Milton’s Cap­tive Audi­ence

Alison Chapman

PMS 9 | 2009

Teaching Paradise Lost in a Maximum Security Prison

Note: the names of all inmates in the this essay have been changed.


“I don’t like this vision of Eden,” Thomas says. As always, he sits, long legs sprawled apart, by the one door of the cin­der block room that serves as the prison’s class­room. A tall Ugan­dan with wide shoul­ders, he has a habit of tip­ping his head back a bit when he speaks. He asks, in his lilt­ing accent, “Why are there so many walls around Adam and Eve?” I can hear the clang of doors and the echo­ing sounds of pass­ing inmates out­side the class­room as they move from the exer­cise yard back to their assigned cell blocks. Thomas pushes the door fully shut to dampen the noise, and I know the win­dow­less class­room will soon become uncom­fort­ably hot and stuffy. “What kind of God” he com­plains, “would cre­ate per­fect crea­tures and not trust them with freedom?”

It is the fourth week since I have returned to Don­ald­son Cor­rec­tional Facil­ity to lead dis­cus­sions of John Milton’s epic Par­adise Lost, but the den­sity of male bod­ies in that tiny space still makes me ner­vous. Sev­en­teen inmates are crowded into the ten-by-twelve foot room, each man’s knees and elbows touch­ing his neigh­bors’. Sit­ting at the front, I have about four­teen inches of free space on either side of me–an expan­sive field of per­sonal space in a prison that packs three inmates into cells built for one. Every thirty min­utes or so, a cor­rec­tions offi­cer opens the door a few inches and runs a prac­ticed eye over the seated inmates while the clamor of the cor­ri­dor washes into the rel­a­tive quiet of our class­room. Despite such abrupt moments of super­vi­sion from out­side, I have the clear impres­sion that Thomas is really in charge in a more impor­tant sense, mon­i­tor­ing the shift­ing moods of the men around him–my “self-appointed bouncer,” the prison psy­chol­o­gist, Dr. Deb­o­rah Mar­shall, has called him. As I look at this intel­li­gent, self-possessed man, it seems sud­denly inevitable that he would be trou­bled by the topog­ra­phy of Eden.


• • •

I first vis­ited Don­ald­son on a Novem­ber evening two months ear­lier, when I’d vol­un­teered for a slot in the lec­ture series my uni­ver­sity spon­sors in the prison. It was the ideal ser­vice activ­ity, I thought, for an over­com­mit­ted junior pro­fes­sor and mother: a one-time con­tri­bu­tion (two hours plus dri­ving time) that would make for a good story afterwards.

When Don­ald­son came into view for the first time, I had inad­ver­tently slowed my car almost to a halt. Gar­ishly lit by spot­lights, it matched every stereo­typ­i­cal image I had of a max­i­mum secu­rity prison: a long cement build­ing with thin slits for win­dows, high watch tow­ers and coils of razor wire. A for­mer fed­eral mar­shal of my acquain­tance had informed me that Don­ald­son is a rough place even by max­i­mum secu­rity stan­dards. Built in 1985 to house Alabama’s vio­lent, repeat offend­ers, it boasts the largest soli­tary con­fine­ment unit in the state. Ten­sions sim­mer con­stantly in the over­crowded cell blocks, and stab­bings and other forms of assault are not uncommon.

Two or three dozen inmates, clad in white cov­er­alls, fil­ter into the prison’s spa­cious Vis­i­ta­tion Yard and take their seats in rows of plas­tic chairs. Offi­cers take up flank­ing posi­tions at the sides of the room. I flip ner­vously through my lec­ture notes as every­one gets set­tled, bemused by the sur­real fact that I’m about to dis­cuss the progress of the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion in sixteenth-century Eng­land with some of Alabama’s most vio­lent felons. Once I get past the dry­ness in my throat, how­ever, the lec­ture goes quite well. After­wards the men sur­prise me with a series of thought­ful, intel­li­gent ques­tions about sub­jects rang­ing from Galileo and the Inqui­si­tion to the phi­los­o­phy of Spin­oza. One inmate asks a ques­tion about gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship in the period, and in my answer, I men­tion John Milton’s name almost casu­ally, half-thinking about the grad­u­ate sem­i­nar on Mil­ton I taught that morn­ing. As if I have thrown an invis­i­ble switch, an inmate in the front row–a white man with thick gray hair and bright blue eyes–spontaneously begins quot­ing line after flaw­less line of Par­adise Lost, part of Milton’s descrip­tion of the love­li­ness of Eden.

