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A surprise invitation proves to be enlightening

November 27, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

For a good many years I had, as part of my teaching responsibilities, taught courses in philosophy and sociology at the three local prisons. These classes were terminated during the Clinton administration when grant funds were no longer made available. Naturally, there were many memorable events to recall.

Quite by chance, I received an invitation to be a guest at a prison seminar on legal awareness, sponsored by the Life For Lifers Group at Roxbury Correctional Institution. Topics for discussion were presented by an array of speakers who displayed a wide range of concerns for all prison inmates, but especially the problems of those who were serving life sentences.

Abuses to prisoners, adequate health and safety, protection of human dignity and providing access to courts were some of the major concerns brought up for discussion. There were speakers and guests from various advocacy groups who serve as monitors to see that these human needs and rights are not neglected.

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One interesting handout was a series of relevant statements from those familiar with the vicissitude of human confinement. One of the more revealing opinions was offered by Thurgood Marshall, former Supreme Court justice: "When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything the need for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment."

The forgoing opinion is true for any person incarcerated and to some degree isolated from normal human interaction. But it is an even more compelling fact for "lifers." This is why the following statement by Viktor Frankl looms large. "Man can only live by looking to the future. The prisoner who has lost faith in the future - his future - is doomed." Frankl knew whereof he spoke. He served more than five years in the squalor and horror of a Nazi prison camp.

With prison populations continuing to grow, and with the recidivism rate so high, the costs for confinement are high. It is, therefore, understandable that there is no burning popular crusade to give attention to the plight of prisoners, let alone the plight of "lifers."

Looking behind or beyond the legal needs of "lifers" is the need to sustain some residue of hope in what is arguably an almost hopeless situation. Those who have been the victims of the brutal acts of some "lifers" are understandably reluctant to respond to appeals to make their lives more endurable. They, in a quest for revenge, might not even accept the proposition that they deserve certain civil rights while incarcerated.

But is it not to be expected that those who believe that we can still look into our more gentle nature would begrudge another human being a mere shred of hope? The Life For Lifers Group has as its purpose making life as bearable as can be expected in unending confinement. They are to be commended for their willingness to tackle a most formidable task. Moreover, Larry Bratt, who devotes so much to the success of this prison outreach, is to be complimented for his leadership.

We, as citizens, are probably like the rest of society in going about our lives with little awareness or contact with this other world of the incarcerated. That is, until we are forced into attention when someone we care about is incarcerated. Almost certainly, we would intuitively reach the basic point to be made by Life For Lifers. We would immediately try to offer hope for their future.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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