Plato’s allegory is life for me

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I learned in one of my Georgetown Prison Scholars classes about the allegory of the cave in Plato’s “Republic.” Socrates is the narrator, and he describes a group of people who have been chained, facing the blank wall of a cave, for all of their lives. Their entire understanding of reality is based on the shadows they see flickering on the wall from objects and people passing in front of a fire behind them.

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One of the prisoners, who Socrates uses to represent philosophers, escapes from the cave and realizes that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all. So much in shadows is hidden or distorted. Yet when he returns (let’s say he is captured) and tells the others what life was really like, they don’t believe or understand him; they think he is crazy.

Ever since I was forced to leave the D.C. jail, rich with intellectual programming and an enlightened management, en route to a U.S. penitentiary in Florida, I feel like Socrates’ philosopher. To my fellow inmates in Virginia’s Northern Neck Regional Jail, I am like an alien who has landed from a UFO. The “other” life I describe seems like some kind of fairytale.

And me? After spending three-fourths of my life in prison, I feel like I have been allowed to live among a more advanced society and now must re-learn how to survive in a primitive community where basic survival and maintaining the “pecking order” are the highest aspirations.

My time in the D.C. jail made freedom tangible to me. I could imagine, taste, smell it. Then, suddenly, I was snatched away and sent back to the cave. It reminds me of when Aliyah Graves-Brown, coordinator for Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, came to biology class one day after going over the catwalk to the jail to see someone. She strode into class, plopped into a chair and said, “Whew! Back from the trap.” And she wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, as if the experience had put her in a sweat. To her, it was like she had left the ‘hood and just arrived back in the suburbs.

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The whole class burst out laughing. But I’m living that same reality now, having moved from a place of learning, programming and re-imagining what prison should look like to a warehouse that promotes non-productivity. For about two years, I had a taste of the way life can be. Crime isn’t necessary to have a good life. There are people who actually care about people like us, who run re-entry programs, for example. And I’ve discovered I have the capability to be a success in that world; I am ready for it and I am eager to begin.

So many of my incarcerated brothers are never allowed out of the bubble in which they are trapped. And when they finally go home, it’s like they’ve taken the cave with them. It’s not much of a surprise that the recidivism rate is so high. (A U.S. Sentencing Commission report on recidivism among federal prisoners, released in January of last year stated that nearly 64% of prisoners who had been convicted of violent offenses were arrested again within eight years.)

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But when I try to share what I’ve learned with the guys in this jail, it’s like I am speaking another language, because they have been trapped in the cave for so long without any other frame of reference. They don’t feel like they’re capable of doing a lot of things in life. That’s why they cycle in and out of jail; it really doesn’t matter to them.

Of course, while that’s true for most, there are some exceptions. It depends on how far along the curve of change a person is. I was given a good education and have always read and studied, because it’s a natural inclination for me. So, I have always been closer to the curve, to change. But that isn’t true for a lot of others, and in federal prisons, the programming is usually courses like how to service HVAC systems. Anything more intellectual, you have to seek out and pay for yourself. And if you’re in for life, they don’t want to invest in you at all.

Your reality only starts to change when you understand that I can do this. Wow, I can do that. I can try this.

For me, now, I have an odd challenge: I’m not the same person I was when I first left the penitentiary to come to D.C. I know my worth as a human. I understand my values. That has changed how I deal with people and what I will allow myself to get involved in. But to navigate, I’ll have to be careful not to appear as if I feel like I’m somehow “better” than others. I’ll have to create my own space and be constantly on guard.

There is more than one kind of cave. The way they are operated today, prisons are a cave. Ghetto neighborhoods and the lifestyles that seem to kids to be the only way to live are caves. Too often caves are inter-generational, perpetuated by a lack of education and opportunity, by a feeling that you can’t do anything else because everybody around you is doing the same thing.

If I could make anything my personal mission, it would be to allow everyone to break their chains and see the possibilities outside of their cave.

Written by

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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