I had driven past the metal bridge leading to the prison a thousand times, literally – driving past on the way to and from work for a year, and then once or twice per week for the past eight years to run errands.

Although the prison might have been only across the river, it might as well have been on a different planet.

But last week I finally crossed the bridge as the guest of a friend who teaches in the prison. Ostensibly, the class she teaches is on health and wellness, but my friend has taken the opportunity to go deeper by studying food and the food system with her students, reading authors such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin, watching documentaries such as Supersize Me and Food, Inc. Although she’s very humble about it, I wonder whether there’s another person anywhere in the country studying such material with inmates?

I was invited to give a presentation about our farm and restaurant. I accepted at once with no hesitation. Nothing about the idea of walking into a prison gave me pause. But I can’t deny that I had to face the fact that I knew nothing about prisons or inmates. Like most Americans, going to a prison was as unfamiliar to me as going to the Middle East or Africa would be. Most of my acquaintances and peers don’t know anyone in prison and certainly haven’t been in prison themselves. Most of us have a vague sense of pity, perhaps, or fear, or even revulsion for prisoners. But most of us have no real knowledge of the culture of prisons or prisoners.

I suppose every prison is different, but my first reaction upon entering this compound was how much like a school it felt. People walking to and fro (I was shocked by the free-ranging of the inmates), people playing on the basketball court, people eating in the cafeteria. People saying hi to friends and having conversations. It all seemed so normal. And why shouldn’t it? Inmates, after all, are people just like you and me.

But just like in a school, there was a clear sense of hierarchy. Guards giving inmates a hard time. Inmates addressing teachers as Mr./Ms. ____________. When I find myself in such a situation, with a palpable sense of superiority and inferiority, my first instinct is to break those roles. I once got a teaching job in part because I took the time to shake the hands of my students at the beginning of my teaching demonstration. It was the same with the prisoners. I shook as many hands as I could as they entered the room, as if to say we are all equals, we are all human beings.

I realized our paths had diverged in dramatic ways based on choices we’d made, but that fundamentally our places could have been reversed if not for the vagaries of chance and circumstance. I was not a superior person for having been given gifts and opportunities denied to others. In shaking hands and meeting inmates eye to eye, I saw not strangers but brothers.

Of course, as important a realization as that is, there is another side. The harsh truth is that some percentage (maybe even just 1 in 100) of those inmates would have shot me in an alley to steal my iPhone if given the chance. I was sobered to hear after my presentation that one of the inmates in the class had beheaded a clerk in a convenience store.

The truth is rarely neat and tidy. We tend to classify, organize, and sort other human beings: friendly, evil, selfish, loving, dependable, irresponsible, etc. The mention of the word prisoner tends to conjure in many of our minds the judgment: other, not like me, a little scary, not my problem.

But it dawned on me in the class that just like poorly paid migrant labor that ensures an abundant and cheap supply of food for our supermarkets, inmates in our culture are rarely given a second thought by the rest of us, even though there are 2 million inmates in the US. We benefit from a system that separates us physically and intellectually from unpleasant truths.

My friend pointed out that many prisoners are in desperate need of mental health care, but there’s only one counselor for a hundred or two hundred prisoners. One man who would have been at my presentation had been punished for receiving drugs in the prison. He was an addict, but there wasn’t addiction care in the prison. He explained to her that drugs were how he’d always solved problems and now he had no other way.

When prisoners are released they’re largely left to their own devices, even if they’ve been culturally left behind after years in prison (I was surprised to hear prisoners weren’t allowed to use the internet at this prison). Is it any surprise so many end up back in prison,  costing taxpayers an average of $31,000 per prisoner per year?

Like so many ills in our society, the problem isn’t bad people or people who don’t care. It’s that a system exists which makes it hard to see the reality that would produce caring. Factory farms are far away and we don’t have to see them. If farm workers have higher cancer rates than the average American, that information doesn’t reach our awareness.

I’m sure I received as much as I gave during my visit. I met some precious, unique human beings who are more similar to me than different. I was reminded that we all need help, some of us more than others, and that we have a moral obligation to provide that help as soon as we become aware of it. A nation of individuals, all fighting it out with each other through competition and self-interest, is a bleak vision of things. But a community of human beings – all flawed but all giving and receiving help – that is a vision worth striving for.