[In which we use Dickens to once again shirk our important rehabilitative teaching duties…..]

The film is Scrooge, the actor is Alastair Sim. The class is ABLE MINDS. The group is a bunch of convicted felons that just want to watch a holiday movie without all the rehabilitative razzmatazz.

surplus population

So, after discussing one of the inmate’s conflict resolution assignments, we go right into the film. I worry that the third of the class who speak Spanish won’t understand the British accents, but we muddle through.

This is the 2nd Christmas season that I’ve offered A Christmas Carol in the Lending Library. The week before the 25th, we offer it twice, on consecutive evenings. Prisoners always sign up, and they’re always grateful for having seen it.

On this particular night, when I hear The Ghost of Christmas Present rebuke Scrooge with his own words about the ‘surplus population,’ it occurs to me for the first time in my career that I am sitting in this Library watching this film with representatives of that population. This scene, the film, and what I do for my living, are all given a certain urgency and meaning by this realization.  I consider this new thought a kind of serendipitous Christmas present, and I’m not entirely sure whom (Whom) to thank.

I have noticed that prisoners respond in one of two ways to educational films: either they’re embarrassed or nonplussed by the emotionality of the plot, laugh at inappropriate times, and make snide comments to each other — OR they’re quiet, attentive, and have honest, healthful emotional reactions to what’s being shown. On this night, I have people from the first group. This I feel is unfortunate, because these people have just completed eight weeks of intensive consequential thinking training.

The following night, I have men who fall into the second group. These are folks who signed up just for the pure pleasure of watching the film. The difference in their responses from the group of the previous night is remarkable, and I mention it to one of my clerks, who says: “They’re more mature.” Some men are in tears at various points in the plot. I’m always grateful when that happens, and it happens more often than you may imagine. I stoke this notion that tears are cleansing, and that prisoners need to cry.

There is a very self-conscious moment for all when the same Ghost again rebukes Scrooge with his own words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” All of us sitting there know emphatically that, indeed, 150 years after Dickens wrote the thing, there are plenty of prisons.

Showing this film to these people at this festive time of the year in order to solicit some tearful contemplation is our attempt at reaching “the Surplus.”