I come home from the prison tonight contemplating this question: if a man does evil, is he evil?

There is an inmate in our class who believes that, with very few exceptions, that a person is either evil or good. An evil person might occassionally do a good act, but that does not negate the fact that he is evil. Equally, a good person may do bad, but is not evil. This view creates a great deal of debate in the group, volunteers included. Of course, as a volunteer, I go to the prison with a firm belief that those who have done evil are capable of doing good/being good. I hold onto a naive faith in rehabilitation, and refuse to assume rehabilitation isn’t possible simply because an inmate fails at succeeding one more time. I guess maybe I hold onto a fear that if I give up on the possibility for all persons to change for the better (whether you’re ever convicted of your “crime” or not) then I’d also have to give up on the idea that as a species we exist to contribute, to aim to be our higher selves, to do good. The evil in the world overwhelms me most days, so I have to hold on firmly (and maybe with some naivety) to the belief that we are all capable of better…even the worst amongst us.

It’s uncommon, in my experience at the prison, to find an inmate who believes the opposite. To basically classify himself as an evil person. Capable of doing good, yes. But evil none the less. Most of the guys spend time telling us stories that help us to see that they are as complex as those of us not locked up. The inmate who professes to hold this belief about his evilness is smart and kind, a good student, always respectful in the group, working his way through several college courses and mentoring incoming inmates. In my opinion he is a good man who has done evil and should not be defined by those evil moments. He should be punished for them–yes–but not defined by them.

If he does truly believe his existence is an evil one then I have all sorts of questions. Not the least of which is then why does he even bother? Why the classes, the writing, the reading? What is he working for? Can you exist if you define yourself as evil? To what end? Is he being being more honest about his own nature than any of us can ever really be? Or is it easier for him to define himself as evil so as not to grapple with his guilt about his crimes?

Yet, in many cases those of us on the outside have bought into this inmate’s belief about himself. We learn that our new neighbor served time, or that an applicant for a job is a felon, and we are disinclined to give them a chance. Why? Because some part of us believes he is more capable of evil than good. That he may be able to do the job, but he’s more likely to steal from the company. That he might be a good neighbor, but he’s more likely to deal drugs. We classify people as good or bad as a way to make our own lives easier. If a man is a felon, then we can dismiss him and move onto other things. But we can’t dismiss them. To do so is to dismiss some complicated parts of ourselves. That part of us that knows we too are capable of evil on some level, for some reason, maybe. That shadow self we’d rather ignore.

Sometimes I wish we could take our entire meeting time and just discuss questions like this with the group. These men have a knowledge about the human soul and spirit that is different than my own. They are wise in ways that I am not. I feel like if we had the time to pull about the question of evil and good we’d come to some interesting places. And I know I’d go away knowing myself and the world all that much more.

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