“One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history is the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation. The consequences of this insular, narrow attitude is that one does not really mind what happens to people outside of his group.”
Martin Luther King Jr. made this statement over 50 years ago. Sadly, we as a society still have not taken his message to heart. We continue to separate ourselves by political party, class, sexual orientation and race, labeling those not in our group as the “other.”
This division is able to form and widen due to the lack of human-to-human interaction between members of opposing “tribes,” preventing a recognition of commonalities and an understanding of our differences.
But therein also lies hope: Once such human interaction is given a space and we seize the opportunity to break down walls, hearts can soften and minds open. That was made vividly clear to me while I read Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir “The Sun Does Shine.”
Hinton was seized and arrested in front of his mother by a gang of racist white police officers, charged with multiple murders he did not commit, then sentenced to death. While he passed a polygraph test, the lead detective turned out to be prescient when he predicted Hinton would be found guilty anyway “because the judge is white, the prosecutor is white and the jury [is] white. No one will believe the word of a nigger over the word of a white man.”
On death row, Hinton was forced to spend time with Henry Francis Hayes, a KKK member who lynched a Black teenager. Two more different “tribes” can hardly be imagined. And yet, they became friends. During their forced time together, the two developed a keen insight into the each other’s life and essential humanity. When Hayes was executed, Hinton’s pain and compassion were real. In the end, we are all human.
And that is what is so special about Marc Howard’s “The Forgotten Humanity of Prisoners” class in which I participated this semester. Offered via Georgetown University’s Prison Scholars program, the class brought together students studying criminal justice and men and women incarcerated in the D.C. jail. The class brought together people who normally would have walked right past each other if we had met any other place. But in this environment, we met with empathy and open minds.
The result has been friendships I know will be lifelong. Below are slightly edited excerpts from a paper written by one of those new friends, Peter Hunziker. Thank you, Peter.
Just about every aspect of life flipped upside down since COVID-19 became a serious problem in the United States in March. With universities implementing plans for remote instruction for the next academic year, I am reminded how lucky I am to have completed one of the best parts of my senior year, Dr. Marc Howard’s course, “Forgotten Humanity of Prisoners.” A friend who had taken the class before told me it would change my life. I doubted her, but could not have been more wrong.
The course was structured so that the outside students (attending Georgetown) came into the jail every other week for a class with inside students (incarcerated in the jail).
When we arrived at the jail for our first session, we put our belongings into lockers, got our visitor’s pass, walked through various metal detectors and made our way to the chapel, where the inside students waited to meet us. We sat down and, like in a traditional class, we introduced ourselves. After that, we split into groups and engaged in an icebreaker exercise. I remember being surprised by how easy our conversation was and how much I had in common with people who had spent over half of their lives behind bars.
After a few hours of laughter, serious conversation and everything in between, the class was over. The outside students left and took our Lyft cars back to campus while our inside classmates were brought back to their cells. I remember feeling uneasy, knowing the class was a temporary experience for me while the people I had just begun to develop meaningful connections with were locked up in concrete boxes. It was my first time stepping foot inside a jail and confronting any unconscious bias I had about incarcerated individuals. I knew my friend was right; this class was going to change my life.
After a few classes, however, visitors to the jail were prohibited because of concerns about the coronavirus. The purpose of this class was to connect as fellow human beings, and now we were no longer able to meet in person. However, it did not take long for Marc Howard to figure out how to keep us connected. The outside students met every Tuesday during our regular class time via Zoom, recorded our session and sent the video inside. Inside students were able to view and respond to our videos via tablets and, somehow, our class continued.
We chatted via messenger about everything from our favorite books, to how COVID-19 has ravaged incarcerated populations, to the systematic racism in America. In some ways, COVID-19 has made our class better. Normally, it would have ended in late April; instead, we like to say we have gone into overtime and will continue to confer together for the foreseeable future.
