Teaching Paradise Lost in a Maximum Security Prison

By Alison A. Chapman

This is an excerpt from Chapman's award-winning essay on her experiences
teaching inmates at Alabama's Donaldson prison.


Inmates attend a lecture at Donaldson prison.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.”

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