I am lit­er­ally too sur­prised to speak for a moment. Finally, I fum­ble out a ques­tion. “Can I ask your name?”

“James,” he says.

“For those of you who aren’t famil­iar with what James here was just quot­ing, it’s a pas­sage from Par­adise Lost, John Milton’s poetic retelling of the Adam and Eve story. One of the priv­i­leges of my job is that I get to teach this work on a reg­u­lar basis.”

Some strange alchemy occurs at that moment. As I real­ize later, a set of hopes and desires wells up, encour­aged by the tiny win­dow of oppor­tu­nity that I have unknow­ingly opened. Here is a group of intel­li­gent men doing hard time in a prison that offers only GED classes to its inmates. They are eager to learn, eager to pass the time, eager to see some­one from the out­side, espe­cially when that some­one is a young woman who treats them with cour­tesy and respect. And I am that young woman, an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor well versed in a poem that sits at the top of the lit­er­ary canon, that sounds inter­est­ing, and that one of them already likes.

I see whis­pered con­sul­ta­tions in the audi­ence, and a few min­utes later, when I ask for one last ques­tion, a tall black inmate in the back row raises his hand and asks, “Would you come back and teach Par­adise Lost to us?” I just stare at him, ren­dered inar­tic­u­late by the thought that these men want to read Milton’s arcane seventeenth-century epic for fun.

“Well,” I say after a long pause, search­ing for a rea­son to say no, “I have small chil­dren so evenings are pretty tough.” The cor­ner of the inmate’s mouth twitches up in a sup­pressed smile. He says, “You could come dur­ing the day. We’re always here.”


• • •

As Mil­ton explains in Book 4 of Par­adise Lost, Adam and Eve live atop a kind of huge fer­tile plateau ris­ing above the plain of Eden. Some­day they and their descen­dants will fill the entire earth, but for now they are con­tained inside the Garden’s series of dense, veg­e­ta­tive walls. Although the top of the plateau is a lush and hos­pitable place, its sides are a “steep wilder­ness” with “thicket over­grown, grottesque and wilde.” Next come rows of immense trees and then “the ver­durous walls of par­adise” (pre­sum­ably another tightly woven hedge) and then finally, on the inside, “a cir­cling row / Of good­liest Treest loaden with fairest Fruit.”

Sit­ting in our tiny class­room deep inside the prison, the inmates and I pore over Milton’s descrip­tions of these con­cen­tric fences. I dart a wist­ful glance at the chalk­board, the only form of dec­o­ra­tion on the oth­er­wise bare, off-white walls.  The bound­aries around Par­adise would have been much eas­ier to show visu­ally. Get­ting to the board here, how­ever, would mean mov­ing half the stu­dents. Worse, it would require me to leave the secu­rity of my chair.

When I phoned Dr. Mar­shall the day after my lec­ture and com­mit­ted to come back and teach Par­adise Lost, I had assumed that the inmates and I would meet in the vis­i­ta­tion yard. She told me, how­ever, that because of staffing con­straints, the class would have to meet inside the com­pound. I hes­i­tated for just a moment but then agreed, tak­ing it for granted that the prison’s sin­gle class­room would roughly resem­ble every other class­room I have known. I had no idea that we would be meet­ing in a room that felt like a walk-in closet.

