Ethics and Prison Education

This past August, my colleague Joseph Osei and I provided a workshop on moral transformation and teaching philosophy in prisons at the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (my portion, with handouts, is available here, and videos here)  Joseph had proposed the workshop idea to me back in winter, and I readily agreed.  I came to Fayetteville State directly after having taught six years full time for Ball State University at Indiana State Prison, and I had been mulling over the experiences of working in a prison, interacting with inmates, seeing growth and transformation in some of them, unsure as to what to do with those experiences and reflections.  I knew that eventually I wanted to write about it, but the topic was so vast, so heterogeneous, had so many vantage points from which it could be looked at, that I never got around to doing more than corresponding with a few of my former students and answering questions people asked once they found out about my years at ISP

So, the conference and the panel provided me the occasion to finally start thinking, researching, and writing on prison education in a more serious and directed way.  I began reading my way through the literature on prison education, some of which is admittedly quite poorly thought out or bent so ideologically as to be useless for anyone who has not boarded that particular thought-train.  There are a number of very interesting, useful, and thought-provoking articles available, albeit relatively few on Philosophy.  There are more writings on ethics and on moral development written by non-philosophers, since academic philosophers are generally uninterested in any serious way in prisons, crime, punishment, and moral reformation in prisons.

I use those words, "in a serious way," because reading and discussing the ins and out of (even getting oneself righteously indignant about) Plato's Crito or Foucault's Discipline and Punish, even Herivel and Wright's Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor does not count as serious philosophical study of the prison environment, of "The System" -- there is actually no System, there are instead 50 state Departments of Correction (sometimes called something different), a federal system, and countless county jail systems (some of which are immense:  the LA county jail system is larger than the Indiana D.O.C, for instance).  Doing work on the amorphously defined field of Restorative Justice does not count, in my book, a few exception granted, as serious philosophical investigation of prisons, prisoners, moral conditions, and moral development or reform.  Taking a stand against the death penalty in one's private activity, or even debating it in class -- again, not really a serious engagement of prison life and ethics.

One would think that philosophers -- at least those specializing in Ethics or Social-Political Philosophy -- would be very interested in prisons, prisoners and punishment. At times, or at least with some individuals, that has been the case.  Just a very scatter-shot set of examples:  Jeremy Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, was deeply interested in the penal code, punishments,  moral reform, and prisons.  Alexis de Tocqueville, more famous over here for his reflections on our culture and our political regime, also studied and wrote about the American prison systems of his time.  Michel Foucault's work is vulnerable to many objections if  taken to be a general study of prisons, crime, and morality, but if it is understood as a more specialized study, it's quite good.  He writes in fact about a whole philosophical movement -- one which ultimately failed -- of prison reform, stemming from the Enlightenment (the current state of discussion about the purpose of punishment and prison policy derives from the failure of another philosophical approach towards crime, punishment, and prisons --  the liberal, "therapeutic" approach).

But I digress. . . . there are people out there who have done outstanding work in theorizing about these subjects, and who have tied them in with higher education, moral development, and moral reformation.  Some of them are in fact philosophers, like Stephen Deguid.  Some just use philosophy and do so well enough to offer insights which I'll take up in my paper.  I'll share two of those momentarily, and then one of my own.

First, I should reconnect what I've written so far with the AAPT conference.  So, after Joseph worked through his, I presented my workshop to a room full of philosophers.  We stared late, and Joseph ran long, so I hurried through some of the slides and skipped others, so that I could focus on those I considered most essential.  Afterward, there was some very good Q&A and discussion.  There was a bit of the usual silliness about "how (pick whatever good quality you like) you must be to go to work in a prison and teach these poor men,"  to which I gave my now-pat, and disillusioning reply, that my motive for being there was first off to make a living, and that only after I had been there for a while and formed some relationships with my students did I start to think about the job as affording me a chance to "make a difference" or anything like that.  In fact, I stressed that if a philosophy prof was going in as a moral crusader, incensed about the injustice of the "system," unrealistic about the inmates and their typical (fairly low) level of moral development, they would render themselves totally ineffective as a catalyst for positive change, distrusted by the inmates, uncomfortable in their surroundings, burning out in a few years.

Out in the hall, as I was hurrying off to get coffee, one of the professors who had asked me a question stopped me to tell me that she very much enjoyed the talk, and thought it was an important subject that deserved more study.  I thanked her, and then she suggested I ought to turn the workshop into a paper, to be sent to the American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy.

So, two things.  One: the "Newsletter" isn't really a newsletter in the standard sense.  It is basically a peer-reviewed journal.  Two:  I'd intended for this to be a paper, which I'd supply those attending my workshop, but I overestimated my capacity to actually make myself get writing work done while driving to and through the Midwest and New York, visiting my children, my relatives, and my fiancee.  After teaching two summer classes in our first session, putting together a solid presentation with handouts turned out to be quite enough summer work.

I almost never turn down a chance to publish or present something -- Although I've done quite a lot, I'm not quite yet at the stage of my career where I can afford to (or to hold out for getting paid!).  So, I agreed to write and submit the article, which is now one of the various projects I'm working on this month.  The good news is that although I hadn't written much this summer, I did a lot of daily reading and thinking about ethics, prison education, and moral reformation, so it's less a matter of thinking things out anew than ordering, coordinating, and putting things down on paper.

So, very quickly, three of those things, the first two more or less taken from the reading.

First off, for all its flaws, Kohlberg's theory of moral development (when supplemented appropriately) is quite useful for thinking about prison education and what ought to be going on in an ethics class. It's actually not that difficult to harmonize with the more or less Aristotelian approach I stake out.

Second, there's a consensus in some of the best literature that three interlocking dimensions have to be attended to:  intellectual or "cognitive", emotional, and moral.  Put very simply:  it is never enough just to teach ethics as a code to be learned. Opportunities have to be created for emotional and moral engagement, practice, development.

Third, my basic view is that there is and can be no recipe for structuring education in ethics to produce moral development or reformation.  It's a mistake to think of these matters in terms of causality, for a number of reasons, of which I'll just point out two.  First off, human beings and their environments are very complex, too much so for us to ever control in an environment like a prison for all the variables involved.  And yet, moral reformation does take place, and some approaches seem to foster it, while others don't seem to work at all.  Second, human beings, prisoners included, are endowed with a faculty of choice, what Aristotle tried to conceptualize as prohairesis (as did Epictetus), and which later philosophers came to call the "will".

You can't make a prisoner who has committed crimes become a better human being. And yet, you don't just create opportunities which they then in some sort of vacuum either choose to take advantage of or choose not to;  the human will is always already structured, and what is particularly interesting is that it can, albeit often only a little, take part in its own restructuring.  That's something at the very heart of  moral reformation, and it ought to be at the very heart of any real ethics worth teaching.