Why Teach Prisoners?

10 February 2017

Our show this week, “Philosophy Behind Bars” features guest Jennifer Lackey, a professor of philosophy from Northwestern University who also teaches philosophy at the Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois. Jennifer has had a longstanding interest in teaching in prison “in large part because of the transformative impact it can have on the lives of the prisoners, both individually and collectively,” she told Northwestern Now.

When I talked to her this week, Jennifer explained how teaching in prison has been an incredibly powerful experience for her too, and how it reignited her love of teaching. Most of her incarcerated students have very little education going in to prison. Some start off not being able to read at all and transform into gifted writers. Taking these philosophy classes is a privilege the inmates value greatly. Their example serves as a stark contrast to Jennifer's Northwestern students, especially the ones taking philosophy to meet some college requirement, who are not so engaged in the material. For her students in prison, these philosophy classes provide a welcome respite from the constant reminders that they are incarcerated. They get to be treated, not as inmates, but as thinkers and writers who have something to say about important philosophical ideas. They get to feel human again.

The effects of these classes are remarkable and reach beyond the small set of students who actually take the classes. When education is introduced into prisons, it reduces violence and racism amongst the general population. The number of disciplinary infractions drops.

Education also has a huge effect on recidivism rates. According to the National Institute of Justice, within five years of release, more than three quarters of prisoners in the US are rearrested. Over half of those are rearrested within the first year of their release. Jennifer told me that when an inmate receives an Associate’s Degree, the recidivism rate drops to 14%. When they receive a BA it drops to 5.6%, and when they receive an MA, it drops to zero recidivism. Zero!!

If you are not moved by arguments that we have a duty to treat those we incarcerate with dignity and respect, and that includes providing opportunities for education and self-development, then there’s still a good argument for why we should teach prisoners. It’s good for everyone, not just the prisoners. Lowering recidivism rates ought to be something we all care about, though when so many prisons are run by for-profit corporations, there are clearly some who benefit from higher recidivism rates.

The US could stand to learn something from other countries that don’t treat incarceration as serving a primarily punitive purpose. Take Norway, for example, whose incarceration rates are a staggering 90% less than ours. Their recidivism rates are also much lower at only 20% reoffending within two years. Their purpose in incarcerating criminals focuses much more on rehabilitation than on punishment. While rehabilitation is not Jennifer’s goal in bringing philosophy behind bars, it’s hard to deny that it has this positive effect.

Tune in this week to learn more about Jennifer's experience teaching philosophy in prison.