From the very first class, I could sense the par­al­lels between this group of men incar­cer­ated for years and Milton’s Satan, who admits that Hell brings both a “pain of long­ing” and a “fierce desire” for all the beauty and inno­cence he has lost. In one of the queasi­est moments of Par­adise Lost, Mil­ton allows read­ers to see the inno­cence of Adam and Eve for the first time through Satan’s voyeuris­tic eyes. Stalk­ing covertly through the gar­den, Satan glimpses the pair “In naked Majestie,” and as they embrace, he turns from them with “jeal­ous leer maligne.” As I walk into class each week, filled with cheer­ful anec­dotes about uni­ver­sity and fam­ily life, I’m sure I seem, like Eve, an inno­cent crea­ture from another world. I often won­der whether the inmates feel at all like Satan, look­ing out at a con­tented full­ness he can­not share.

I think now about the tick­lish job of explain­ing why Par­adise has walls. As I drove out to the prison ear­lier this morn­ing, gaz­ing at the semi-rural Alabama land­scape and try­ing to imag­ine how Book 4 would res­onate with inmate-readers, it sim­ply hadn’t occurred to me that these men might regard the Garden’s “enclo­sure green” with a jaun­diced eye. Now I think of the perime­ter fence that lies between me and my car, a high-tech sand­wich of con­cen­tric chain link fences enclos­ing elec­tri­fied razor wire. I think, too, of the wide skirts of grass sur­round­ing the prison, and it occurs to me that “enclo­sure green” is a good label for Don­ald­son itself.


• • •

By object­ing to Eden’s perime­ter fences, Thomas has brought us up against a dif­fi­cult aspect of Milton’s think­ing. The walls around Par­adise have a defen­sive role (rais­ing the prob­lem­atic ques­tion, what is there to defend against in a per­fect world?), but they are pri­mar­ily meant to con­tain Adam and Eve in the fit place God has pre­pared for them. As unsa­vory as the idea can be for mod­ern read­ers, Mil­ton saw noth­ing inher­ently wrong with bound­aries. Adam and Eve’s chief task is to live vir­tu­ously within the lim­its that God sets for them. The period that devel­oped the son­net to its high­est form, the Eng­lish Renais­sance liked the idea of for­mal restraint. In other ways, as well, six­teenth– and seventeenth-century cul­ture empha­sized respect for bound­aries. Most of the vil­lains in Shakespeare’s plays, for exam­ple, are those–like Mac­beth or Iago–who dis­re­gard the ideal bonds of loy­alty, duty, and ser­vice that held the early mod­ern world together.

I love teach­ing Renais­sance lit­er­a­ture in part because I secretly agree with six­teenth– and seventeenth-century views about the dig­nity of curb­ing one’s desires. I grew up in a South­ern cul­ture that reveres deco­rum and polite­ness, espe­cially in women, and for years I took it for granted that hon­est expres­sion was less impor­tant than good man­ners. Although I don’t want to live inside walls like Adam and Eve, life imposes other less-literal bound­aries, and I most admire those indi­vid­u­als who accept these lim­i­ta­tions and cre­ate lives that are like sonnets–things of quiet beauty that do not rage against the restric­tions of form.

But I balk at telling the atten­tive, white-clad inmates sit­ting in a rough cir­cle around me–men prob­a­bly incar­cer­ated for crimes of vio­lent excess–that I think self-restraint is at the heart of an eth­i­cal and pro­duc­tive life. Don­ald­son is such an alien ecosys­tem, and when­ever I men­tion one of the more mov­ing human issues at stake in Par­adise Lost (such as how to be a lov­ing par­ent), I have this lit­tle inner voice that asks “Am I being a com­plete idiot here?” My prob­lem is that I don’t know my audi­ence. Is it ridicu­lously naïve to talk with max­i­mum secu­rity inmates about the eth­i­cal imper­a­tives of a work of lit­er­a­ture? Do these guys care about lead­ing moral and pro­duc­tive lives—and in this set­ting, what do those terms mean anyway?

