A Matter of Degrees

THREE DECADES AGO I did a four-year stint behind bars. I wasn’t incarcerated—I worked as a correctional officer at the maximum security jail for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office in Clearwater, Fla. It wasn’t a career I planned on pursuing.

After high school, I couldn’t afford higher education. I earned an associate’s degree from the local community college, working initially at a video game arcade, then at a factory my dad owned. At the time, I was thinking about a career in law, so my mother and stepfather, both of whom were patrol deputies, suggested that I apply for a job at local law enforcement agencies in order to pay my way through school; the sheriff’s department where they worked ended up hiring me. That’s how I earned my bachelor’s degree while working full time as one of the youngest correctional officers at the jail.

During the semesters I worked the night shift at the jail, I took classes during the day; when I worked the day shift, I took night classes. The contrast between the classrooms and the battleship gray corridors lined with steel-barred cells was striking. At the time, I did not like the jail job; I couldn’t wait until I could “escape” to graduate school.

THAT WAS A long time ago. I did make it to graduate school, though I wound up studying theological ethics, not law, and eventually became a professor. But those four years in a Florida jail were a formative time for me—a time that continues to inform my teaching and writing.

Those memories grew especially vivid last year while I was teaching an ethics course for corrections officers and staff at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center. The maximum security facility, located 60 miles south of St. Louis in the small town of Bonne Terre, is Missouri’s largest state prison, holding more than 2,600 inmates.

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