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by Garland White

My studies in the humanities have taken me on what seems to have been a journey through space and time. It has been a journey filled with awe and excitement, a journey leaving me with a profound sense of gratitude and respect for the generations preceding me, and a journey that at time has left me feeling joyful through one era, and angry through another.

I have studied the prehistoric past and earliest civilizations, helping me to understand the beginnings of culture, and the Old and New Kingdoms. I have studied about the Greek World from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic World. I have studied the flowering of religion, the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Enlightenment Eras. In addition, I have studied the Age of Revolution, the Modernist World, and the Decades of Change. Now I feel almost breathless and exhausted.

Because the study of the humanities encourages me to understand my world and my place in it, it is as though I have come full circle in time back to my place of incarceration at Calipatria State Prison, where as a lifer I am required to demonstrate “insight” before I am ever to be paroled back into society; a requirement that I agree provides some assurance that I pose no threat to public safety. I am convinced that because of exploring the humanities I have strengthened my critical thinking process. Now I possess the ability to understand how people, culture, and environments have influenced me for better or worse, and why I made certain choices in life in response to those influences.

Following a conviction for voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder in 2009, I was sentenced to state prison for a term of 35 years to life (a lifer). This is an indeterminate sentence and, because of this, I am periodically seen by the California Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) to set my parole date. That is, unless they determine that I present a current threat to public safety. One reason the board might find me to be a current threat and unsuitable for parole is from a lack of insight and/or remorse. For inmates such as me, it is not always easy to articulate insight to the satisfaction of some BPH commissioners. That is because insight is highly subjective. Complicating matters is the intoxication of the inmate at the time of the crime. Many claim they are unable to recall exactly what happened due to intoxication; however, the BPH often interprets this claim as the inmate being in denial, evading, or minimizing, and therefore lacks insight.

Nevertheless, inmates should be prepared to: 1) Explain how they became the person who committed their crimes by looking at external and internal factors. 2) Demonstrate remorse by taking full responsibility for the crime and by explaining how they feel about what they have done. 3) Tell the BPH specifically what they have done to change.

Therefore, I see a correlation between the requirement of the BPH for lifers to have insight with the requirement of colleges for students to study humanities. This is because both essentially ask the same question: “Who are you?”

The study of the humanities coincides with my belief that other humans are merely a reflection of who we are, to whatever degree. I realize that some might argue: “But I am not like that person, self-centered and mean.” Yet, we have all been at one time or another “self-centered and mean.” So, I do see in my studies a reflection of who I am and most certainly can be. From one era to another, I read about people improving upon schools of thought or architecture.

For instance, Thomas Hobbes argued “that people are driven by two things—the fear of death at someone else’s hand. And the desire for power.” While John Locke disagreed and argued, “that people are perfectly capable of governing themselves,” and “that at birth the human mind is a blank slate.” Yet, both are correct in that we do have an innate fear and desire for survival, which entails the pursuit of power. And yes, we are capable of governing ourselves and creating thinking, attitudes, and beliefs that dictate our actions. Both of these schools of thought may have actually contributed to the various political parties that we have today: Republicans, Democrats, and Liberals.

With respect to architecture, we have seen man transcend the cave, the hut, the teepee, the pyramid, cathedrals, skyscrapers, and space stations. Humans are constantly seeking to improve upon the ideas and architecture of generations past. And so we come full circle to the central question: “Who are we?” Are we in the words of Marx, “What we make of ourselves?” I believe to a great extent that Marx is correct. We are people motivated by the need to survive and how we go about that is all a matter of choice. Everything stems from the choices we make.

My goal in life is to make choices that will contribute to the good of myself and that of all humanity. That is why the study of humanities has been so important to me because not only can I learn from the choices and traces of people before me, but I can get a good idea of where I want to fit in and make my own contribution in some big or small way.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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