Stalling, I opt for a safer his­tor­i­cal view­point. “I think it’s hard to be an Amer­i­can and read Milton’s descrip­tion of Eden,” I say. “As a nation, we have been obsessed with the allure of the fron­tier and wide-open spaces. But for cen­turies in Europe, it was the other way around. The fortress rep­re­sented safety and free­dom. In Milton’s world, you want walls around you.”

Joel, a stocky white man with a New York accent, looks at me for a moment with his head cocked. Then he says, “Ah, the light just went on. I get it.” Thomas, how­ever, is still frowning.

“Okay,” I say in his direc­tion, “I admit that Milton’s Par­adise is not my per­sonal utopia, but just for argument’s sake, why would Adam and Eve need to leave any­way? The Gar­den meets every pos­si­ble need. I think that, for Mil­ton, phys­i­cal free­dom is only good if you have some­thing vir­tu­ous to do with that free­dom. It’s Satan in this epic who hates walls and lim­its just for their own sake.”

“That’s prob­a­bly why we like Satan so much,” says Thomas. The rest of the class laughs appreciatively.

As I lis­ten to the chuck­les around me, I make a deci­sion: there’s no point in com­ing to Don­ald­son every Fri­day if I can’t say the things I ordi­nar­ily do, even at the risk of feel­ing like a cheery and opti­mistic car­toon char­ac­ter who has wan­dered into a Quentin Taran­tino film. I say, “Look, I think we have to for­get the idea that these walls mainly serve a prac­ti­cal pur­pose, like keep­ing Satan out or Adam and Eve in. Think of them instead as a phys­i­cal expres­sion of a spir­i­tual prin­ci­ple.” I explain the cru­cial dif­fer­ence Mil­ton sees between lib­erty and license. Real inner lib­erty requires self-restraint while license, ety­mo­log­i­cally linked to licen­tious­ness, means vio­lat­ing all due bound­aries. For Mil­ton, unchecked desire leads straight to spir­i­tual impris­on­ment. By obey­ing God’s pro­hi­bi­tion on the Tree and by respect­ing the walls around them, Adam and Eve para­dox­i­cally dis­play their spir­i­tual freedom.

Vir­gil, a tall black man with an ele­gant South­ern drawl, leans back against the wall and says almost to him­self, “It’s like alco­holism. Free­dom means not tak­ing a drink.”

“That’s exactly it!” I say, simul­ta­ne­ously sur­prised by his acu­ity and embar­rassed at my own stereo­typ­i­cal assump­tion that these men would not be sen­si­tive read­ers and thinkers. A half-second later, it occurs to me that they have prob­a­bly con­sid­ered the nature of free­dom in all its forms—both mate­r­ial and immaterial—far more than I. As if in echo of this thought, James shoots a sar­donic look around him and says “Well, this group ought to under­stand Milton’s point bet­ter than most. After all, we’re here because we broke the law.”


• • •

With every pass­ing week, the inmates exerted a grow­ing pull on my imag­i­na­tion. Like try­ing to walk across a slope, I found it dif­fi­cult to move through my daily life with­out hav­ing my thoughts slip sud­denly side­ways and down toward the world of Don­ald­son. Drink­ing cof­fee at home in the morn­ings, I often won­dered if the guys were awake yet, and read­ing to my chil­dren at night, I imag­ined the men lying in their nar­row bunks read­ing their cheap paper­back copies of Par­adise Lost. I often felt as if my week was spent try­ing to keep to the high road of my nor­mal rou­tines until Fri­day when I could aban­don myself to the Don­ald­son free fall. One way of keep­ing the prison in its place, metaphor­i­cally speak­ing, was to lock myself in my uni­ver­sity office, unplug the phone, and bury myself in research for an aca­d­e­mic book I’m writ­ing. One day, as I method­i­cally worked through a series of  books on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, I glanced up and saw the signed thank-you card from the inmates tacked to the wall above my com­puter. I was struck by the thought that my one-person office, hung with framed diplo­mas and fam­ily pic­tures, is scarcely smaller than the class­room at Don­ald­son. I tried to super­im­pose the one scene over the other, imag­in­ing those sev­en­teen white-clothed men, sit­ting around the perime­ter of my office.

