Teaching philosophy to prisoners can help transform ‘macho’ prison culture

Teaching prisoners philosophy may sound unconventional, but my research has shown that it not only helps people survive the prison experience but it could also help reduce levels of violence and intimidation. Studies have shown that prisoners get through their incarceration by putting on a “front” or a prison persona which helps them to navigate life behind bars.

But by sitting down and talking through philosophical issues I was able to provide a space where they could drop their macho fronts and learn to talk with each other about life, morality and identity.

My work took place in two male prisons. These are often places characterised by violence, intimidation and a hyper-masculine, macho culture. This characterisation is not without foundation. In the 12 months to March 2017, there were more than 26,000 assaults and two homicides in the adult prison estate.

But, as recent reports of suicides in Nottingham Prison highlight, imprisonment can be particularly damaging to an individuals’ psychological health. Figures of self-harm and suicide eclipse those of prisoner-on-prisoner violence. In 2016-17, incidences of self-harm stood at over 40,000, with 97 prisoners taking their own lives.

Violence and drudgery

Outside the risk of violence, the prison experience is, in reality, characterised by boredom and stagnation. I worked with men who were serving long – and sometimes very long – sentences. My participants explained how time inside the walls of prison passes slowly. The drudgery of the routine, the mind-numbing work activities available and the lack of opportunity to express oneself all contributed to a sense of being suspended in time. They wanted to be something other than a prisoner, a number or an offence-category. All this contributes to the slow erosion of identity.

Power, authority and distrust flow through the prisoner society. The need for “survival” in this context encourages men to project a macho “front” while prison officers watch from a distance. Is it right that men spend significant portions of their lives in a place that encourages such fronts? After all, these macho identities are ultimately self-defeating. They lead to further problems, not only for the men when they reenter wider society, but also within the prisons. Prison cultivates identities that are rooted in a projection of physical power. However, a better way would be to develop a space where prisoners can be themselves, where they can dare to hope and believe that they can better themselves.

Philosophical thinking

Growth and development are fundamental to the human experience. Education can be a lifeline to those inside, providing a respite from the drudgery and a space for self-expression.

I spent six months delivering philosophy to men in two prisons in England. The prisoners in my study all had long sentences with many serving life. The class involved encouraging prisoners to engage in philosophical conversation and philosophical thinking. Rather than teaching them about the history of philosophy, I wanted them to be philosophers – to work together to improve their understanding of the fundamental principles upon which we base our life decisions. Together the group asked, and tried to answer, questions like: “How should society be organised?”, “What does it mean to live ‘the good life’?” and “What is morality?”

Over time, the groups were able to work together to engage in conversation that explored complex questions and develop a shared experience of philosophical exploration and personal reflection. Participants described the dialogue as a “break from the drudgery” or as a form of “freedom” not found elsewhere in the prison. They appreciated being given the opportunity to be in an “educated circle” and in an intellectual climate. As with other forms of educational experience, in the classroom they could be – for a short time – “philosophers” as opposed to offenders or prisoners. In other words, they could present a different, more positive “front”.

Statue of Greek philosopher Aristotle. Shutterstock/Ververidis Vasilis

Over the course of my research, I found that my prisoner-participants were deep thinkers, fully capable of intellectually challenging conversation and with perspectives that often proved insightful. Many were earnest in their attempts to find meaning in the prison environment and engaged in philosophical conversation with a passionate interest in self-improvement.

My study demonstrates that allowing for open, non-adversarial conversation around neutral and abstract topics can encourage positive interaction between prisoners, a shared understanding and a degree of empathy for different perspectives. Participants became calmer, more able to express their point of view without aggression and developed more open minds. Perhaps more of this type of education might have a real impact on the nature of prison culture?

If we are to assume that the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate, then there is an expectation of transformation placed upon prisoners. However, they are placed in a Catch-22 situation where survival involves projecting a particular persona. But growth and transformation involve deep and careful self-reflection in an environment characterised by fear, violence and intimidation. My classes served to counter the overarching prison atmosphere and provide a space for prisoners to be philosophers … even if it was just for a short time.