The Value in Teaching the Bible in Prison

Programs that give inmates access to education work—and matter.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

“So how did the reading go this week?” I ask, as I erase a mathematics equation leftover from a previous class from the blackboard.

One of my students, Sekwan Merritt, jumps right in. “This Bible,” he says, shaking his head in a kind of circle as he speaks.

“Yes? You were saying? This Bible?” I say.

“It’s just wack,” he responds.

* * *

I’m a professor of philosophy and religious studies, but on this night, my classroom sits behind the walls. I’m teaching at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup as part of the Goucher Prison Education Partnership.

Back in August, the Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program, which provides a waver of the 20-year ban on providing federal funding to prisoners, and highlighted the Goucher Prison Education Partnership. The newly announced program is an “experiment,” as the department calls it, modestly seeks “to test whether participation in high-quality educational opportunities increases after access to financial aid for incarcerated adults is expanded.”

At a purely practical level, I can attest to the value of educational access. And so can the men and women behind bars. As one student put it: “The first thing that an employer will see when I apply for a job is that I’m a convicted felon. Doing well in this class will help balance that out a little.”

But exchanges like this one help drive home the less tangible effects of the experience. In the words of one of my former students, our classroom was a place “where as an inmate I could go and truly allow my mind to be free.”

* * *

When I began teaching at the facilities, I had been warned on several occasions that the guards—the professors and student volunteers have been told to call them officers—could be capricious with security checks, or may be changing shifts, so I should plan on arriving at the prison at least 15 minutes early for class or run the risk of getting it canceled. I obliged.

I pass through the gate and leave my personal belongings—wallet, keys, and phone—in a locker, go through security, and walk through the waiting room, where a woman and child sit staring up at a television set. I wait for an electric door to buzz and slide open for me, and then enter the courtyard. I pass by more officers and inmates, some of whom wave hello, and make my way across the campus to another building that houses the library and classrooms.

The half-dozen students in my “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible” course are all in the classroom by the time I stumble in with my bundle of books clutched in my arms a little after 6 p.m.

“Hey, guys, sorry I’m late,” I say as I enter our small and perpetually overheated room. A map of the United States and a poster explaining the separation of powers covers one wall; a series of civics textbooks is piled up on a desk. A large fan whirls loudly in one corner.

“Hey, Professor J!” one of my students says, rising from his chair, “What’s up?” He thrusts out his hand to shake mine. Merritt gives me a fist bump as I pass by.

“How are you guys doing this evening?” I ask.

“You know, we’re getting by,” the first student replies.

“I hear you,” I say. Of course, in reality, I have no idea.

“Just studying and working and studying.”

“Lots of studying,” Merritt echoes.

“Good,” I say as I set my materials down and leaf through my notes. I feel a charge in the room, an eagerness to get going. Given this week’s subject matter, I am not at all surprised.

Merritt is youthful and handsome; his sturdy features bear an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm X, whom I suspect is one of his heroes. Like Malcolm, he has embraced Islam in prison. A bluish blur of a tattoo, the actual design of which I still cannot make out, emerges from the collar of his grey sweatshirt and creeps up his muscular neck. When he offers up his reaction to the reading, I press him for more.

“Wack?” I say. “What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, yeah.” The others signal their agreement with laughter. It’s a good sign.

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s like, it’s like a book about Mafia, man,” he continues.

I can feel the grin creeping across my face. And I’m sure that they can notice it. I can see where this is going—and it’s going perfectly.

“Okay,” I say. “Explain it to me.”

Merritt begins to present. He’s got his little JPS Bible in one hand and gestures with the other like a preacher. “The whole story’s about power and deceit,” he says. His casual manner of speaking masks a keen intelligence. I’ve learned not to underestimate him. He told me he aspires to be a community organizer when he gets out; I imagine he could run the show.

“I mean, there’s even a hit list!” he adds, referring to the dark instructions imparted from father to son in one of the passages.

“Yup,” I reply. “That’s all there.”

“It just doesn’t seem all that holy,” a student says. His age is indistinct—I guess he’s probably somewhere in his 30s—and with his bald head, little mustache, and kind of over-worked-world-on-his-shoulders everyman look I sometimes think he could be cast as the long-suffering dad on some family-orientated sitcom.

“Who says it should be?” chimes in Terrance Young from his seat by a table at the perimeter of the room. Everyone calls him T.J. I can always count on him for a healthy dose of skepticism or for a bit of arcana.

“That’s a good point,” I reply, casting Young a knowing look. “We’ll have to explore that question.”