Yield­ing to these thoughts, I pushed aside the stack of books and pulled out the inmate’s jour­nals. With Dr. Marshall’s approval, I had invited the men to write down their thoughts about Par­adise Lost and sub­mit them each week. She had reminded the men to con­fine their remarks to the read­ing, and she had warned me pri­vately, “I need you to let me know if they say any­thing inap­pro­pri­ate.” Look­ing at their jour­nals, I saw an unfa­mil­iar hand­writ­ing, and I real­ized that Olivier–a remark­ably beau­ti­ful young black man–had finally decided to con­tribute some­thing. I was struck by his ornate pen­man­ship. The down­strokes of his  let­ters con­tin­ued in ele­gant arcs and loops, and he wrote with sur­pris­ing elo­quence about Milton’s view of “knowl­edge within bounds.” He ended his brief essay with a care­fully phrased com­pli­ment directed at me.

Mus­ing over Olivier’s con­clu­sion, I next looked at Virgil’s jour­nal. He wrote about hav­ing Par­adise Lost sit­ting unread on his shelves back in the 70s. Like most of the inmates, Vir­gil described his awe at the depth and com­plex­ity of Par­adise Lost, and he con­cluded with what he would like to say to John Mil­ton if the man came to din­ner. He imag­ined the kinds of ques­tions he would ask Mil­ton, and then he wrote, “Finally, I would tell Mr. Mil­ton there’s some­one impor­tant he needs to meet, some­one he could learn a lot from. And I would turn and intro­duce YOU.”  I smiled spon­ta­neously when I first read this end­ing, but I then reread it with more com­pli­cated feel­ings. It is nor­mal for stu­dents to develop crushes on teach­ers, and the cir­cum­stances at Don­ald­son made Virgil’s ten­der­ness almost inevitable. Since this com­ment came from Vir­gil (a stu­dent I truly liked), it struck me as sweet and mov­ing and a lit­tle sad. But this com­ment also came from an inmate at a max­i­mum secu­rity prison–a man whose past and whose real char­ac­ter I did not know–and so it was also unnerv­ing. I thought again about the fact that pris­ons have per­me­able walls.

More alertly, I leafed through the other jour­nals, notic­ing that many of them included  com­pli­ments that shaded over into del­i­cate flat­tery. I have never felt more like Milton’s Eve. Hav­ing entered into the body of the ser­pent, Satan lures Eve by mak­ing her the sole object of his atten­tions, spin­ning her a lie about his own mirac­u­lous abil­ity to speak and rea­son. As he explains, he was “at first as other Beasts that graze / The trod­den Herb, of abject thoughts and low,” but eat­ing the fruit of a cer­tain tree has pro­duced “Strange alter­ation” in him: “to Spec­u­la­tions high or deep / I turnd my thoughts, and with capa­cious mind / Con­sid­erd all things vis­i­ble.” This grow­ing intel­lect, he says, allows him to rec­og­nize Eve’s excel­lence, and he twines his snaky body before her, address­ing her as “sovran Mis­tress” and “sole Won­der.” Like Satan, the men at Don­ald­son were engaged in “Spec­u­la­tions high and deep,” and this intel­lec­tual arc had pro­duced a series of com­pli­ments for the lone young woman in their midst. As I sat at my desk, the jour­nals in a small pile in front of me, I won­dered if the men’s com­pli­ments were geni­unely meant or, like Satan’s, attempts to manip­u­late. Or per­haps both.

That Fri­day, as we walked into the prison together, I men­tioned the men’s solic­i­tous­ness to Dr. Mar­shall. She said, “Oh, that. I started to tell you ear­lier. These guys love you.” She con­tin­ued with a smile, “You cer­tainly don’t need to worry about any prob­lems in the class­room. They will take care of any­one who tries to bother you.”

Both trou­bled and wryly amused at the idea of being cast in the role of Donaldson’s femme fatale, I asked “Did I do some­thing to encour­age this response?”

