In the mid-50s (I was Class of ’58) the general spirit of the nation was one of turning inward and self-involvement. The campus did not offer many organized programs of service to the community. When I joined PBH, I found that I was not particularly well-suited for most of their projects. But since I enjoyed learning, I presumed that teaching would be a good fit, so I signed up for the Prison Tutoring program.
I think I went a few times to the Concord Correctional Institution, but I remember not liking it too much – all those cells and bars and checkpoints and tough-looking guards felt too much like being in prison. Fortunately I was able to switch to the Norfolk Prison Colony, and in particular the minimum security section which was set up with unlocked dormitories and class and work buildings. It resembled a Summer Camp for teenagers – sort of Harvard Yard with modern buildings, so I felt quite comfortable there.
I know that I learned more from those discussions about the societal forces that can draw even intelligent men into crime than I ever learned in my sociology classes at Harvard.
I was a social relations/psychology major with a taste for the ironic, so I offered to teach criminology. I got a good turnout for my classes, and while I’m sure some were attending just to get good-behavior points, there were several of the inmates, especially the older ones, who seemed genuinely interested in understanding the topic and understanding themselves. After my formal presentation in each class, we would all discuss the material, and the best part of the class for me was when one of my students took pity on an academic kid with no practical experience in real life and patiently and respectfully explained how things really worked in the criminal world. Occasionally the men would reveal the crimes they had committed, and I was surprised to learn that among the gentlest of the men were some who had done terrible things. The men’s comments had the ring of candor; if someone tried to talk in a way that he thought was what I wanted to hear, one of his classmates would be quick to call him on it.
I came to respect the intelligence and honesty of many of the men. I can’t honestly say how helpful my prison classes were to the inmates, but I know that I learned more from those discussions about the societal forces that can draw even intelligent men into crime than I ever learned in my sociology classes at Harvard.