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Over the course of this research, I have found that the 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. The importance of trust, the relevance of relationships and the provision of a safe space for self-articulation in a prison environment are all present in literature on the prison experience.
Many of the participants will not be released from prison for a significant period of time. The relevance of this course is therefore about survival – survival of one’s identity in the face of a complex and volatile prison culture. It is in this context that the ‘survival’ versus ‘growth’ dichotomy takes on relevance. In a prison, survival requires the opportunity to grow. Without it, in the harsh and austere prison environment, prisoners stagnate, suspended in time and space with little stimulation. Education therefore takes on a particular meaning in the prison and is, arguably, not simply desirable, but necessary.
At the outset of this project, nearly 10 years ago now, there was no literature around philosophy in prisons. I seem to have ‘caught a wave’, however, and there is now a range of philosophy courses being run and some literature has begun to emerge on the subject. However, my research remains significant and novel. As an in-depth, ethnographically led study of philosophy in prisons, I immersed myself in the context, worked closely with the participants, and considered the relevance of education through the lens of philosophical conversation.
On a June day in HMP Full Sutton, I returned from my tea break to the classroom. There were no windows in the room, the carpet was a dark grey, and the classroom was lined with ancient computers, rarely used. A small group of tables had been moved into the centre of the room to form a sort of circle, and six men from the VPU were sat at the desks, waiting for my return.
Before the tea break, we had discussed Kant’s categorical imperative. We discussed compassion, duty and moral choice. The conversation was thoughtful, and the participants had engaged in polite conversation. They had also been for a tea break, usually in another classroom, where they could mingle with others from the VPU who were attending education that day.
As I entered, they fell silent and looked at me nervously. This was my third week working with these men and we had developed a gentle rapport. Prior to the tea break, they had engaged in the conversation with ease, having relaxed now that they understood what was expected in the philosophy classroom. However, as is often the way with this particular population, they were not always forthcoming in their opinions, and I could tell that they wanted to ask me something.
“What?” I ask, “Come on, what is it? What do you want to ask me?” They were shifting in their seats and glancing at one another conspiratorially. Eventually, one piped up, “Er, Miss, are you a … feminist!?!” The word was spoken with a sort of awe (tinged with disapproval), as though a feminist was some kind of rare creature that they had never come across before.
“Morality is behaviour”, Toby asserts with certainty. A resident of a mainstream wing in HMP Full Sutton, Toby is older, well read, and very opinionated. I respond by asking whether some behaviours have a moral dimension while others do not. Toby moves on to discussing piety, and whether the fact that being more pious made one of the nurses more moral.
Gerry, the writer-in-residence who attended the philosophy session alongside the men, said she did not see the difference between the two women because they acted the same. Jonny, also older, confident and clear in his articulation of ideas, said, “It’s the outcome that would matter – the one acting out of compassion, she might find it too difficult to do the job.” We talk about the two nurses, about duty, about morality. What does it mean for something to be moral?
Discussing morality with people in prison involves some sensitivity. As Liebling argues, prisons have ‘moral or relational climates’ (2019, p 82), such that the experience of daily life is acutely affected by the values of the institution (see also Liebling, 2004). On this occasion, however, my concern over the direction of conversation related to Toby’s contribution. He jumped in by saying “‘morality’ is a religious word”. His assertion is loaded with meaning. In his pre-participation interview, when asked why he wanted to participate in philosophy, he responded by saying (in a loud, authoritative, somewhat over-the-top voice) that he wanted to “… rescue these young black men from the grapples of Islam.
‘The subjects, I’ve never in my life ever thought about … even the most famous questions, I think therefore I am and all of that lot. Actually knowing where that came from, and the fact that even something that I believe in very strongly can be flipped within a sentence.’ (Phil, Grendon)
Over time, the philosophy classroom became a place for genuine, exploratory conversation. We have seen how, being in HMP Grendon with participants who were already willing and able to engage in conversation in a group setting, establishing the ethos of safe community inquiry proved relatively straightforward. To illustrate this further, I return to the example presented in Chapter 5 that focused on Hume and Arendt’s perspectives of identity. In this session, philosophical conversation flowed, conversation was deep and meaningful, and the participants were engaged and insightful.
However, at the end of the session, an incident happened that served to remind me that this was still a prison. Despite the emphasis in Grendon on personal development, on therapy and democracy, I was still working in a restricted environment.
The session on Hume and Arendt in Week 6 proved to be a ‘deep dive’ into the concept of identity and the core self for the men with whom I worked. By this point we had touched on identity through Theseus’ ship, moved to society through Plato, and discussed moral action through Kant, Bentham and Mill. In the previous discussion, we had considered Descartes’ famous phrase Cogito, ergo sum. This time, however, we looked at an alternative perspective of identity, considering the role of identity, experience and culture in shaping not only who we are but also how we perceive ourselves.
‘Seriously, from … Monday night, there was anticipation of the class. Tuesday morning, up until 12 o’clock, you were outside the prison, because you were doing something that was … it’s very, very seldom that you get time to be able to think on a higher level, if that makes sense.’ (Keith, Full Sutton, VPU)
In each of the four groups, at least one member of the group found Stoicism appealing. Those who did would align themselves with Stoic philosophy, claiming that this was how they had managed themselves during their sentence. One participant went as far as saying that “Stoics will be the happiest people you meet” (Peter, Full Sutton, mainstream). However, many took issue with the perspective, noting, in particular, that the philosophy seemed quite cold. One person said, “Is it not a good thing to cry behind my cell door?” (Paul, Full Sutton, VPU), with another saying that, prior to coming to Grendon, he would never cry “in front of me missus” (Charlie). Having spent time in Grendon, he now would.
