By IHE Scholar Kevin Kambo
I went up, last summer, to Muskegon Correctional Facility, as a teacher for the Hope-Western Prison Education Program (HWPEP). Not unlike Socrates, I cannot offer a neat and tidy catalogue of the motivations that took me to prison. I confess no Tocquevillian ambition to survey the American penitentiary system. My stirrings were less grand: the still small voice of inspiration, as well as—if they are really distinct—the urging of friends, the invitation of colleagues, the desire not just to think about mercy in my teaching and writing but to live the virtue better. Nevertheless, I wished to understand what I was up to, and as I rummaged around the mental attic for a paradigm to frame the approaching voyage, a classical image suggested itself repeatedly: katabasis, or descent.
In the Graeco-Roman imagination, the journey into the underworld is a common motif, typically both heroic and tragic. Odysseus goes down but cannot return with his mother; Aeneas descends but must leave his father behind; Orpheus comes agonizingly close to rescuing Eurydice but fails. Patristic authors take up this thread and often weave Christ as a redeemer through descent: descents into the womb and into the tomb, into the Jordan and into Hades. This last descent is invoked each time one prays the Apostles’ Creed and recites the words, “he descended into hell.” The original Latin clause, descendit ad inferos, is more literally translated as “he descended among those below.” In a number of ways, the incarcerated seem to be those below, albeit here on earth.
It is not by accident that we speak of those regularly involved in illegal activity as operating in a criminal underworld, that Plato’s Cave is one of the most enduring allegories in the history of philosophy, or that Dostoevsky’s novella of ideological imprisonment and alienation is titled Notes from Underground. More to the point, Dante depicts his Inferno (recall, the Latin infernum names not what is hot, but what is beneath) as a region of arrest, a realm where all has been brought to a violent, unnatural stop. Every soul in the Inferno is stuck, trapped. The deepest circle is characterized by frozen darkness—no life, no growth, no light, no love. Prison appears to be such a place: prisoners have almost no freedoms and are frequently isolated (no life), usually have their human development frustrated (no growth), are invisible to the rest of the world (no light), and live under suspicion and the judgement that they do not deserve care or charity (no love). Prison, then, is an inhuman place, nowadays more likely to deform than reform. The Gospel command to visit the imprisoned, therefore, is a demanding call to godlike mercy. Even at a ‘merely’ human level, the stakes are high, possibly quixotic: what does it mean for HWPEP to offer a college degree in the liberal arts to those who are literally bound?
Our course was Greek Tragedy and Christian Comedy, a philosophical and literary expedition through Euripides, Homer, Shakespeare, and Wole Soyinka, paying special attention to themes of exile, alienation, bondage, rupture, renewal, and reconciliation. I am not sure what I expected, but, almost from the start, the experience was a joy and a wonder.
As a cohort, these students of our extraordinary campus were the best I have had. There was something of a monastic discipline to my captive classroom, not least because the daemons of cell phones, the Internet, and ChatGPT had been entirely exorcised. More positively, the class was exceptionally prepared and engaged, eager to wrestle with the texts in ways most undergraduates are not. On the first day, as I introduced some context to the Trojan War, including a summary of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, most of the class had already done their own background reading. One wit slyly countered that he subscribed to the tradition that Iphigenia was substituted with a deer rather than slain. These nontraditional students brought uncommon investment.
As the course proceeded, the students poignantly reflected on how the texts spoke to the violence of their lives. So, Menelaus’ reflections in the Odyssey on how the war was not worth the cost of lives led one student to articulate his realization, years before, that the lives his violence wounded were worth much more than what he had hoped to gain by force. Similarly, watching Telemachus seek news and stories of Odysseus during the latter’s absence helped another student better appreciate how his children were learning about him in his absence, leading to more sympathy towards both the fictional characters and his children. Reading the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus in light of Dana Gioia’s poem, “Marriage of Many Years,” inspired meditations on human loves lost and not always regained, leading to discussion of God’s love as the truest nuptial love, enduring from age to age, eternal before all ages.
For a month and a half, I was, thus, witness to a rich summer harvest of liberations and transformations. Our texts became occasions for better understanding or interpreting the past. Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, for example, helped illuminate unjust homicide as a form of human sacrifice. The present, also, was being transfigured. Students told me of how fellow prisoners, not taking courses with HWPEP, commented that those in the program have or achieve “an aura” about them, perceptible evidence that our students are icons of hope amidst the darkness of prison life. This aura was partly evident to me at a communal level.
HWPEP students take courses in cohorts, meaning that the same group navigates the curriculum together. I especially enjoyed moments when, in discussion, a seemingly innocuous remark would draw apparently outsized laughter and be revealed to be an inside joke recalling their shared experience from, say, a previous Hebrew or mathematics course; I was watching and participating in a friendship grounded in a shared, intellectual pursuit of what is true and beautiful. And not just our immediate community was affected. One student shared that our study of Euripides and Homer had given him something to bond over with his son, who is enamored of Greek mythology; another told that his pursuit of a college degree through HWPEP was allowing family members not only to see him differently but also to consider their own higher education more seriously. It was not just the past and the present that were touched; the future too was being made new.
For my part, the experience renewed me as a reader and a teacher. Teaching in this atypical classroom revealed new wonders in these great texts to me, unanticipated marvels occasioned by thoughtful conversations within the unique community of the incarcerated. More wondrously still, the course was humanly challenging in unintended ways: the texts and the themes we discussed brought me face to face with the violence, the wounds, and the sufferings of my students. The danger here was to succumb to the curse of Odysseus, Aeneas, and Orpheus, to be incapable of human contact and connection in the underworld. Against this was the hope of Christ, whom, because he grasped the hand of Adam, a second century homilist recognizes as capable of human touch even in Hades, and thus of entering into and sharing in the suffering of those below. We dared to hope against the curse, and elected to suffer the texts together, to accept the pain they sometimes caused. This path brought us to contend with the truth that, even for the willing, liberal education is not immediately leisure, peaceful repose, or rest for restless heart; a truly liberating education has to have room for grief and lamentation. To reveal more, publicly, would profane something private and hallowed, but suffice it to say I am now more alive and awake to the blessings and the dangers of the texts I assign to my students. If hell was at all harrowed during my time in prison, it was so certainly in my soul. Unbeknownst to me, my own reading and teaching had been at risk of stagnating and becoming arrested; going to prison freed me, revivified my relationships both with my texts and with my students. The words of Portia of Belmont became more vividly true: “The quality of mercy … is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
What might one learn, then, from teaching among “those below”? That katabasis can flower into anastasis, a raising up and making of all things new. That there are souls in our prisons hungry for a liberating education, not merely because they might later be released, but, more simply and importantly, because they are human souls, with the capacity to live more humanely even in inhuman circumstances. That, on earth, hell has not escaped heaven’s reach; that light, growth, and life may be cultivated in the dungeons where we bury and forget the living; that even prison can be graced by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
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