Teaching Philosophy in Prisons


Currently over two million people in the United States are in prison, and about nine million worldwide. There are many questions worth asking about the systems of criminal justice that lead to that result. The focus of this post, though, is quite narrow. It concerns just one thing academic philosophers can do, as academic philosophers, in light of this: teach prisoners philosophy.

I have not taught in prisons, so to help with this question, I turned to some people who have. Sukaina Hirji (Princeton),  Drew Leder (Loyola), Daniel Levine (Maryland), Joshua Miller (Morgan State), Jerry Wallulis (South Carolina), and Daniel Wodak (Princeton) each spoke or corresponded with me about their experiences, and they have given me permission to share some of their interesting thoughts and insights here.

One question is: why do it?

Some answers were personal, including reflections about how interesting the experience is, how it can provide one with a connection to the community, and how it provides an opportunity to do good work with an underserved population.

Hirji: I think it is genuinely a good thing to do, and also a thing that [some] philosophy grad students… are particularly well-placed to do. We have enough disposable time… that we can volunteer the time necessary; we are far along enough to be able to develop thoughtful and challenging courses, but not so far along that we don’t remember what it was like not to know any philosophy at all; most of us need and want more teaching experience, etc. For those of us who think prisons could be much better environments for inmates, prison teaching is something small we can actually do well without any further special training, and I’m sure it makes some difference to the quality of life of prisoners inside.

Yet it is clear that some people see this kind of work as a response to injustices in the system as a whole, and in prison in particular.

Wodak: It is blindingly obvious that the US penal system is deeply, deeply unjust. We should all be outraged about the sheer number of prisoners, the proportion of them who are people of color, the prevalent use of torturous periods of solitary confinement, the tacit toleration of sexual abuse by custodial officers… I could go on, but it would only get more polemical. What might not be as obvious is that there are very limited opportunities for education inside most prisons, and providing more and better education opportunities inside prisons does a world of good. It makes jail time more tolerable. It significantly reduces recidivism (this is very well documented). Relatedly, and most importantly, it helps people do something with their lives upon their release, partly because of what they have learned, and partly because of the doors that a college degree opens (which becomes especially important for someone with a criminal record).

Miller: We offer classes as a way of creating a counter-punitive institution in the prison, one that’s not about warehousing them in despair, but about making the men we work with legitimate knowers, actors, and collaborators. (And I think counter-punitiveness is justified by mass incarceration and the general failure of our criminal justice system to properly involve prisoners in the creation of the norms under which they are reproved.)

There seems to be a particular value in teaching the students philosophy.

Levine: For me, teaching in the prison is a special case of teaching outside the academy. I’ve been worried for a while about the fact that philosophy is really (I think) best understood as a set of techniques of critical reflection that play their social role best when they are widely distributed – but that I’ve spent most of my career teaching in settings that require you to pay a lot of money to hear me. But prisons are not *just* a place that happens to not be a university. I won’t try to cram a whole abolitionist analysis into a few words here, but: I take my whole research and teaching project to be an anti-violence one, and prisons are spaces of violence. I don’t think it’s an appropriate response to the violence done by our students (and let me be clear, a lot of our students have committed heinously violent acts – we at least aren’t primarily dealing with, say, nonviolent drug offenders) to do this kind of additional violence to them and their communities. If we’re doing our jobs correctly, we are providing our students with some tools to resist the violence of the institution (especially its psychological violence) and to find constructive pathways of resistance besides the violence that they and a lot of folks around them have been involved in. Of course, we’re not the only piece of that puzzle… but I like to think, or I like to hope, that we’re helping.

Miller: [Philosophy can help prisoners] deal with their circumstances and understand the world that they find themselves in.

Leder: The men who I work with, some 30-40 in my classes… are passionately interested in what we are studying. This could be a volume of Jungian-style psychology on finding the hero-stories that have guided your life. It could be a book on the latest research exploring how we make (and botch up) decisions. Or the Tao te Ching, the ancient Chinese text for finding balance in a world not even the ruler can control. Or Epictetus’ Handbook, by the crippled Roman slave who taught a Stoicism focused on mastery of mental states. Whatever we read, the men are interested, passionately engaged, and ready to apply the material to their own lives. How to build a good life as a “lifer”? How, while serving long time, to have time serve you? How, while being confined for decades on in a tiny cell, in a locked tier, in a razor-wire-fringed maximum-security prison – how to expand space and take flight? The men not only wish to survive in these tough surroundings – they wish to flourish, and need the resources, personal and intellectual, that will aid their quest. So they are passionately interested in our quest-ions and texts.

Wallulis: One prisoner said that the course I taught on Foucault’s Discipline & Punishment was the most meaningful course he has ever taken.

