Teaching Civics to Prisoners

Jack Thompson is a former attorney who fought for decades with the entertainment industry in an effort to reduce its marketing and sale of adult entertainment to minors. Tyndale House published his autobiography, Out of Harm's Way, about that effort. He resides in Coral Gables, Florida, with his wife of forty years, Patricia.


I'm a political conservative who has been teaching civics to Florida prison inmates for the past two years. How in the world did that happen?

As a teen I became a "politics addict" because my favorite high school teacher taught an American Government class—in the Civil Rights and Viet Nam War era. If a teacher could make sense of all that, he could make sense of anything.

He was passionate about the notion that we could not be useful citizens unless we knew what was required of us as citizens. How do you follow the Constitution if you don't know what's in it? He taught us that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are not only the products of our national history—warts and all—but the shapers of it, too. He taught us that we might make a difference in the body politic.

My wife and I were newlyweds when we arrived in Florida in 1976. Our honeymoon was driving a U-Haul from Minneapolis to Miami. As a Republican, I was excited that we would be renting a tiny home on Key Biscayne, site of Nixon's tropical White House.

In that home, my wife and I studied for the Florida Bar exam. She passed. I failed. It was such a disturbing blow, realizing that I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was. The failure broke me, so my Christian wife dragged me down the street to Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, where Nixon worshiped. I heard the gospel clearly for the first time, and I believed. I then felt what I now know: Becoming a lawyer was a gift from my Creator, and I should not just use that gift for my own ends. That's the reason I'm in the prisons now.

But what possible use is civics to prisoners? Thomas Jefferson offers this answer:

No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and … their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice … These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.

Whom would we rather have "encouraged in habits of virtue" and "deterred from those of vice" than felons about to be released back into society? Someone who knows he has "skin in the game" is more likely to act responsibly once he re-enters the game. Believe me: Prisoners' minds are spinning. Better that they spin with Locke and Montesquieu and Tocqueville.

Florida is blessed with Florida Statute 944.803, which mandates faith-based and character-based education and programs for prisoners. Civics classes fit nicely into this statutory mandate, as I teach from a nonpartisan course of study created by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution chaired by Chief Justice Warren Burger. The Commission was comprised of men and women from across the political and academic spectrums and from both sides of the aisle in Congress. The text objectively teaches the moral and religious underpinnings of our Constitution and the civic virtue necessary for its survival.  

Despair is not hard to find in prison, so to teach a prisoner that he has a stake in our civic institutions is to give him a reason for hope. My best student in my first class would always say, at the right moment, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." There is hope in that. There is hope in the Declaration of Independence. Prisoners, of all people, need to hear it and know it.

Tell me this isn't true: You set out to be a blessing to someone, and you wind up being blessed. In the first civics class I taught in prison, at Florida's Dade Correctional Institution, one student, serving a life sentence, opined that it was hypocritical for the Southern states to want slaves to be counted fully as persons for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives while at the same time claiming they were mere property. Another student responded that the 3/5 formula was necessary to achieve agreement on the Constitution and then ratification, and that with no Constitution there would not be a nation in which slaves might, just might, be treated as persons.

How can I not be blessed by seeing the Constitutional Convention so respectfully reenacted by men whom some in society would just as soon keep out of sight and out of mind!

Thirty-nine of our fifty states recognize felons as “once and future citizens” and restore their civil rights once they do their time. Justice Brandeis wrote, "The most important political office is that of the private citizen." A felon who knows he has the responsibilities of citizenship has reasons to act like a citizen, not a pariah.

However, Florida is the most difficult state for a felon to restore his civil rights. Some of my Republican friends, afraid of possibly empowering more Democratic voters, don't understand why I would want felons to have their civil rights not just restored but directed by civics instruction. I tell these fellow Republicans three things: First, it is the right thing to do. Second, it is the smart thing to do—not only for the above reasons, but because the political party that restores full citizenship to felons may just be the beneficiary of their electoral gratitude. Third, my surprising experience is that prisoners are not monolithic in their party affiliation. I have African American students who could have written a GOP platform. I have white students from the South who would vote Democratic if they had the chance. I am encouraged that "identity politics" are inoperable in prison.

In the meantime, please consider whether you might want to teach civics in a local correctional facility. If you contact me by email at amendmentone@comcast.net, I will help you, and I guarantee you it will be one of the coolest things you will ever do.