Philosophy Behind Bars

15 February 2017

This week, we're asking what’s it like to teach in prison, and what’s it like to study in prison. Our guest is Jennifer Lackey, a professor of philosophy from Northwestern University who also teaches philosophy in her “spare” time at Statesville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison, near Chicago. 

Jennifer is someone I greatly admire. She is a person of fierce intelligence, deep compassion, with a deep commitment to justice. I am pleased that she agreed to talk to us about this issue. We’ve done several episodes on our prison system – in its total cruelty, absurdity, and wastefulness.  One of my favorites was an episode we did a few years back called  Dignity Denied:  Life and Death in Prison  with Edgar Barens, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary film, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, about prisoners who take it upon themselves to provide hospice care for dying fellow inmates who have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Both the documentary and our episode with Edgar Barns were deeply moving and thought–provoking. I expect this week’s episode with Jennifer Lackey to pack a similar philosophical and emotional punch.

American prisons are, for the most part, overcrowded warehouses, devoted to the punishment and daily humiliation of their inmates. As such, one would expect that they are probably not very conducive to either the teaching or the studying of philosophy–or any other academic subject matter. We know that it doesn’t have to be that way. Check out this side-by-side comparison of a prison cell in Norway and a prison cell from the US. Guess which is which!

Though I don’t want to see the inside of a prison anywhere–including Norway–it’s clear that prisons don’t have to be so unrelentingly bleak. They can be places of rehabilitation and repair.

Of course, we Americans are obsessed with punishment and tend to think of punishment and rehabilitation as contradictory opposites. But to see it that way is to buy into a false dichotomy. It doesn’t have to be a matter of rehabilitation VERSUS punishment. I hate to keep harping on Norway, but I will. The Norwegians think that losing freedom and being confined are already punishment enough. They feel no need to heap on additional daily insults to prisoners’ dignity. That attitude frees them to focus much more on rehabilitation and education.

Of course, Norway is Norway. This is America. And though we could learn a lot from the Norwegians, we probably won’t. Not that some people aren’t trying. Some of them are working on large scale prison reform at the state and national levels. Before the most recent national election, their efforts were gaining some ground and forging an emerging new consensus on the left and the right about reforms to our criminal justice system. Let’s hope surprising and disturbing outcome of the election is only a temporary setback. One thing the election hasn’t changed, is the number of people, like Jennifer Lackey, working hard in the trenches, trying to reach and teach one prisoner at a time. It warms my heart that a surprising number of those folks are philosophers, like my own former student, Damon Horowitz, whose Ted Talk on Philosophy in Prison, you should check out.

Now even a person not skeptical about educating prisoners in general might still have doubts about the importance of educating prisoners in philosophy. If you’re going to teach prisoners anything, shouldn’t it be something more practical and job-oriented? Besides, a philosophically educated prisoner is probably an unruly, questioning, skeptical prisoner.

Or a more sober and reflective one, more prepared to take stock of his life. Which would we rather have? Prisoners who are sober and reflective or prisoners who are embittered and angry?

If it were a perfect world, we might give one answer to that question. But unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world. Education dollars are scarce in this country. Who can blame people for wanting to spend more money on our high schools and universities and less on prisoner education? After all that will help keep more people out of prison in the first place. Or so the skeptic will say.

But I insist in response to such skepticism that this is just another false dichotomy. We can educate both the free and the incarcerated. Saying that might garner pushback from financially strapped inner city school districts or middle class parents struggling with the cost of college tuition. But the fact is we don’t lack the resources for these things. We are an extraordinarily wealthy country. There are plenty of resources to go around. We lack not the wallet, as George Bush I once mistakenly said, but the will.

Besides, when it comes to our wallet, our current prison system is much more expensive than it needs to be–partly because the door to the prison cell is a revolving door. Our recidivism rates are by far the highest in the world. If we focused more resources on education and rehabilitation, recidivism would be a lot lower and the prison system would be a lot less costly and there would be a lot more education dollars to go around everywhere.

Now I hope that my little diatribe has convinced you of more than that I’m just a softie, liberal do-gooder. I hope that it has helped make you see that the real problem isn’t at all financial. It's our inability or unwillingness to appreciate the humanity of the incarcerated. When you warehouse prisoners away and run a revolving door system, it’s easy to just forget about the incarcerated at best or completely demonize them at worst. And part of the reason for this, I think, is the disproportionate number of brown and black people in our prisons. That’s a problem Norway doesn’t have. Perhaps it’s the ethnic homogeneity of their society that enables them to be so forward-looking in the treatment of prisoners. For better or worse, we don’t have the luxury of living in a homogeneous society that makes broad-ranging sympathy and compassion easier to achieve. But we need to find a pathway toward that kind of sympathy and compassion. We need to find a way to see and celebrate the enduring humanity of the incarcerated. If we don’t, we are headed for more tragedy and disaster.   

So it’s my fondest hope that our episode does its small part to shine a little bit of light on the humanity of the incarcerated.  


Comments (1)

hbarsanti's picture


Sunday, August 18, 2019 -- 12:11 PM

Cannot say that I understand

Cannot say that I understand philosophy a lot, I understand a little about education though and I love the little I caught today on the show. The only disagreement is that you stated that the system is "stupid". In fact, it is as intelligent as Machiavellian (very on both). It is tailored to benefit the prison industry (private or public), these industries and the politicians that milk it will never favor a tool that will reduce incarceration or recidivism. We need to keep minorities uneducated so can be controlled.