This is the third installment in a series called “The Quest for Peace in a World of Violence.” Charles deGravelles is an Episcopal deacon, chaplain and teacher at Episcopal High School of Baton Rouge where he teaches a course in peace and conflict studies. In the first installment, deGravelles wrote about his inspiration for the class and its inception. In the second installment, he wrote about class trips he took with his students to show them how the “pieces” of violence interconnect. The series will follow the progress of the class.
A LILY BEYOND GILDING
By Deacon Charles deGravelles
We are driving a yellow school bus from Baton Rouge up a two-lane blacktop to Louisiana State Penitentiary, the infamous Angola Prison. When I tell my seventeen students to be prepared to learn something here about the mystery of violence, no one raises an eyebrow. Angola, after all, is a maximum security facility, the largest and most populous in the country, where roughly eighty percent of the six thousand inmates are serving real life sentences for crimes such as murder, rape and armed robbery. Eighty-three men languish on Angola’s Death Row for particularly brutal offenses, each waiting, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, for years, even decades, for the moment he will be walked down a hall, strapped to a gurney, and put to death by lethal injection.
I also tell them quietly to be prepared to learn something about the mystery of peace. They ask what I mean. I enjoy their perplexity, but I say nothing. After twenty-five years of ministering at this prison, I’ve learned that words mostly dilute the experience of a person’s first visit; it is a lily beyond gilding. The prison will speak for itself today in ways that will stay with these young people the rest of their lives.
We’ve been busy our first nine weeks of the course. Law enforcement leaders have described for us the lives of the three hundred or so gangbangers who constitute the thirty some odd gangs of our city, Baton Rouge, going at one another with deadly force and frequently leaving innocents injured or killed as collateral damage. We’ve learned of the cat and mouse games police play to stop them. Medical professionals working with the indigent have helped us connect the dots between mental illness, addiction and crime. We’ve studied stories, poems, and essays from writers as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, Frank O’ Connor and Sr. Helen Prejean. We’ve studied the dynamics of the successful civil rights lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, and we’ve watched Richard Attenborough’s masterpiece about the twentieth-century saint of peace, Mohandas Gandhi. Most recently, each student has researched a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and reported back to the class about the successful use of nonviolent strategies in the face of overwhelming odds.
Joining us on our bus ride to Angola prison is a journalist, Mark Hunter, who will write about our course as part of his series on “Waging Peace” for The Advocate newspaper. He brings with him a journalist’s healthy skepticism. He will observe and photograph me and the students as we spend our day at the prison, and along the way, he will question us –particularly the students—about the value of what is being taught and learned.
Angola is sometimes called “the farm,” and for good reason. The grounds are eighteen thousand acres of rich alluvial soil that supportherds of cattle and horses and provide all of the fruits and vegetables for what is, essentially, an entire town. Spread out on this enormous piece of property, once a plantation, are several independent prison “camps,” the largest of which is called simply the Main Prison. Here we are ushered by our guide, an experienced Department of Corrections security officer, through a series of locked gates into a room used for Pardon and Parole Board hearings. Our speaker is Kerry Myers. Kerry has served twenty-three years of his life sentence for murder. Kerry is the editor of the award-winning prison news magazine, The Angolite, and he is an expert on prison life and criminal justice issues. Kerry is also an inmate member of the Episcopal Chapel of the Transfiguration, a church within the walls which I helped to start here many years ago. He is a very dear friend of mine.
Kerry tells them something about prison they’ve never heard –that prison is very much like their own community, “except more so.” Every society has bad people, he says, but here the bad people are very bad. In every society there are those who do the minimum to get by, and those are the majority in prison as they are on the outside. And in every society there are those who do good, and in prison these are all the more remarkable for where they have come from and what they’ve had to overcome to achieve something positive.
After Kerry’s talk, we proceed down “the walk,” the long, fenced breezeways that connect the various units, to the prison’s hospice ward where a large room full Angola’s dying inmates are being cared for by trained inmate volunteers and medical professionals. Many of the men seem comatose. Some are hooked to oxygen tanks and other medical devices. It’s a sobering experience. Afterwards we stop long enough to pray. Here we are, in the middle of a maximum security prison, holding hands in a circle–my students and me, three parents who’ve joined us, our bus driver, our Department of Corrections security officer, a journalist, and an inmate serving a life sentence for murder. We pray for the dying inmates, for their caretakers, for all of the inmates here, for the prison guards and administration, and, God knows we need it, for ourselves and the whole world.
It’s a busy day. We are led through an actual dormitory where prisoners are playing cards, reading or watching TV, talking in small groups or sleeping on their bunks. We eat in a prison cafeteria what is being served to the inmates that day (spaghetti and meat sauce, mustard greens, okra, and a roll). As our luck would have it, we are able to watch inmates from both Angola and the women’s prison, Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, rehearsing a play about the life of Jesus. It is riveting, men and women who’ve committed the worst of human offenses, in a cinder block building in prison dungarees, playing the parts of Mary, the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Judas, and, of course, Jesus himself.
We travel by bus to Camp F to visit the death chamber where we learn about the last day of an inmate scheduled for execution. We are able to step into the actual cell where he spends his last hours, and we stand in silence before the gurney where he is strapped down to die. We close out the trip with a visit to “the dog pen” a large kennel where “chase team” blood hounds are trained and housed, and where wolves and German Shepherds are bred to create a ferocious hybrid guard dog.
Over the years, I have taken many visitors to the Angola prison–for the last four, some of those have been high school students. In all those years, no one has discovered what he expected to find. As we pause at Camp F for a bathroom break, we sit around a table to debrief. The journalist, Mark Hunter, and I both pepper the students with questions. Mark wants to get at what they are learning, and so do I. I want to help them sort through and articulate these powerful experiences. Mark asks them what, if anything, has surprised them. One student, struggling for the right words, says that the men we’ve met are not the kind of people she expected.
She is talking of Kerry Myers who, after twenty-three years of incarceration maintains fiercely that he is an innocent man and who was recently recommended by the Parole Board to be released.
She is talking of Mike, one of the hospice volunteers, a large, uneducated, and muscular man who spends his few free hours washing, changing diapers, and reading to another inmate who is dying. Mike and other hospice volunteers also quilt blankets to raise money for the hospice unit and their dying friends; he showed us with pride his sewing machine and a recent quilt.
She is talking of Vernon, one of the inmate dog trainers, a light hearted lifer with a South Louisiana gift for gab, who, before we leave, has us all laughing at his stories about working with the chase hounds.
And she is also talking about the field gangs who look up from their picking or ditch-blading to wave to us as we drive by in the bus, and to the shackled inmates who nod as they pass by us on “the walk,” escorted by guards to or from their cells.
“It’s really sad,” she says. “I know they did terrible things, and I know they all want to get out really bad, but some of them have a kind of peace about them.” Another student chimes in. “Yeah, it’s weird.”
When we get back to school, Mark waits for the students as they pile off the bus. He has his hand-held recorder going (Mark long ago gave up his journalist notepad) to interview them –not just about the day’s adventures but their thoughts on the course itself. “Everybody knows peace is a good thing,” he says. “Everybody can sit around a campfire, roast marshmallows, and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ But what I want to know is, what are you going to DO?” I watch the interviews, biting my lip. I want to prompt them, but once again, I keep my mouth shut. Each student works to come up with the right words, but I can tell no one is satisfied with his answer.
Mark’s question is a good one: what ARE we going to DO? Well, we’re half way through the semester. I guess that gives us another nine weeks to figure it out.