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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Further thoughts on philosophy in prisons (from a rank amateur)

freiheit-3Yesterday I finished a pilot course in practical philosophy at Low Moss prison. It’s an eight-session course that introduces people to the ideas and life-philosophies of various ancient philosophers, including Socrates, the Stoics, Plato, Rumi, the Buddha, Jesus and Lao Tzu. I’ve been running it in partnership with New College Lanarkshire, which runs the learning courses in west Scottish prisons.

The emphasis is on how we might be able to use their ideas today. Participants are also encouraged to criticize the ideas, and choose which ones work for them. Pick n’ mix? Certainly, but that way they hopefully don’t feel they are being forced down one particular path. The pluralism of the approach, I believe, makes it more likely that a group of cynical and anti-authoritarian people still take onboard some good ideas.

We had zero drop-out in the course – nine started it, and eight finished (one prisoner was transferred to another prison) – which is not bad, considering this was 12 hours of quite intense learning and discussion. This may have been because Nikki Cameron, the formidable teacher who runs Low Moss’ philosophy club, made sure everyone attended!

I often felt quite naive, stumbling into elephant traps that an experienced prison-teacher would see coming a mile off. In a session on Aristotle and the art of citizenship, for example, I asked the group how they would improve the prison system. Bad idea! It fed immediately into prisoners’ deeply-held conviction that they are the pitiable victims of an incurably corrupt system. In fact, it was probably a bad idea to broach the whole topic of citizenship – the group were so utterly disenfranchized from politics (with the exception of one who had been an active member of the BNP).

In another session, we discussed forgiveness. It’s such an important topic – can we forgive people who have wronged us, do we deserve to be forgiven for our wrongs? But it rapidly veered into a discussion on the merits and methods of revenge. No one wanted to support an ethic of forgiveness – it might seem weak. A more experienced teacher would have been aware of that in advance, and more prepared to challenge the conventional revenge ethic.

Philosophy in prisons can touch raw nerves and open wounds – prisoners will bring up issues of race, religious sectarianism, or simply complain about the prison ad infinitum. It’s easy for an outsider like me to bounce in, bounce out and claim quick results – the truth is that people inside have deep levels of anger, hurt, despondency, self-denial and self-absorption. You only have to look at the rate of recidivism and the number of inmate suicides to see what teachers are up against.

It might be argued that the idea of raising consciousness through prison philosophy is a bad idea from the start, for both the prisoners and the prison. Instead, perhaps we should sedate rather than awaken prisoners’ minds, via large-scale meds programmes (prisons spend millions on meds like methadone each year).

But within the group there did appear to be cognitive shifts – probably not through my brief course, but mainly through the philosophy group that Nikki Cameron has been running twice a week for a year. One participant, a former BNP member, discovered a love of Rumi’s poetry, wants to find out more about Taoism, and told Nikki he wants to study social sciences when he leaves prison. This is a guy who refuses to take part in any ‘behaviour modification’ courses to reduce his sentence. Of course, that’s only anecdotal evidence, but Kirstine Szfiris is doing more qualitative analysis and has so far found positive results.

Nikki Cameron  (left) and Ruth Fracchini (right) of the Low Moss learning centre, with two visiting Holocaust survivors
Nikki Cameron (left) and Ruth Facchini (right) of the Low Moss learning centre, with two visiting Holocaust survivors who spoke at the prison this month

Philosophy and desistance theory

I asked the group what their ‘philosophy of life’ was at the beginning of the course, and then at the end, they wrote down their life-philosophy on a card, which they read out and could then put up on their wall. It’s the idea of having them publicly commit to their ethics, which perhaps makes them more likely to try and live by them – a ‘testimonial’ method which churches and 12-step programmes use to good effect.

Their espoused value systems were usually admirable – ‘using education to learn from past mistakes and move towards a better future’ was how one participant summed up his life-philosophy. The problem was sticking to them, or using bad ways to try and meet them. For example, many of their value systems involve loving and protecting their family, but the means they have used to reach that end have been highly counterproductive, ending with them separated from their family for years.

After they read out their ‘life-philosophies’, we presented them with a certificate of completion – I told them ‘you are now a philosopher’ and shook their hand, and the group applauded each other. Yeah, cheesy I know. But still, a good idea (of Nikki’s).

Desistance theory, a hot topic in Scottish prisons, thanks to the work of Fergus McNeill and others

It fits with a theory in criminology called ‘desistance theory’, which suggests that people stop re-offending partly through an internal choice. They choose not to. They choose to live differently, which partly means recovering a sense of personal autonomy and control, and rejecting the identity of being a criminal or bad person to choose a different identity or narrative.

Practical philosophy fits very well into desistance theory, as both Nikki Cameron and Kirstine Szfiris have been researching. It emphasizes the Stoic idea that while we don’t control many things in our environment, we do have some choice over own thoughts, beliefs and actions. We don’t control the past or the future, we can control the present. We don’t control what’s happened to us, we can control how we respond to it. It’s worth repeating, over and over, just as Epictetus repeated this idea to his students in lecture after lecture.

