In one of the great ironies of his life, Arlando “Tray” Jones, III experienced a kind of liberation while living behind bars and barbed wire.
Confined to the Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore for a 1985 murder he says he never committed, Jones began studying philosophy with Drew Leder, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Loyola University Maryland, in the early 1990s.
Leder was part of a team of faculty members from the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area who taught college-level, non-credit courses in Maryland prisons—first at the Maryland State Penitentiary (now closed), and then at the Jessup Correctional Institution in Anne Arundel County.
“We were able to travel the world through discussion,” remembered Jones, a 54-year-old native of East Baltimore who was released from the Jessup Correctional Institution in 2022 after serving more than 37 years in Baltimore, Hagerstown, and Jessup prisons. Jones had been sentenced to life plus 20 years but was resentenced in July 2022 to time served. “We studied classics like The Odyssey and The Iliad—things that people like us in the prison system had never been exposed to before.”
Discussions, which Jones said could be quite animated, centered on great thinkers such as Epictetus and Nietzsche, Eastern texts such as the Tao Te Ching, and modern classics including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
“It gave me an ability to define my circumstances rather than have my circumstances define me,” said Jones, who also studied with Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J., associate professor of law and social responsibility in Loyola’s Sellinger School of Business and Management. “That classroom was like a citadel for learning, a place of great debate.”
Leder, who for decades has been an advocate and scholar for bringing education to prisoners, called mass incarceration in the United States “not only ineffective, but immoral,” for prison environments provide little stimulation and access to resources. “Philosophical tools offered by Western, Asian, and African philosophers speak to the existential struggles these individuals have to deal with,” Leder said. “How do I make life meaningful in this kind of environment? How do I evaluate and change previous patterns of behavior so I can remake myself? How do I find peace and meaning within myself even if the outside world is labelling me basically a worthless individual?”
Leder helped launch the Jessup Correctional Institution Scholars Program in 2009, an initiative through which Loyola professors volunteer at the prison to teach non-credit classes in a variety of disciplines. At its peak, the program educated 170 inmates and included more than a dozen Loyola faculty members.
Through Loyola’s Bridge Project, which Leder also helped design to bridge college campuses and prisons for mutual education, Loyola students studied side-by-side with inmates as co-learners and participated in book drives for prison libraries.
Today, due to the pandemic, faculty are prevented from teaching in the Jessup Correctional Institution; about five years ago, even before the pandemic began, new prison policies ended the presence of Loyola students in the prisons.
Leder, who co-wrote a book with inmates called The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, and Hope, said he’s proud that Loyola has planted the seeds for the expansion of educational opportunities in prisons over the last several years.
Since 2012, Goucher College has offered classes at the Jessup Correctional Institution and the University of Baltimore has done so since 2016. Georgetown University, where Jones serves as program associate for its Prison and Justice Initiative, offers a Prison Scholars Program that provides college-credit courses at the D.C. jail and a full bachelor’s degree program at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup.
“In many ways, Loyola’s involvement opened space for other institutions,” Leder explained.
One of the key initiatives of the Bridge Project is a brochure produced by Loyola faculty to help prisoners learn skills for meditation. The brochure, which has been distributed to more than 10,000 prisoners around the country, includes information about Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and non-religiously affiliated mindfulness. It connects inmates with correspondence courses and programs to assist in developing a contemplative, meditative practice while in prison and includes an abbreviated version of St. Ignatius’ Examen.
Jessica Locke, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy, who contributed to the brochure, first reached out to prisoners long before she became an academic, running a weekly social justice personal development group at a juvenile detention center in Colorado. At Loyola, she helped develop a philosophy course called Justice and Mass Incarceration. “The course was an inspiring blend of activism, rigorous academic work, and the Jesuit ethos of social justice and collective action to create a more just society.”
The aforementioned Fr. Brown, who grew up in a small Ohio town where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed, said it’s vital for Loyola to be involved in the education of prisoners. Not only is it a matter of social justice, but Jesuits have a storied connection to prisons.
Early Jesuits ministered in the prisons of Italy, Fr. Brown said, and the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, himself was locked up in an Inquisition prison in Spain. Jesuit martyrs were imprisoned in England during the Reformation; in more recent times, Rev. Walter Ciszek, S.J., endured a Siberian prison camp for 23 years, and several American Jesuits have been imprisoned for their actions against war and nuclear weapons.
In his teaching in Maryland prisons, Fr. Brown said he makes clear that what Loyola offers is a true Jesuit education that insists on the same academic rigor demanded on the Evergreen campus. He admitted he has a reputation as a “really tough teacher who doesn’t put up with a lot of crap.” Yet he also enjoys being able to laugh and joke with the inmates.
“I really tried to step it up for them,” said Fr. Brown. Many of the people he’s met in prison have inspired him—so much so that he saves the essays he’s assigned to inmates over the years.
“The biggest challenge—and many prisoners will tell you this and are angry about this—is that many of them come from schools with awful discipline,” Fr. Brown said. “Discipline is probably the secret to a good education, and I think they find the Catholic approach to learning very attractive.”
By George P. Matysek, Jr., Contributing Writer, Loyola University Maryland