“You don’t get paid?” Darryl says. Darryl is one of my students, an African-American man in his mid-sixties. He wears the same ubiquitous red jumpsuit as the other seven inmates in my creative writing class. “But surely you get some type of credit?”
“No,” I say. I shake my head. “No pay. No credit.”
I see the next question forming, see him judging whether or not it’s appropriate to ask.
Then why are you here?
Why am I here? I’ve been asked that question over and over, by family and peers and even the inmates themselves. As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to crane my neck to look at the red brick building that leered over 376. For me, jail was an abstraction, a place you visited in Monopoly, or perhaps when you didn’t eat your peas, or brush your teeth. It wasn’t a place that people actually went.
Even as I got older, and began to get into the kind of trouble that teenagers and college students often do, a stint in jail seemed as beyond me as a trip to Pluto. And yet, with age also came the realization that people do end up in jail, spending weeks or months or years on someone else’s schedule, shuffling across the same scarred linoleum and eating the same tepid food.
But not me. As long as I kept a generally respectful attitude toward the law, I could hike where I wanted and buy organic chicken at Whole Foods.
This makes me uncomfortable. In his book, A Theory of Justice, the late moral philosopher John Rawls posits a thought experiment for determining the morality of a given issue; the “veil of ignorance” experiment suggests that we form a new society in which you might take on the same abilities, tastes, and position within the social order as anyone else. Before you’ve been “reassigned”—that is, while you still sit behind the veil of ignorance—could you consent to switching places with another person in society?
From this perspective, it’s easy to see that slavery, for example, is immoral, because what slaveowner would consent to taking the position of his slave? The jail system, especially the for-profit jail system, also strikes me as immoral, because there are many reasons for which I would not consent to being locked up. I should spend time in jail because I’m not wealthy enough to post bail? Because I smoked marijuana, which one out of every three Americans has tried, and didn’t have the resources to hire a lawyer?
I’m not naive enough to believe that all people are wired similarly; I understand that sociopaths exist. However, I also understand that many of the people in prison are just like me, and that given access to a relatively stable upbringing and a compassionate education, they could be the ones getting their quarter deposit back from the tiny lockers in the jail lobby and walking out into the bright Pittsburgh January, thinking of brunch.
I teach in the Allegheny County Jail because society is unfair and jail sucks. Because I believe in social justice, and because it’s not so much for me, for four hours each week, to create a space for people to express themselves. Because if I were born to slightly different circumstances, I know what I’d want someone doing for me.