After the last remote-control lock on the last steel door opens with a loud, metallic clang, I walk into B-1, the two-tiered, oval-shaped “pod” at the Cumberland Country Jail in which I’ve been running a weekly Bible study for two-and-a-half years. The eighty-five inmates there are dressed in orange or blue. Some are in their teens. Some look to be in their sixties or seventies, but it’s hard to guess ages of men who live hard lives. Smoking, drinking, fighting, poor nutrition, repeated physical and/or emotional traumas age them prematurely.
Some stand in pairs talking. Some are stripped to the waist doing chin-ups on cross bars. Some are seated at steel tables bolted to the concrete floor and playing cards. Some are just standing around looking scary with neck and face tattoos around primal, calculating eyes. One, sometimes two correctional officers (COs in jail parlance) are on duty. He or she sits at a desk in the middle of the oval with electronic controls to all cells and rooms on both tiers. I wait a minute for the CO to recognize me and remotely unlock the door to my classroom on the lower tier.
Inmates are screened upon arrival at the jail before being assigned to various pods depending on whether they’re detoxing, suicidal, aggressive, or determined to be cooperative at some level. Inmates in B-1 have usually been sentenced to less than a year, but some are awaiting trial with potentially long prison sentences if found guilty. After further evaluation on the pod, some are chosen to work, usually in the kitchen where they earn “good time” — which is time off their sentences. Those inmates are called trustees and given blue jumpsuits, but they can “lose the blues” for bad behavior and be transferred to another pod.
Sometimes the CO announces that a Bible study is beginning, sometimes not. Inmates trickle into the classroom — maybe five, maybe fifteen or twenty which is all that can fit in the small room with a table and attached stools bolted to the middle of the floor. They bring in their own brown, plastic chairs and set them up around the edges. I might see two, three, or more familiar faces from previous weeks, or it might be an entirely new group.
Normally I’ll begin with a prepared lesson, but if it’s a new group I’ll repeat an introductory lesson. I tell them I’m a retired history teacher and not a Bible scholar. Some are familiar with the Bible while others know only that it’s some kind of holy book. I tell them it’s the revealed word of God for Christians divided into two parts. The Old Testament begins with creation and joins the historical record with the life of Abraham around 2000 BC. From there it proceeds to the birth of Jesus Christ 2018 years ago. The New Testament covers the life of Christ and the first generation of his disciples up to 80-100 AD.
Then I describe beliefs of Jews, Christians, and Muslims citing commonalities and differences, and offer a timeline for all three using a whiteboard. I’ll end by defining a Christian as someone who believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God who assumed human flesh and lived with us on earth for thirty-three years, was crucified by Romans, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven promising to return someday. I entertain all questions during that lesson.
The rest is here.