Philosophy Behind Bars

Sunday, August 18, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, February 12, 2017

What is it

In 1994, Congress eliminated federal funding for college education in prisons. It was, they argued, unjust for prisoners to be eligible for Pell grants when ordinary citizens could not afford higher education. However, research suggests that education in prisons has positive consequences, such as lower recidivism rates and an improved prison environment. So should we have education programs in prisons? Or is the point of prison to punish inmates for their crimes rather than giving them the education many non-felons never receive? John and Ken take a lesson from Jennifer Lackey, who teaches philosophy at Northwestern University and at Stateville Correctional Center near Chicago.

Listening Notes

Ken doesn’t think that philosophy is the most conducive setting for philosophy; John agrees that that’s the case, at least in the U.S., where prisons are like overcrowded warehouses that are excessively focused on punishment. But that’s not the case everywhere – prisons in Norway, for instance, demonstrate that prisons don’t have to be so bleak. They can be places for rehabilitation. It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy of rehabilitation and punishment: losing freedom and being confined are already punishment enough, Scandinavian prisons hold. There’s no need to heap on insults to inmates’ dignity on a daily basis. Okay, says, Ken, but if you’re going to teach inmates anything, why should it be philosophy? Shouldn’t it be something more job-oriented? And what about the money that goes into prison education – shouldn’t that money be going to the education of non-inmates? John disagrees – he argues that we can educate both the free and the incarcerated.

John and Ken welcome guest Jennifer Lackey, Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. John asks Jennifer why she decided to teach inmates in prison in the first place. Jennifer explains that she’s had an interest in the prison population since she was 12 years old. At some level, we all bear responsibility for incarceration. John asks Jennifer about what it’s like to teach at a maximum security men’s prison – both for her, as a teacher, and for the students themselves. Jennifer explains that most of her students have been convicted of at least one murder and most have at least 25 years left on their sentence. There are constant challenges with security (though she’s never been afraid for her own safety, expect for a few tense situations) and with bringing course materials. Ken asks her whether the students see this as an hour-long escape from their regular prison routine or whether they’re actually invested in the learnings. Jennifer explains that in her 16 years of teaching, she’s rarely come across more engaged, more passionate, and committed students than her students at Stateville.

Ken asks Jennifer to explain how she approaches teaching in prison. Is it any different than with her non-incarcerated students? She explains that there are differences in the level of preparedness – some of her incarcerated students didn’t know how to read when they got to the prison. But, Jennifer explains, she teaches both of her sets of students with the same content and expectations. Some of her students at Stateville struggle, and there are one-off issues that come up – like, say, the prison being on lockdown for a month. So why do the students at Stateville care, asks John? Jennifer explains that most of her students have grown up in prison – the crimes they’re in prison for were committed years, if not decades, ago. They want to improve themselves, they want their children to value education and see that their fathers are capable of growing by learning, they want to feel that they have a second chance at life…a variety of reasons serve as motivations. The three talk in more depth about the profound search for meaning that prisoners – even those on death row – can complement with studying philosophy.

John then brings up a common concern: we have a finite amount of resources, so why should we spend them on prison education when we could be using those resources to prevent the crimes that lead people to prison in the first place? Jennifer, John, and Ken discuss this topic in greater depth, then welcome questions from the audience. They continue the discussion by tackling questions about the views of people who work in prisons on prisoner education, what education can do for prisoners, and whether we can muster the political will to change our system of incarceration.

Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:47): Shuka Kalantari explores the workings of a philosophy in prison program in Kansas by talking to the first transgender woman in Kansas to transition while being incarcerated.

60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:10): Ian Shoales talks about prisoners who write while imprisoned and people who became famous in great part due to their time behind bars.  

Jennifer Lackey, Professor of Philosophy, Northwestern University

Bonus Content


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