And it re-labels the participants from ‘offenders’ to ‘philosophers’. It recognizes their dignity as free-thinking agents. It also recognizes the dignity of their experience in negotiating adversity, and connects that to millennia-old wisdom traditions and their strategies for coping with adversity. It gives a positive value to their experience of adversity, rather than only seeing it as a negative. As one participant put it, ‘prison makes you become a Stoic, out of necessity’. Nikki said to them yesterday, ‘you’ve all had to practice more philosophy than most academic philosophers’, which is absolutely true in my opinion.

One of the questions in desistance theory is ‘why do people stop committing crimes?’ Age might be a part of it – their value system changes with their hormones (in that sense, it’s less of a choice than a chemical transformation). Time also plays a role – they just get sick of being in prison. Relationships play a key role – someone takes an interest in them, sees the good in them, and they want to live up to that. I see this clearly with Nikki’s relationship to the group. One inmate came up and apologized to her for expressing a vengeful opinion in the class. He said sorry to her ‘because you’re my pal’. The importance of personal relationship is worth bearing in mind in any attempt to ‘roll out’ some mass solution to the prison system. There is no such thing as ‘intimacy on a mass scale’ as one think-tank put it.

Reforming probation services

One of the key issues with desistance, of course, is what happens when the person is discharged? What happens when they leave the prison with £46, no house, no job, and often very little probation follow-up? The Ministry of Justice spends around £40K a year on each prisoner inside, but much less on follow-up. The re-offending rate is very high, particularly for short-term inmates (as much as 70%).

The Justice Ministry is, in fact, about to embark on a huge privatization of the National Probation Service, transferring about 75% of its tasks to private-sector companies. Forget the ban on buying books for inmates – the reform of the probation service is a far, far bigger story.

The historical roots of the probation service go back to missionaries like these chaps from 1906

Minister Chris Grayling says he wants to see more voluntary organizations involved, as part of a ‘compassionate Conservative’ approach. He seems keen to take probation back to its historical roots in charitable Christian volunteers. But the 21 ‘community probation companies’ who have been contracted to start work are mainly the usual suspects of multinational contractors – Sodexo, Capita, G4S, A4E. There is a risk that compassionate Conservatives seek Big Society but end up with Big Business.

Will these private contractors ‘join up’ with voluntary organizations so that people coming out of prison find jobs and supportive communities? Maybe, but there is not a clear alignment of interests or scale. Charities tend to be small, local and value-driven, while the community probation companies tend to be large bureaucracies and profit-driven.

Joining up with probation companies

Well, I’m so new to this area I really shouldn’t pretend to understand these issues! I’ll just highlight them, and end on this point – how do we join up desistance approaches inside prisons with desistance approaches outside? How do you help a person to extend the new story they have embraced into the wider world?

Christian or Muslim groups can do that – my friend Tom Seidler, an ex-offender, runs a charity called Transformed, which meets people at the gates and tries to embed them in churches. A Muslim group called Mosaic also works to try and help the 12% of the population in prisons that are Muslim (some London prisons are over 30% Muslim now, which is shocking considering only 4% of the British population are Muslim).

What about for the non-religious? Can you provide a strong community for prison graduates, other than the BNP?

As the arts and philosophy in prisons approach evolves, it would be great to build links with both voluntary organisations and community probation companies, particularly ones such as Co:here, a new probation company set up as a mutual, which is committed to the desistance / self-help model of rehabilitation.  Could ex-offenders become co-partners in these organizations, or is that meaningless jargon??

In the mental health recovery movement, for example, one of the steps to recovery is coming to see oneself not just as a victim of mental illness, but as an expert on recovery. I wonder if that’s possible in prisons too, where people could come to see themselves as experts on rehabilitation and resilience, with stories to tell that can help others?

And could the staff at prisons and in probation companies also be given time to go on courses in practical philosophy, so that some of these ideas filter out and become a shared culture? Could inmates and staff become co-philosophers?

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In related news:

Here is an article on desistance and prison arts courses, looking at the experience in west Scottish prisons like Low Moss.

Here is a piece I wrote comparing the ‘wisdom’ approach to the ‘critical thinking’ approach in practical philosophy, and here’s an initial article I did on doing a philosophy talk in HMP Dumfries.

Here is a useful PowerPoint from the philosopher Gregory Sadler, drawing on his experience teaching philosophy in prisons, and connecting it to a Kohlbergian model of wisdom development.

Here is an article on well-being in prisons, looking at the reform of the Singapore Prison Service.

Andrew Chignell, a Cornell philosopher, taught a course on the philosophy of hope in a New York prison, as he describes here.

Here’s the Prison University Project website, which provides philosophy courses in San Quentin prison.

Here is a blog by Alan Smith, who taught philosophy in prisons for 14 years.

Here is an article by Eric Anthametten, who teaches an introduction to philosophy course in Texas prisons.

This is an organization called Inside-Out, which links up academia to prisons.

Aislinn O’Donnell teaches philosophy in an Irish prison. She was part of an EU-funded project to explore how to build self-esteem among inmates using the arts.

Here is a short film about meditation in prisons. A documentary has been made about philosophy in prisons in Germany, called Inner Freedom, but it’s not online alas.

