I had some very sad news while traveling on Monday, March 28th. I learned that one of my favorite students in recent memory – Douglas Scott Arey (September 26, 1948 – March 27, 2016), a 67-year-old inmate at Jessup who served 43 years of a life sentence – died the previous day. Doug took my Summer 2015 course on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. He was a steady source of good humor, common sense and civility, and always showed a lot of respect for the views of others. He was cheerful and dedicated to learning despite being caged for almost half a century for a crime of which I’m told he always maintained his innocence. I also gather from my friend and fellow Jessup instructor Joshua Miller that Doug won many appeals, most recently in 2007, due to procedural malfeasance surrounding his conviction.
I was pretty upset when I had some time alone at home to reflect on a blurry photograph of Doug that Dr. Miller shared. I know nothing about Doug’s arrest and conviction beyond a cryptic account I found online. It’s always my policy while teaching at Jessup never to inquire about these things. Perhaps ironically given the circumstances, I don’t regard it as any of my business. More importantly, it’s not relevant to what I am there to do as an instructor and fellow student. And I know nothing about the status of Doug’s family or other personal relations outside Jessup. They’re really none of my business, either. But as I sat with Doug’s photo, I found myself wondering how many grieve for him now that he’s gone.
The sheer volume of the U.S. prison population is staggering. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Knowing someone like Doug personally, having been endeared by his generous personality, remembering the kind things he said about my teaching – once in class, he remarked with some bewilderment that I treat him and the other prisoners like equals: like all my experiences at Jessup, my brief acquaintance with Doug makes the incarceration of millions of my fellow citizens emotionally intelligible to me.
Being agnostic as I am about Doug’s background circumstances is an odd, mixed luxury. My grief over his death is not only from great distance given how briefly and how little I knew him, but it’s mediated by my total ignorance of defining elements of his past. One consequence is that I can hardly be said to have known the man, and I don’t want to give any other impression.
Still, my experience with Doug deepens the impact teaching at Jessup has had on me since I began going there in 2013. It makes me feel ashamed of my privilege at not having police crosshairs branded into me because of my race. It makes me feel disoriented by the sheer mass of humanity, perversely anonymous on such a scale, circulating through a system for warehousing human beings, each as fallible, irreplaceably unique and mortal as Doug.
Like most of my students at Jessup, Doug taught me much. I don’t much see myself as a religious person but somehow Matthew 25:36 has never been far from my mind when I’ve visited Jessup—“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Above all, my acquaintance with Doug makes me grateful for the chance to learn so much from those visits.