Someone Else’s Grandkids

We took our grandkids to prison today. And this right after they visited their saintly 98-year-old great-grandma. We thought the contrast would provide an interesting day. And besides, the old Ohio State Reformatory was on our way home.

The kids were incredulous when we drove up to the reformatory.

“This looks like a castle,” one of them said.

And from the outside, it did. The architect used three styles—Victorian Gothic, Romanesque and Queen Anne—to inspire inmates, to help them become ready to re-enter society. But once inside, life was anything but uplifting.

The prison, built to hold 1,500 people became quickly overcrowded and notorious for poor conditions. Kitchens were overrun with rats and their droppings visible in food. Punishment involved water hoses, sweatboxes (for non-white inmates), electroshock, and confinement in a hole in the ground.

A federal court finally closed the prison because of inhumane conditions, but not before the deadliest prison fire in United States history broke out. As smoke filled a block of 600 cells stacked six tiers high, inmates begged to be let out. But most guards refused to unlock doors. When the roof collapsed on the upper level of cells, 160 inmates burned to death. And by the time the fire was under control, 320 people had died and another 130 were seriously injured.

I had learned these stories while teaching at a state prison decades ago. But I had never seen what touched me most on this tour—the writing on basement walls, where overcrowding had turned storage areas into dormitories.

“Use the flashlight on your cell phones,” our tour leader said. “And find the writing on the walls.”

Two of my grandsons, both of them towering over me, one of them the age of the youngest inmates I had taught, joined me in reading name after name. Important dates were listed under some names and inmate numbers under others. Under still others were numbers counting the years since sentencings.

“I’m here,” these markings seemed to say. “I’m a person. I matter.”

Standing In that dim dungeon of a room with my grown-tall grandsons, I caught a new sight of those young inmates I had taught so long ago. They were someone’s grandchildren, someone’s great-grandchildren. If I could teach them again, I’d try to keep this firmly in mind.

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