Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Philosophy across Prison Walls

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Philosophy across Prison Walls

Article excerpt


At the intersection of prison education with service-learning courses, university students discover the humanity of inmates via the latter's principled concern with ethics and morality. Service learning becomes opposition to our prison nation, for it demonstrates the permeability of prison walls and highlights the practical importance of the analyses of Michel Foucault on the panopticon and Angela Davis on the prison-industrial complex.


"Panopticon, shit. Not at San Quentin. Man, this is Snoopy-ville, no panopticon here." So spoke an inmate-student in my Ethics class at San Quentin Prison, enrolled in the only on-site degree-granting college program in California and one of the few throughout the entire United States.[1] Inmates can receive an Associate of Arts degree; when and if they are released from prison, they may apply this degree to their future educational training or use it as part of their employment qualifications.

"Don't you think the effects of disciplinary power are more invisible than that, so they can work independent of the technologies of surveillance common at more repressive institutions?" This response came from a twenty-two year-old college student enrolled in my philosophy course at the University of San Francisco entitled Prisons & Punishment: A Service Learning Approach to the Philosophy of Incarceration. USF students accompany me to San Quentin Prison each week to engage in learning and conversation with inmate-students. For most, it is their first confrontation with a corrections environment.

In what follows, I indicate the powerful lessons that emerge through this intersection of prison education with university service learning courses. Passing through the divide between prison and the so-called free world is a significant act of service and a form of critical resistance to the distortions and injustices perpetrated in today's carceral system.

The Courses

In Prisons & Punishment (at USF), students read, discuss, and write essays in four areas in the study of punishment: the Prison-Industrial Complex; Philosophical Justifications for Punishment; the Genealogy of Prisons; and Race and Class in the Criminal Justice System. Primary readings include works by Angela Davis (2003), David Cole (2000), Michel Foucault (1977), Loic Wacquant (2005), and a host of philosophers involved in debates regarding the strengths and weaknesses of theories including retributivism, deterrence, and rehabilitation (Murphy 1994). By the end of the class, they are expected to understand the history and present of the United States prison system; identify successes and failures of the carceral system regarding rehabilitation, racial and class justice, and the provision of social order; and explain the importance of prison reform or abolition. They contrast their own educational experience with that available to society's most outcaste members and understand the value of prison education and philosophy in prisons.

In Ethics (at San Quentin), inmate-students addressed themes devoted to: the nature of the good life (including stoicism, utilitarianism, theories of the social contract, and individual liberty); existentialist conceptions of freedom; and the genealogical deconstruction of morality. Primary readings included Plato's early Socratic dialogues (2002), Camus (1988), Foucault (1977), and selections from Epictetus, Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and Nietzsche (Morgan 2001). By the end of the semester, students can read, interpret and explain classical and contemporary approaches to ethics; identify similarities and differences between them; and explain the role of philosophical ethics as it applies to general behavior and the history of punishment.

Each class period at San Quentin, I was accompanied by two to four USF students, both male and female. Class consisted of intermittent lecture and discussion, and there were breaks during which all students could converse individually. …

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