Teaching Criminology to Prison Inmates

Article excerpt

Fourteen men--age thirty to sixty and clad in white, serving prison terms ranging from ten to thirty years for violent crimes--sit in a classroom discussing crime and punishment. When asked if they are willing to discuss the impact of their crime and incarceration on their families, their collective reply is "sure, doing time has made us tough." Almost immediately, the room is transformed into the silence of a chapel as the teacher asks them one by one to share their stories. Two hours pass in a flash during which most of these "tough guys" are choked with emotion, wipe tears from their eyes, and some cry without shame. The emotional intensity in the room is an indescribable experience.

THE ABOVE event took place in a Texas prison where the men were attempting to salvage what was left of their lives with the aid of a master's degree from a major university. In 1974 the University of Houston at Clear Lake created a bold and controversial degree-conferring program for male inmates serving time at the Ramsey Prison in Rosharon, Texas. Today, this highly successful program offers several hundred inmates the opportunity to earn a BA or MA in the behavioral sciences and also in the humanities. (It's worth noting that even though men greatly outnumber women in prisons--93.6 to 6.4 percent nationally--several Texas prisons offer educational programs for women as well.)

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In 1989 I was hired as a member of the adjunct faculty to teach a variety of philosophy classes to both undergraduate and graduate student inmates. And I'm still teaching those classes today.

Some of my courses involve a critical analysis of key issues concerning criminal justice in the United States. Not surprisingly, these discussions are animated with passion and conflicting opinions. All of the students have a unique history of involvement with the criminal justice system and most of them are eager to share their experiences. I ask them to refrain from vulgarity, use learned language, be honest, and show respect for those who disagree with them. The courses in which these lively sessions occur are Ethics, The Justification of Punishment, Contemporary Moral Issues, Theory and Practice of Punishment and, most recently, Criminology.

In a very real sense, for the many years I've taught prison inmates I've probably learned more from them than they have from me. This is especially true when they share the realities of prison life, and the collective culture that inevitably impacts their institutional conduct and self-image.

Probably the most widely held belief about prisoners is that most, if not all of them, claim to be innocent. I can count on one hand, however, the number of my students who have appealed their case with the claim of innocence. Instead, the vast majority concede their guilt and believe they deserved to be punished. This concession to the persuasive power of the centuries-old retributive argument emerged in our many class discussions in which they acknowledged making a decision to commit a crime and described the hard coinage of punishment as their just deserts.

Numerous inmates committed their crimes under the influence of alcohol or other drugs such as crack or powder cocaine, or heroin. I ask them: if sober, would you have committed the offense? They say no, but hasten to add that they made a decision to get high and are obliged to accept the consequences. Of the hundreds who have participated in our drug abuse discussions, I can't recall a single one who defended the view that drug addiction should absolve them of responsibility for their crimes. These discussions ignite the dark memories of many of these men who recall the cravings, the level of tolerance, and the withdrawal experience. After a thorough unpacking of the meaning of the words "addiction" "craving," and "compel," most of them reject the so-called standard view of drug addiction that explains compulsive behavior by the drug's effects on the brain. …