The purpose of this class is to connect as humans. Recently, I interviewed one of my classmates, Robert Barton, to give the outside world a glimpse into just one of the incredible individuals our society has deemed worthless:
Tell me about yourself — name, age, where you’re from.
I was born and raised in Southeast D.C. I am 41 years old and have been locked up since I was 16 for murder. I was not the shooter, but I was a willing participant.
What is your favorite book?
I have three: “Think and Grow Rich” by Dennis Kimbro, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl and “The People’s History of America” by Howard Zinn. I have read thousands of books and I can’t even lie down without reading. Reading has been one thing I could always do during the quarter of a century I have been in prison.
What is one thing you do every day or one of your hobbies?
I read every day. I also try to work out each day, although I don’t like it. My hobbies are sports (watching and playing) and writing.
What keeps you motivated?
My mother and I have the best relationship in the world. I know she has been through a lot, so making her happy and proud motivates me. I also want to establish a legacy that will be talked about when I am gone. I will do big things in the world and bring about positive change. I always knew this couldn’t be it for me… I have to be great and change the narrative about me. I am so much more than my current condition.
Who is your idol or someone you look up to?
I look up to my mother. She is the epitome of resilience. I wouldn’t say I idolize anyone, although I do study certain successful people and would not mind having one of them as a mentor.
How has COVID-19 affected you as an incarcerated individual?
First off, I caught it. It wasn’t that bad symptom-wise, but being in an environment where I didn’t have control over protecting myself from a disease I knew could kill me messed with me. But just as bad is being separated even more from our loved ones. Visits of any kind have been prohibited. I haven’t been outside in over four months. Some people haven’t had a haircut either. It is basically lockdown to prevent the spread, which feels like we are being punished.
Who is someone you’ve met on the inside who inspires you?
One of my best friends is a D.C. resident who has been locked up for 28 years for the murder of a police officer. The officer jumped out at him in plain clothes with his gun drawn, and he thought he about to be robbed, so he shot him. He is serving life without parole as a result, but by the way he conducts himself, you’d never know he’ll die in prison without a miracle. He is always upbeat and positive. He is always trying to help someone. He even coaches his kids on starting businesses in the world, offering ideas, guidance and even money sometimes. He was the first person to help me realize that instead of looking at how bad our situation is, we should try to find the positive. How you internalize a situation often determines how you react to it. I have been heeding that wisdom ever since.
How has the Georgetown program affected your incarceration?
It has helped immensely with my rehabilitation and my ability to regain my humanity. In the federal prisons, “outside” residents are not allowed inside and the staff is trained to not fraternize with the residents. Thus, the environment is “us vs them.” There is no human contact between the two groups (we don’t hug or shake hands). It does something to you to be deprived of human contact beyond your peers for years at a time. I had gotten to the point that I could only talk to or hold a conversation with people locked up with me. I did not have social skills. The Prison Scholars program gave me back my humanity. In addition, going to school with outside students opened my mind to the fact that in a lot of ways, “regular people” are the same as me and that we have more in common than not. Over time, as we talked and I heard myself articulate my views, I started to see the flaws in some of my thoughts. After hearing another side of the story, I could understand and consider opposing positions.
What’s one thing you want someone reading this to know about you and other incarcerated individuals?
I want everyone reading this to know that we are more than our crimes. Just because a person commits a violent act does not mean he is inherently “bad” and unable to change. I want them to know there are all types of geniuses inside these prisons, withering away because our country is so punitive. I want them to know that we are humans; we breathe, love, care, cry, have children. The narrative others tell about us is not the whole or only story.
Back to Peter: My classmates are some of the most incredible, hardworking, intelligent individuals I have ever met. Several of them are published poets and authors, one is studying for the Series 65 exam, others serve as mentors in the Young Men Emerging program. All of them are planning to improve society when they finally come home. Rob Barton is just one of my classmates. Imagine how many people like him there are across our country and how much potential is squandered through mass incarceration. Now more than ever, we must remember their humanity.