“Sure you did” she said with a laugh. “You smiled at them and looked them in the eyes. That’s usu­ally all it takes in here.” As we walked, I mulled over the des­per­ate pathos of men who could fall in love with a vir­tual stranger, lanced to the heart by what I regard as the most basic forms of com­mon courtesy.

Although Eve does not seem swayed by the serpent’s idol­a­trous flat­tery, she does not rebuke him either. I real­ized that Eve’s guarded inter­est mir­rored my own. The inmates’ atten­tive­ness made me take care­ful stock of my role at Don­ald­son, but it was not unwel­come, espe­cially since the men–instinctively aware of the kinds of lines they should not cross–clothed their flat­tery in the decent garb of grat­i­tude. I was tak­ing roughly four hours out of each Fri­day to vol­un­teer my time to these men. Fur­ther­more, my class was the only one at Don­ald­son with­out a reli­gious bias, a fact that allowed the non-Christian inmates (like the two Mus­lims, three athe­ists, one Bud­dhist, and one wic­can) to feel com­fort­able. In short, I was offer­ing a unique ser­vice at some per­sonal incon­ve­nience, and in return, the inmates offered com­pli­ments and thanks. A fair trade, overall.

But I also har­bored feel­ings that were less jus­ti­fied. Eve sins because she is vain, believ­ing that her supe­rior beauty should be matched by supe­rior knowl­edge and power, seem­ingly avail­able through the for­bid­den fruit. Don­ald­son had the ten­dency to lay bare my own moti­va­tions, and I unhap­pily con­sid­ered my own forms of van­ity. I am not self-indulgent about my appear­ance, and the idea that these men might find me phys­i­cally attrac­tive was not espe­cially inter­est­ing. But the inmates played to my van­ity in another way. I was the absolute cen­ter of atten­tion in that prison class­room, not only because I was the teacher but also because I was young, female, friendly, uncor­rupted, optimistic–in short, some­thing alien and appeal­ing. For my uni­ver­sity stu­dents, the excite­ment of learn­ing is spread out over roughly four years and scores of classes, but in the prison, it was con­cen­trated on me and John Mil­ton. Sit­ting in the cir­cle of inmates, I felt like I was the focus of sev­en­teen high-intensity spot­lights, and it was heady stuff.


• • •

I dis­cov­ered the very next Fri­day that my group of enam­ored stu­dents included some of the prison’s most noto­ri­ously ruth­less inhab­i­tants. I walked through Donaldson’s main doors that Fri­day to find the prison on lock­down. When the morn­ing head count comes up short, all inmates are con­fined to their bunks until the count can be repeated.

Dr. Mar­shall took me back to the offi­cers’ break room to wait in rel­a­tive com­fort, and I sat in a cor­ner, sip­ping thin cof­fee from a sty­ro­foam cup, star­ing idly at the green fil­ing cab­i­nets labeled “Death Row,” and lis­ten­ing to the con­ver­sa­tions around me. As the lock­down lifted, Dr. Mar­shall handed a ros­ter sheet to one of the offi­cers, a list of those inmates allowed out of their cell blocks to attend class. The offi­cer read some of the names aloud then snorted, “Good God! These guys? I’ll make sure to bring my stick.”

As Dr. Mar­shall and I walked toward the class, I stopped her and asked what the offi­cer meant. She shifted a lit­tle uneasily and answered, “Some of your guys have bad rep­u­ta­tions.” Naively, I had assumed that my stu­dents were among the more innocu­ous inmates. She looked at me lev­elly and said, “I didn’t pick the nice guys for this class. I picked the smart ones who know how to act appro­pri­ately around you.”

