that are so monstrous that it’s hard to imagine how they might ever be forgiven. But when it comes to the sort of crimes that my students at Auburn were guilty of – burglary, assault, drug trafficking – I want to believe that if you stopped the average American on the street and asked whether a person, who had screwed up at the age of twenty-one but in the years since had made a good-faith effort to redeem himself, should be offered a second chance at life, the answer would be yes.
The problem is that there seems to be a huge disconnect between the opinion of the average American on this topic and the savage realities of incarceration as they play out in American life. In the popular imagination, a prison is a place where criminals are kept so that they may undergo a period of productive rehabilitation, a kind of socially-sanctified “time out” that is ultimately in the prisoner’s best interest. A prisoner does his time, and once he is released, he rejoins society, hopefully with a newfound appreciation for the errors of his ways. This is a total myth, of course, and bears about as much resemblance to the realities of incarceration as a prison does to a gated community. The truth is that prisons are far more like gigantic warehouses where we store people who have been deemed undesirable by civil society: the suspect, the violent, the perverted, the insane. We need a place to exile them, and it’s not like we can ship them off to a distant island. So we ship them off to a prison instead.
What tends to get forgotten is that the vast majority of these exiles will be returning to society someday, and there is no guarantee that someone who has been placed inside a prison because he has been judged a menace to society will suddenly be viewed as any less of a menace on the day that he is released. There’s no magic wand that gets waved over a prisoner once he has served his debt to society, erasing his past and removing the stigma he carries as an ex-con. Most of the inmates I taught at Auburn will be getting out of prison one day, and when they do, they will face an uphill battle. The obstacles they will encounter are well-documented: loss of legal rights, difficulty obtaining gainful employment, denial of housing and public benefits, not to mention the inward stress of fighting back against all of the negative labels that society insists on hurling at you, labels that sap your spirit and reduce your humanity down to a caricature. When we think of a prison sentence – two years, seven years, twenty years – we tend not to think of the additional punishment that goes along with being relegated to the status of a second-class citizen for the rest of your life. But this punishment is real, and there’s an argument to be made that it’s even worse than the initial prison sentence.
You can probably tell the amount of compassion a country feels for its less fortunate members by the degree to which the country is willing to educate those same members. This is a test that America has been failing abysmally. Just how bad we’ve been failing at it, in fact, can be seen in the astonishing growth of the prison industry over the last several decades. Since 1980, the prison population has more than quadrupled to the point where roughly one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars. It’s easy to look at these numbers and be overcome by feelings of futility and despair. How on earth did we let this happen? The short answer is that we let this happen because we care a whole lot more about jailing certain people than we do about educating them. Of course, there are educators out there who are working to reverse this trend, but the frontlines of the struggle are not prison classrooms like my one at Auburn; they are the public schools all across the country where hardworking teachers and administrators struggle daily against the poisonous effects of poverty and racial segregation. Until we give these professionals the resources they need to do their jobs, we will not see an end to the problem of overcrowded prisons in the United States.
Seph Murtagh lives in Ithaca, New York. He was the winner of the 2009 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize from The Missouri Review for his essay “A Hive of Mysterious Danger,” which recounts his experience teaching at a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. In 2004, he won the Creative Nonfiction Award from The Mid-American Review. He graduated with a PhD in English from Cornell University, and he has taught literature and writing courses at Cornell and Ithaca College. Since 2012, he has been an elected representative on the Ithaca Common Council.