From Spheres of Civility to Public Spheres: Democracy and Citizenship in the Big House (Part II)

Article excerpt


Prisons are usually oppressive, bureaucratic, alienating places that sever or suspend the prisoner's sense of community and restrict the possibility (or desire) for social and civic participation. They produce a nihilistic culture that encourages a numbing detachment from others. How is it that we can speak of democracy in places such as these? Prison schools play an important role as they are often spheres of civility-social and psychological spaces constituted by restorative communicative and educational practices that build the prisoner's relations with self, others and the community, and building social capital, which has implications for citizenship. A conceptual framework is proposed that focuses on ethical communication practices, and enables teachers to reflect upon the social and ethical dimensions of their practice.

Introduction: Civility and Democracy

There have been many calls for the formation of just and democratic communities in prisons. This is not simply a Utopian vision. Historically, there are examples of democratic innovations in prisons, where inmates have been able to exercise control over many aspects of their incarcerated lives. These models speak to the democratic possibilities of prison schools and their potential contribution to the formation of an informed and active citizenry.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to reconcile the harsh realities of life in the big house with democratic practices since after all, prisons are designed to punish, observe, incapacitate, and isolate prisoners. This is not to say that we should abandon democratic ideals; rather it is to suggest that we to sincerely examine prison schools so as to determine their democratic potential while recognizing prison realities.

This paper suggests that schools are often spheres of civility that promote and restore the prisoner to the community and prepare them for active civic roles. Civility is a manner of communicating with others in a manner that is respectful, empathetic, and reciprocal; it signifies an ethical stance that conveys to others a confirmation of their worth and the value of the relationship; spheres of civility invite others to participate in the mutual construction of a social world through a creative fusion of horizons or worldviews. Evidence is provided to support the argument that prison schools are restorative, civil spaces that prepare students for civic activities as they engage in ethical conversations with others.

By way of supporting the thesis in this paper, we present a brief case study of how one teacher, "Holly," disciplines the wayward student, which permits us to recognize the deliberative, dialogic nature of the conflict resolution process a teacher's employs and illustrates inclusive strategies that involve the prisoner in the outcomes. Even in the case of disciplinary action, which is always going to be an issue when one teaches in prison, there is opportunity for dialogue, an attempt to achieve consensus, and an expression of empathy as the teacher reaches out toward the student to find out just what is going on. Correspondence with Richard Dube, a former inmate of Milhaven Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario Canada, illustrates the impact of the Prison Humanities program on him, when he was incarcerated in the Pacific Region of the Correctional Service of Canada. Of course, in this discussion of civility, there are many details left out that might detract from this idealized version of prison schooling. Nevertheless, providing counter examples does not invalidate the positive examples of civility and restorative work that teachers practice frequently.

Ethical Communication and Conflict Management-? Case Study

Central to our argument regarding the role of democracy in prisons is that critical democratic discourse, or participating in critical public spheres requires a level of communicative competence from participants. In critical, democratic dialogue that characterizes the public sphere, participants must be prepared to set aside, at least temporarily, their own preconceptions and personal investments in order to fully appreciate the arguments of others. …