The Common Good

My Education in Wake County Jail

I got locked up once when I was in seminary. It was the dead of winter, and for some months a group of Christian peacemakers in North Carolina had been organizing civil disobedience to public executions at the state prison in Raleigh. Four or five times they had arrested and booked us, then let us out in the night on a promise to appear in court. Finally, the DA had enough. He asked the magistrate to set our bonds at $5,000 each. We put on the orange jumpsuits and got processed into the general population.

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I'll never forget the morning I walked onto the overcrowded fourth floor of the Wake County Jail. With my newly issued mat in hand (they didn't have any bunks left), I looked for a place on the floor. I found one beside a fellow who was glad to talk.

"What you in for?" he asked. I asked if he'd seen the execution on the news the night before. "Yeah," he said. I told him I'd been arrested for trying to stop it.

"Well," he told me, "the train starts here."

"What do you mean," I asked.

"The train that ends at death row -- it starts here. Most of us knew each other before we got here," he told me. "We're all from the same zip code."

I didn't stay very long. A lawyer who heard about our case volunteered to meet me at my first appearance in court. He told the judge I wasn't a flight risk. She dropped the bond and let me out to finish my semester at seminary. But I remember going back to class -- going back to those discussions about salvation and scripture and history -- and thinking about how most of us were from the same zip codes, figuratively if not literally. What difference would it make if we read the Bible with the folks in the county jail? What if we learned one another's stories? What if we thought about church as something we were called to be together?

Those are the questions that led to Project TURN (Transform, Unlock, Renew), a course School for Conversion offers in North Carolina prisons where inmates and seminary students study together. Our Spiritual Memoir class was featured on a recent NPR show. Listening to these women read from their memoirs convinced me that the day I spent in a jumpsuit was an education I could use more of.

To learn more about Project TURN, visit

portrait-jonathan-wilson-hartgroveJonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is author of God's Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel.

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