I won­dered if some of my stu­dents, given their “bad rep­u­ta­tions,” were part of the weapons sub­cul­ture at Don­ald­son. A dis­play case of con­fis­cated weapons stands in a cor­ner of the prison’s admin­is­tra­tive offices, and I had stud­ied these items a few weeks ear­lier as I waited for Dr. Mar­shall to fin­ish a con­ver­sa­tion with the war­den. Steel shanks filed from metal rulers, screw­drivers, and spoon han­dles were the most com­mon, although I also saw a gar­rote made from an exten­sion cord and a blow gun fash­ioned from PVC pipe. The plas­tic han­dle of one shank espe­cially caught my eye. The inven­tor had sharp­ened a metal stake and then melted a soda bot­tle around its base, hold­ing the hot plas­tic to mold fin­ger grips. I had often won­dered about the choice of white for the inmates’ uni­forms, but look­ing at the case, it occurred to me that white, so imprac­ti­cal a shade for a grubby cement world, had the advan­tage of show­ing blood well.

Coin­ci­den­tally, the inmates and I dis­cussed Book 6 that day, Milton’s depic­tion of the War in Heaven. Mil­ton lays par­tic­u­lar stress on the dif­fer­ent kinds of arma­ments used dur­ing the three-day war, con­trast­ing the swords wielded by the good angels with what he calls “Weapons more vio­lent”: the hell­ish can­nonry that Satan and his rebels forge in secret. The guys were espe­cially ani­mated that day, talk­ing in happy detail about the ethics of killing up close with a blade ver­sus hurl­ing death from afar. I kept glanc­ing uneasily at their hands, won­der­ing if the same hands mak­ing pen­ciled notes in the mar­gins of Par­adise Lost or ges­tur­ing expres­sively to help con­vey an idea had ever filed a piece of metal down to a killing point.

I pulled out of the prison park­ing lot deeply rat­tled by the events of the morn­ing. My thoughts kept obses­sively cir­cling the idea that men like Thomas, Vir­gil, and James were, in Dr. Marshall’s suc­cinctly bru­tal phrase, “the bad guys.” As I made the 40-minute drive back to my uni­ver­sity, it occurred to me that I had erected two con­ve­nient and ulti­mately self-serving fic­tions about these men.

First, while I knew that my stu­dents had done bad things in the past (why else were they at Don­ald­son?), I had imag­ined that these com­mit­ted read­ers of Mil­ton were deter­mined to redeem them­selves in some way, to cre­ate lives with a kind of upward moral arc. I wanted to believe that these men who seemed so sen­si­tive to Milton’s moral vision could not be child moles­ters or vio­lent sociopaths. This fic­tion, I now saw, had allowed me to jus­tify to myself my grow­ing regard for them. I did not at all like the idea that I was so charmed by men who might qual­ify as monsters.

Sec­ond, I had wanted to believe that some of my students–and espe­cially the bright and open-minded ones–had a future on the out­side. Sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, edu­ca­tion is the most reli­able way to pre­vent recidi­vism, and although mine was only a sin­gle class in Donaldson’s edu­ca­tional waste­land, I had naively imag­ined myself as con­tribut­ing in a small way to these men’s post-prison lives. Not only could I thus cast myself in the role of redeemer, but it was eas­ier to com­mit four hours out of a busy Fri­day when I thought that I was giv­ing these men a shot at a more pro­duc­tive future.

The specter of the inmates’ ruth­less­ness, I real­ized, under­mined my most basic assump­tion about teach­ing. My pro­fes­sional life has been built upon the belief that edu­ca­tion is inher­ently enrich­ing and that by read­ing works like Par­adise Lost, we gain not only knowl­edge but also moral dis­cern­ment. By teach­ing my stu­dents to read with sen­si­tiv­ity and to rea­son in care­ful and com­plex ways, I want to think that I am simul­ta­ne­ously help­ing them become more eth­i­cal indi­vid­u­als. Such ide­al­is­tic assump­tions, how­ever, made me ill-prepared for the men at Don­ald­son. As I drove home from Don­ald­son that day, I sar­don­ically asked myself, “Does it mat­ter if a man serv­ing three con­sec­u­tive life sen­tences can recite Satan’s lines—‘for onely in destroy­ing find I ease / to my relent­less thoughts’—as he stabs a rival in the exer­cise yard?”

