In The Soul Knows No Bars, Drew Ledera professor of Eastern and Western philosophy at Loyola College in Marylanddescribes his experience as a teacher at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore. Others involved in prison education have also written of their on-site work, but this is a very different type of book. The difference lies primarily in the author’s own experience of incarcerationnot behind actual bars, but an inner imprisonment stemming from an obsessive sense of guilt that held him inwardly bound.
One of two children of a wealthy Park Avenue doctor, between the ages of 18 and 21, he was faced with the death of his mother from cancer; the suicide of his father (who jumped from a window in a plunge I still hate to contemplate) and the death by drug overdose of his gifted older brother. Irrationally blaming himself for this combined family tragedy, he speaks of an inner prosecutor and an inner jury that had little trouble reaching its verdict. As a result, like his students at the penitentiary, he too knew imprisonment. Thanks to therapy and a 12-step recovery program, however, together with the deepening awareness of a loving God to whom he could turn, the doors of his inner prison began to open. Three years of working with his very bright inmate-students over a three-year period led him to realize that his book was not just about his interaction with them; it was, he says, my story too, my prison memoir of his personal struggle for freedom from inner bondage. This memoir is skillfully woven into the text of The Soul Knows No Bars.
Nor was Professor Leder the only writer to appear in its pages. He encouraged his mostly-black students to write, and several had their work published as part of a writing project. One of them marveled at the fact that somebody out there read what we were doing...and wanted to share it with their [publication’s] readership. Among the most gifted was H.B., who was serving a 35-year sentence without possibility of parole. Infected with H.I.V., he nevertheless kept honing his skills and became an accomplished poet and playwright. Through an enormous effort on the author’s part and that of others, H.B. was granted a medical release. Before his death from AIDS, his new play won first prize in the WMAR-TV Black Playwrights contest.
Although H.B. was self-educated, while some of the others had college educations, they functioned together as a cohesive group. Not surprisingly, as he came to know them both individually and collectively, the author found himself experiencing more compassion than condemnation over the crimes for which they accepted responsibility. Given his privileged background, the Yale-educated Leder realized: If I had been subject to the same web of forces they were caught in, I was doubtful that I, myself, would have escaped.
The bulk of the book is devoted to transcriptions of class discussions that, with the students’ permission, Professor Leder taped and edited for publication. The discussions themselves were based on readings from Simone Weil, Nietzsche, Heidegger and othersheavy reading matter indeed. But the students were up to it and related the philosophers’ abstract concepts to the harsh realities of their own lives. Weil’s essay on the Iliad, for instance, led to a discussion on power from the vantage point of young black men who had grown up in inner-city settings. One, serving a life sentence for a drug-related murder, comments: When you come out of the neighborhoods we’re from, you learn you can’t show weakness. In another conversation based on Nietzsche’s hypothesis that the will to power is the primary drive in all human beings, several reflected on drugs as a source of power that had destructively affected their lives and those of their friends. Selling drugs meant that one could earn hundreds of dollars in the space of an hour. And Tony Chapman-Bey observed how easy it was to become hooked not only on the drugs themselves, but on the power that fast money bringsan addiction in itself.
Mr. Chapman-Bey had already earned a college degree behind bars before the class began, because it was then still possible for prisoners to pursue higher education programs through federally funded Pell grants. One of the author’s harshest criticisms of our criminal justice system consequently focuses on the fact that Pell grants for incarcerated men and women were cut off in 1994 by the passage of the Omnibus Crime Act. And yet, as he notes, study after study has shown that higher education results in significant reductions in recidivism. As Professor Leder observes of the trend toward longer and harsher sentences, a very powerful voice says, People don’t change, lock ’em up and throw away the key.’ But, he adds, another voice challenges that assumption and responds: Wait a second. People can change if they have it within them and have a system that facilitates change. It is this second voice that is being ignored, but that he listens to and understands.
Over the course of his three years with them, Leder saw that his students did have it within them to change. Given their extraordinarily long sentences, most will spend the remainder of their lives behind bars. At least, though, through his encouragement and their growing perception of their own gifts, theylike the author himselfcame to know that they could break out of their own forms of interior imprisonment. Through their readings, discussions and friendships, he says, the men were constructing release from prisonthat prison of mind and spirit that preceded any literal incarceration. How apt, then, is the book’s title, The Soul Knows No Bars.
The penitentiary program came to an end when most of the students in the class were transferred to another maximum security prison. By that time, Professor Leder, with a growing family and regular work at Loyola College, was close to burnout. Much time and energy went into preparing and leading the discussions, and many were the frustrations he faced in dealing with the prison personnel. Cancellation of classes because of paper work left undone was not uncommon. On one occasion he came close to being permanently barred from the facility because a small plastic bag of vitamin C, still with him after a weekend trip, was found on his person. Even when lab tests showed what the substance actually was, the chief of security thought I might just be testing the system before bringing in the real stuff.
The real stuff he did bring in was respect and the kinds of intellectual challenge that helped his students to move far toward the goal of their own freedom of mind and spirit.