I asked about how the students do in their classes. As with many large universities, there is a diversity in student quality and student responses to the material and teaching.

Hirji: I’ve actually been surprised by how much interest and excitement students have shown for philosophy courses…. As long as students have basic comprehension and writing skills, I’ve found that they can really do philosophy at a high level. It is fairly easy to get students talking about really sophisticated philosophical ideas without having to assign them a great deal of very dense readings, or having them write long essays…. I really can’t imagine what its like to spend time in prison, or to have dealt with the challenges some of our students have faced, but there is a sense in which none of this really matters once we’re all in a classroom together. Once class starts, we are all just trying to work through difficult philosophical ideas together. Actually, in some ways I think prison teaching is one of the purest experiences of teaching I’ve had — the students are pretty much all there because they really want to be there, and most of them aren’t thinking of the class as a means to some other end.

Wallulis: The students would meet several times among themselves to discuss the material for [the previous] class and for the upcoming class before we would meet again, so there was very good student preparation, and some of the students are very hard working. There is a great diversity in quality. Some have had very poor training, while one was a successful jailhouse attorney.

Wodak: Once you’re involved, it’s hard (and stupid) to think about yourself as someone who teaches prisoners, rather than someone who teaches students. That difference is important. Much as there are unique challenges to teaching in a prison environment, it’s remarkable how little the experience differs from teaching at Princeton: in both cases I’m lucky enough to teach bright, interested and engaged students who want to talk through important philosophical questions. I think this point is worth emphasizing fairly emphatically in case anyone responds with an incredulous stare. In my (admittedly limited) experience teaching in prisons, the students I’ve had have proven to be insightful, hard-working, friendly and funny. It’s a pleasure to discuss philosophy with them…. The students can be very challenging. By “challenging” I don’t mean “difficult” or “disrespectful”. I mean that they will challenge assumptions that you didn’t even realize you were making. Most often, these assumptions concern why the central philosophical question for a section of the course is worth asking. I want to emphasize that these challenges are not ill-motivated. They aren’t attempts to undermine the teacher or the course or philosophy as a discipline. They’re earnest requests for an answer to why we should care about, say, what Aristotle thought. This makes the teaching experience harder, but far more rewarding.

Levine: Most of the challenges aren’t so different than in my normal classes. Students don’t always do the reading, or don’t always show up for class prepared in other ways. I’m a bit more inclined to be forgiving when the excuse is “building H was on lockdown.” Some of our students we have to realize have not had a lot of college-level coursework before (or any), so I sometimes find myself taking things for granted that I shouldn’t be. For instance, we’ve found in one of our current classes that students aren’t doing the writing, and part of the issue is that we kind of said, “OK, so each week write a reflection on one of the readings,” and some just don’t know really what we want.

There are certain challenges specific to teaching prisoners and teaching in a prison. Some of these come from the expectations of the students, and others come from working with officials inside the prison.

Miller: The prison classroom isn’t much different than an ordinary classroom, except the commute involves a metal detector. It’s hard to get some ordinary materials in, but not as hard as you’re think: pens, paper, and books are all allowed. Outside the classroom there are many challenges associated with working in a weirdly disorganized bureaucracy with a lot of inconsistent and incoherent rules, but anyone who works in a university is likely already familiar with that.

Levine: There are also logistical issues dealing with the prison – we need to vet materials, we sometimes need to explain ourselves in a way that academics with a lot of classroom autonomy aren’t used to (e.g., “Why are you trying to bring in board games?” “Well, see, this game demonstrates elements of purely competitive game-theory principles…”). It’s easy for there to be miscommunications between us, the men in our classes, and elements of the prison administration, especially since it’s not like we can be in constant email or phone contact. And we need to be careful about those things – if I mess up something about my on-campus class, OK, maybe I get some bad reviews. If I mess something up with the prison class, especially if I do something that the administration of the prison is upset at, then we could get shut down, or I could get one of the men in the classes transferred, or time added to his sentence, etc…. And finally, there’s super mundane stuff to keep in mind – I have never made so many physical photocopies of class materials in my life, the men don’t have easy access to a fully-stocked library or to internet research, so I often end up carrying in materials that they need for their work.

Hirji: Challenges include… i) limited writing and comprehension skills (and variable skills amongst students), ii) sub-par classroom conditions (last semester, we were stuck teaching a good part of the semester in a very large, very noisy auditorium, with three other concurrent classes, and with guards constantly walking by), iii) no way of getting in touch with students outside of classroom time (this means no emails, no office hours, no way to get assignments to students who have to miss class), iv) a general lack of control and lack of information about what happens in the prison, including when and why students don’t show up (we’ve had students transferred to another prison or put in solitary half way through a course; we’ve also had students miss class because a guard forgot to put the call out in their wing, or because they were being punished from some infraction). All of these can be mitigated to some extent by the way the instructors design and run their courses.