I’m thrilled by these comments. Merritt couldn’t have known it when he mentioned the Mafia, but when I read these chapters I always think of The Godfather. He and the others had truly understood the opening chapters of 1 Kings, the last days of the reign of King David.

The Bible details an attempted palace coup. Israel’s great monarch has grown old and frail; he lies shivering in his bed. One of his sons, Adonijah son of Haggith, observing his father’s decline, decides to seize the throne. He recruits his father’s military commander, Joab, and Abiathar the priest to his cause, and arranges a massive sacrificial feast to declare himself king, inviting his new supporters, his brothers, and the men of Judah. He does not summon his half-brother Solomon.

The prophet Nathan is quick to see the imminent danger, and plans accordingly, recruiting Bathsheba to inform the king about the conspiracy. The king’s wife tells him of Adonijah’s actions, predicting that when he dies, her life and the life of her son will be in jeopardy. Alarmed by the report, the old king rouses himself from his bed and springs into action, arranging for a ceremony to proclaim Solomon king over Israel and Judah. When the news of Solomon’s sudden coronation reaches Adonijah’s feast, his guests melt away in terror and the would-be usurper flees to the Tent of Meeting, grabbing the horns of the altar for protection. Informed of Adonijah’s actions, Solomon magnanimously (so it seems at the moment) offers refuge to his brother. And when he appears bowing before him, the King simply tells him to “Go home.”

It is a lean and magnificent bit of storytelling, and the class is as attuned to the subtlety of the composition—but even more taken by the sheer Machiavellian character of the events. Joab, the king’s old general, most likely didn’t need much convincing, Merritt says; wizened and cunning military man that Joab is, he likely deliberated upon which way the current winds were blowing, and threw his considerable weight behind Adonijah’s attempted coup. Perhaps, too, the general still resented David’s behavior after the death of Absalom, those long simmering tensions with his boss finally finding a suitable outlet in the prospect of a new regime. But doubtless Adonijah’s brothers needed a bit more persuading to come over to his side. After all, might they not have their own designs on the crown? How did Adonijah manage to rally their support?

The text does not say explicitly, but Merritt has a suggestion: “It’s what’s called on the street a ‘soft lean’,” he says, offering his own gloss on the pressure Adonijah exerted on his siblings when he invites them to the feast—one that is both a bribe and a not-so-veiled threat.

“What’s that?” I expect someone to poke fun of my ignorance, but no one does. Instead, Merritt holds forth. “It is like when you own a shop and someone comes in and says, you know, my colleague will stop by here next week, and it would be good for you to give him a bit of a gratuity when he does.” He emphasizes the word gratuity. I get the hint.

The others agree with this interpretation, and the discussion now turns to the correspondences between the biblical story and life on the street—how muscle is displayed in both venues.

The guys describe their previous experiences, explaining the manner in which gangs operate to gain and hold on to their turf, the ways in which one makes sure a competitor is aware of his dominance. The succession narrative speaks of things that they could immediately understand and relate to; their attention is riveted by the Bible’s straightforward portrayal of the brutal realities of power, it’s refusal to sugarcoat the story of the struggle for the succession of the throne and willingness to show even its heroes in a darkly realistic light.

For the students, it’s an important lesson in just the kind of book the Bible can be. And for me, it’s another evening of teaching at the Maryland Correctional Institution.

* * *

As a professor, my aim is to encourage students to question and interrogate their fundamental presuppositions, prejudices, and commitments, to develop the faculties of empathy and appreciation, and to investigate what it means to be a human being and to strive for a good life.

In no classroom have I seen this occur more powerfully than those at Jessup. There is something palpably at stake in that classroom, as these students confront the text with their own eyes, through their own experiences. They struggle with the implications of the choice to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, are confronted by the prophets’ condemnations of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant and their visions of social justice, and join the debate of Job and his friends over divine justice and its relation to human suffering. As they do, I witness these men building their minds, grappling with ideas that for them are not merely abstract but of the most immediate and ultimate concern. I suspect that they continue these discussions long after I leave.

From my conversations with other instructors in prison-education programs, I know that my experience is not unique. Such programs also have a profound impact on the college students who tutor and study with the inmates, presenting them with the ability to gain a deeper understanding of America’s social problems and the value of education than they would have received on their campuses alone.

Most of the inmates I worked with at Jessup came from deeply underprivileged backgrounds—growing up in broken homes and in a violent inner-city environment, deprived of a decent public education, and having few meaningful occupational prospects. The Department of Education’s experiment is a significant and hopeful measure that gives the nation’s incarcerated the opportunity to cultivate their minds. Doing so would be one small step toward rectifying the deeply entrenched inequalities that mar American society and toward enhancing its intellectual and spiritual health and vitality.