Sit­ting back at my office desk, I turned on the com­puter and did some­thing I had not done before. I went to the Alabama Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions web site and clicked on the Inmate Search func­tion. If you enter an inmate’s name, you can learn his or her birth date, race, sex, insti­tu­tion and release day. I typed in Thomas’s name first and felt my stom­ach drop as I stared at the release date: “00/00/0000.” Half-praying that Thomas was just an aber­ra­tion, I quickly typed in Jimmy’s name and then Virgil’s and then all my other favorite stu­dents, the men who had impressed me so much with their intel­li­gence, good humor, and cour­tesy. With just one excep­tion (James, who was released on parole near the end of the class), every sin­gle one came up with the same string of zeros. These men would pre­sum­ably die at Don­ald­son or a com­pa­ra­ble facility.

It took me four more weeks of teach­ing at Don­ald­son before I found a good answer to the per­sis­tent and press­ing ques­tion, “Why am I doing this?” Real teach­ing, I finally real­ized, is rooted in love, and the only com­pelling rea­son to keep going back to Don­ald­son was that, at some level, I loved these men. To be exact, I loved what they became in that class­room. Thomas had already asked me, only half in jest, if I would come back and teach them Par­adise Lost over and over again in per­pe­tu­ity. Willy, a lanky white man with red hair and a deep coun­try accent, had surged to his feet at the end of one par­tic­u­larly intense dis­cus­sion, spread out his arms, and announced to the class that Mil­ton was “god­dam amazing.”

At such moments, I felt a surge of belief in the trans­for­ma­tive power of edu­ca­tion. When Vir­gil com­mented, “Read­ing Mil­ton is mak­ing me a more tol­er­ant per­son,” or when Elliott–a middle-aged black man with a sunny dis­po­si­tion and biceps like grapefruit–said, “I think Par­adise Lost is so impor­tant because Mil­ton shows you every good kind of love,” I felt as if that dingy cin­der block room had grown sud­denly brighter. But even at my most opti­mistic moments, I could not shake the nag­ging ques­tion, “Am I being scammed?” These inmates wanted me to keep com­ing back for a vari­ety of rea­sons, and they were smart enough–and pos­si­bly cor­rupt enough–to tell me what I wanted to hear. Early in the class, Dr. Mar­shall had told me, “Remem­ber that you are the enter­tain­ment.” I thought at first she meant that the class was a wel­come diver­sion from the monot­ony of prison life. “No,” she cor­rected me. “You are the enter­tain­ment. The men will be sin­cere in one sense, but they will also have fun see­ing if they can play mind games with you.”

I undoubt­edly was being scammed (albeit to dif­fer­ent degrees by dif­fer­ent inmates), and in the end it just didn’t mat­ter. My job was to shed my sus­pi­cions at the door of the class­room and to act as if what I heard and saw in the class­room was, in fact, the real truth about these men. Maybe Elliott was not being hon­est when he said that Mil­ton had a lot to show him about love, and maybe Vir­gil was just manip­u­lat­ing me when he said that Par­adise Lost was teach­ing him tol­er­ance. I have no way of know­ing, nor do I ever want to find out. I sus­pect that some of the inmates came to my class with glee­fully cor­rupt motives, feign­ing inter­est in the mate­r­ial as the price of admis­sion. But I am also con­fi­dent that some of them would have liked to be the good men they were pre­tend­ing to be. I want to think that the power of Milton’s poetry, per­haps com­bined with my own cheer­ful ide­al­ism, served as a kind of mir­ror, one that showed them not what they actu­ally were but what, in another life or with another set of cir­cum­stances, they could have become. It is likely that some of them stepped out of the class­room and back into long­stand­ing habits of ruth­less­ness. But for two hours each Fri­day morn­ing, they all acted like kind and decent human beings. Per­haps in a place like Don­ald­son that is as pro­found a trans­for­ma­tion as one can rea­son­ably expect.