Wodak: There are important and unique challenges to teaching in prison. Many of these concern the prison environment: the lack of time and available resources, the unpredictability of delays and class cancellations, and the capriciousness of some corrections officers. Plenty of corrections officers that I’ve encountered are truly lovely people. But some will try to be as intimidating and obstinate and obstructive as possible. I’ve never felt scared of a student. I wish I could say the same of the officers who are meant to protect us from the students. And I’ve never been offended by a student, but it was tough to keep composed when a guard told me that “they”—the prisoners, our students—are so different from “us” that they “might as well be Klingons”.

Of especial concern were issues of trust and authority:

Hirji: One other challenge that is unique to the prison environment is a general lack of trust students have in authority figures. I’ve found it is really important very early on to make clear to the students that you aren’t just one more authority figure in their lives, and that you really trust them and value their feedback. Daniel and I have both drawn up “classroom contracts” at the start of every semester where we list expectations we have on the students, and they identify expectations they have on us instructors. We (students and instructors) all sign the contract, which helps the students feel invested in the course, but also makes clear to them that we as instructors are answerable to them just as much as they are to us.

Wodak: it’s hard to gain the students’ trust. There is (as Sukaina mentioned) a general lack of trust in authority figures. When I first taught I dealt with this badly: I tried to avoid being an authority figure. I learned from the students — who are refreshingly direct — that this was a mistake. They wanted me, and all other teachers, to treat the class as much as possible like any other college course. They wanted rules to be enforced and high standards to be maintained. They just didn’t want those rules or standards to be determined arbitrarily. That’s why Sukaina and I made a classroom contract, and endeavored to include the students in decision-making throughout the course. This worked very well. I should also emphasize how important it is to earn the students’ trust. If you can’t control the classroom environment, you really don’t want to ask the corrections officers for help. It’s far too easy for someone to end up in solitary, or be barred from future courses, or receive some other arbitrary and disproportionate punishment.

All of those interviewed for this post remarked on how valuable teaching in prison has been for them as philosophers and as teachers of philosophy. A few excerpts:

Leder: All [the students’] interest makes me interested. I can choose texts and questions I really want to teach, less hampered by my conventional menu of college courses. I can converse with men from a very different background and life-experience than mine, and hear their unexpected viewpoints. At the same time, I learn about myself. If they can apply Buddhist methods to find happiness in their (incarcerated) here and now, who am I to mope around my luxurious house? Prison teaching is one of the most interesting pedagogical experiences I’ve ever had. That’s why I’m still at it some 22 years after first tentatively poking in a toe.

Hirji: it has really made me a better teacher and a better philosopher to have to think hard about why anyone should care about various issues in philosophy regardless of their experiences, circumstances or future goals. If anything, the experience of discussing philosophy inside the prisons has really affirmed for me the value of philosophy for people who don’t plan to go on to work in the field. I feel really lucky to have been involved with prison teaching and hope to find a way of being involved in prison education for as long as I’m in the profession.

Wodak: First, it’s where I learned most about why I do philosophy. Teaching philosophy in prisons is just so obviously valuable. As a grad student I’ve found it fairly easy to slip into existential doubts. Maybe this is just because I’m Australian and haven’t fully exorcised my inner utilitarian, but I’m often uncertain about whether the time I devote to my own philosophical inquiries is somewhat selfish. For me, nothing has done more to affirm the value of what I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to—reading, writing and teaching philosophy—than my experiences inside classrooms at Albert C Wagner [Correctional Facility]. Secondly, it’s where I’ve learned most about how to do philosophy. There have been periods, during graduate school, where I felt like my work was becoming part of a stuffy, scholastic enterprise. The single best way that I’ve found to correct this has been to try and write while keeping in mind an audience that’s just like the students I’ve encountered at Albert C Wagner. They’re smart, they’re interested, they have little to no knowledge of the literature and no time for bullshit. They don’t care about philosophers. They only care about philosophy. This has forced me to do far more to explain why the issues I’m writing about are interesting, and to build to complex ideas from simple starting points. This isn’t to say that my writing has become perfect as a result. But it has certainly helped a hell of a lot.

There are a number of ways to get involved. Levine and Miller have put together an informative fundraising page for the Jessup Correctional Institute Prison Scholars Program that they and Leder are a part of. More information about the program that Hirji and Wodak work through can be found at the Prison Teaching Initiative website. If you are interested in teaching in prison, your university or one nearby, or a local non-profit, may have an office responsible for making such arrangments. Some brief internet searching suggests these are not too hard to find.

Thanks again to Daniel L., Daniel W., Drew, Jerry, Joshua, and Sukaina for their help with this post.

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