The Stoics perspective provided opportunities to discuss some important aspects of expressing emotions while in prison. In several of the discussions, we examined the difference between suppressing emotions and controlling them, and the difference between acceptance and resignation.
Fundamentally, however, Stoicism offers a perspective on ‘the good life’, a philosophical way of living a meaningful life. Participants reflected on what it meant to live ‘the good life’, considering what it means to live a simple, quiet existence. They argued that life is complex and multilayered, and different approaches can be appropriate for different situations.
Long-term prisoners need to be given the space to reflect, and grow. This ground-breaking study found that engaging prisoners in philosophy education enabled them to think about some of the ‘big’ questions in life and as a result to see themselves and others differently.
Using the prisoners’ own words, Szifris shows the importance of this type of education for growth and development. She demonstrates how the philosophical dialogue led to a form of community which provided a space for self-reflection, pro-social interaction and communal exploration of ideas, which could have long-term positive consequences.
‘With philosophy you can bring out your own ideas and then, through the group you can rework it, remodel it, change it, look at it, to get to somewhere. So it’s your part in building that and, I suppose, it’s more empowering in that sense because you are doing it yourself.’ (Michael, HMP Grendon)
In the 1st century AD, Plutarch wrote of the ‘ship of Theseus’, a well-known philosophical paradox, revived by Thomas Hobbes and rearticulated over time by philosophers and teachers. The story provides a basis to discuss identity.
In Plutarch’s story, Theseus was a hero who had sailed the oceans with great success. The people of Athens kept his ship in a harbour, as a museum piece, to honour his triumphs and to preserve it for future generations. To maintain the ship, they replaced old, broken pieces with fresh, new pieces. Eventually all the pieces of the ship were replaced, and the question became, ‘Is this still Theseus’ ship?’ According to Plutarch, half the philosophers of the day said it was, and the other half said it wasn’t.
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
“We need a leader.” Cady is the first to respond. A young man, in his mid-20s, with an extremely long sentence to serve, Cady’s formative years were characterized by gang membership. Now, several years into his sentence, he has been in HMP Grendon for a few months.
Phil, in his mid-30s, with a history of drug abuse, disagreed. “There’s only 20 people, we don’t need a leader.”
“People are selfish, we need structure to keep [a] check on behaviour,” Michael chimes in. Phil disagrees again, and the conversation moves towards a discussion of democracy, ruling by consensus and class systems. Living, as these men do, in a democratic therapeutic community (TC), there is a clear understanding of constitutions, voting procedures and social responsibility. However, when I ask if any of them had actually voted when they were on the outside, not one of them had. When I ask why democracy was suggested as a means of choosing a leader, Cady admitted that he had got the idea from the TV show, Lost. They had done it on there, and so it seemed sensible to him.
Other than discussing how to choose a leader, the story of the shipwreck prompts discussion of the allocation of tasks. Having used this with a range of groups, most suggest using people’s existing skills and allocating tasks accordingly. This, in turn, leads to discussions around choice – should people be allowed to choose their activities? Or should they do the activity to which they are most suited? Some groups focused closely on the specifics of the story – it’s a dark and stormy night, it’s 2,500 years ago – taking its contents more literally.
On a warm summer’s afternoon, I find myself navigating the maze of a high security prison. My footsteps echo down the empty halls and my key chain rattles at my side. My route through involves unlocking barred gates and heavy doors, travelling down a series of identical corridors, passing prison officers watching and waiting at their stations. A lack of windows throughout the prison means no daylight permeates the atmosphere. Instead, cheap strip lighting, low ceilings and once-white walls create a sense of enclosure.
Clutched in my hands is a homemade certificate and a set of teaching materials. The lesson that day had involved a discussion of all the conversations we had had throughout the course: What is society? What is knowledge? How do we choose how to act? What is morality? What makes us who we are? What constitutes change? Over the past three months, along with a group of passionate, opinionated and thoughtful men, I had interrogated some of the big questions in life. On the final day of teaching, I head towards one of the wings. When I arrive, I am told the men are on ‘lockdown’. There had been ‘an incident’. I ask the prison officers on duty if I am able to talk to one of the men. The prison officer tells me that they can’t unlock anyone but I could go and talk to him through his door. I am hesitant, but it’s my last day teaching in the prison, and he had missed the class.
‘Subjectivity guides everything from the choice of topic that one studies, to formulating hypotheses, to selecting methodologies, and interpreting data’ (Ratner, 2002, p 1). This book is not simply a subjective memoir, but an account of a piece of research. This involved systematic pre-, during and post-participation data collection, and took place dynamically alongside delivery of the course. As an ongoing process, analysis included reflection and refinement of data collection tools, ensuring that data provided relevant and focused insights as the research progressed (Foster, 2006). The methodological framework draws on Derek Layder’s adaptive theory (1998). Following this framework, as the book progresses, I move between my data and literature to illuminate and illustrate the findings. This chapter provides a brief overview of this process, both with respect to delivery of the philosophy course and with respect to data collection and analysis. A full, more technical account of the research, can be found in the Appendix.
I delivered the course alongside conducting the research. Although such a dual role raises issues around objectivity, taking on both tasks has provided a clear advantage in that I was not simply an objective observer, but also a subjective participant in the research process (LeCompte, 1987). This has enabled me to provide an in-depth account of the course, placing the prisoner-student experience, which I shared, at the heart of the process. The central aim of this research has been to explore what role philosophy might play in the prison environment, and to do this through a consideration of identity.