Finally, this is a website about a project at Roehampton Uni promoting Prison Reading Groups, which you can donate to if you want.

See you next week,

Jules

The Inner Game of Tennis

coaching-commons-books-001I’ve been reading a very unusual book about sport, a classic really, called The Inner Game of Tennis, written by Tim Gallwey and published in 1974. I picked it up at a free bookstore in Holland. Two tennis players had recommended it to me as one of the few good books on tennis out there. What I didn’t expect was it would be such a wise book about spirituality.

Gallwey was a very competitive tennis player, who found that his nerves would often interfere with his playing. In a big tournament match, he choked on a very easy volley in front of thousands of spectators, and he writes that he still goes over the shame of that point in his mind.

He somehow managed to win the game, and sat waiting for the next match, trying to gather his thoughts. He thought, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ He could lose 6-0 6-0. He’d be ashamed for a while, and then life would go back to normal. So ‘what’s the best that could happen?’ He could win 6-0 6-0, then he’d go on to another match, which he’d either win or lose, then life would go back to normal.

Then he asked, ‘what do you really want?’ ‘The answer was quite unexpected. What I really wanted, I realized, was to overcome the nervousness that was preventing me from playing my best. I wanted to overcome the inner obstacle that had plagued me for so much of my life. I wanted to win the inner game.’ He set up himself a new intrinsic goal. He eventually set up a school dedicated to this new approach, called the Inner Game Institute of Tennis.

Tim Gallwey
Tim Gallwey

Gallwey put forward a dual process theory of mind, at least a decade before cognitive psychologists like Daniel Kahnemann did. He suggested there are two selves: Self 1, which is analytical and ego-driven, prone to worrying and ruminating, and Self 2, which is more unconscious, intuitive and physical.

The secret to the Inner Game is to get Self 1 out of the way, to stop being so self-critical and anxious, and simply let your body play the game, without being too outcome-oriented. You can get Self 1 out of the way by training your attention on each point, for example, or on the sound of the ball – giving your Self 1 some activity to keep it busy so it can let Self 2 do the work.

It’s an approach partly inspired by eastern philosophy, and the idea of wu wei, or doing by not trying too hard. Gallwey quotes DT Suzuki’s forward to Zen and the Art of Archery:

As soon as we reflect, deliberate and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes….Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored after long years of training in self-forgetfulness.

What, then, is the goal of the Inner Game, if not winning trophies? It is a sort of inner treasure. I’ll quote the entire last page, as it’s unusually beautiful for a sports book!

Out of all the human experiences possible, which does the player of the inner pursue? What do we really want to tune into? What do we really want to see and hear, and what do we really want to do? These are the questions that the player of the inner game finally arrives at, and continues to ask until he has found his answer.

Found what? That which he can love and which gives him complete satisfaction. For only when man is paying attention to something he really loves can he concentrate his mind and find true satisfaction. So the search is on, the search for the goal of the inner game. Players of the game have given many names to this goal. Some call it self-knowledge, some call it soul, others reality. It has been called Peace, Truth, Love, Joy, Beauty, Super-Consciousness, and God, as well as many other names in other cultures. But the name is not important because no one has ever found satisfaction by repeating the name; nor have labels helped people learn where to look or how to find that which the names refer to. Those who have experienced the reality behind the label say that it is beyond names which can be spoken and beyond a beauty which can be described.

When one undertakes the quest for this priceless treasure, when one searches for the secret which is capable of meeting the deepest longing within his heart, then he has truly embarked on the Inner game. At that point, all the inner skills described in this book will be of help, but the player’s most valuable assets will be his sincerity and determination.

My own experience is that the true goal of the Inner Game is to be found within. Nothing outside of ourselves is ever permanent enough or sufficient to satisfy completely, but there is something within every human being that is not mentioned in psychology books. It is not a concept, a belief, or something that can be written in words. It is something real and changeless; its beauty and its value have no limits. It is the very source of all our potential; it is the seed from which our lives grow. It is the origin of every experience we have ever had of love, truth or beauty. Its presence within can be intuited, deducted and read about, and it can be experienced directly.

When one finds one’s way to the direct experience of it, when one can actually meet face to face with the essence of life, then he has achieved the first – but not the final – goal of the Inner Game. When the lighthouse of the home port is in sight, the ship’s radar can be turned off and the navigation aids set aside. What remains is to keep the lighthouse in sight and simply sail toward it.

Gallwey calls this final goal the discovery of Self 3. What a remarkable tennis coach. It sounds like a wonderful technique to create better human beings, though I wonder if it necessarily works for the elite sportsperson, who is of ncessesity very much focused on winning tournaments and climbing the rankings. Think how victory-oriented great sportsmen like Michael Jordan or Rafael Nadal are, how much they hate losing.

When I’ve been teaching philosophy to Saracens, I’ve sometimes raised the idea that the true goal is not just to win trophies but to have a great and rounded life. But then…I’m not a professional sportsperson! And neither was Gallwey. So is this method really appropriate to help train the greyhound of professional sportspeople to chase the mechanical rabbit of victory?

Anyway, here is a video of him at work: