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Community philosophy

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

Wisdom, critical thinking, well-being or faith?

article-new_ehow_images_a07_lr_kg_learn-prison-800x800Apologies for the lack of newsletters recently – I’ve been in the depths of a project to design and teach a course based on Philosophy for Life. This month, I started teaching it in three organizations – a mental health charity in London called Manor Gardens; Saracens rugby club; and Low Moss prison in Glasgow (via New College Lanarkshire, which runs learning courses there).

Why try the same philosophy course in three such different organizations? Why these three in particular? Why indeed. I have no idea, other than a sense (a faith, really) that ancient philosophies have something to say to all of us, and could usefully be taught in all kinds of contexts – schools, universities, adult education, prisons, armies, hospitals and mental health trusts, armies, companies and online. Might as well start somewhere!

It’s been full-on. Low Moss has been the most intense and time-consuming, partly because I’m teaching two sessions there back-to-back every Friday, which takes a lot of preparation and energy; partly because it’s all the way up in Glasgow; and partly because….well…it’s in a prison, teaching to a group of long-term prisoners inside for serious crimes, so that brings its own challenges. It’s never been scary or threatening, thank God, but there’s just the challenge of ‘is this actually making any difference?’

There isn’t much philosophy happening within British prisons at the moment. I recently met Kirstine Szfiris, who’s doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons at Cambridge, and she tells me the only place it’s happening regularly is at Low Moss – although other prisons have occasional philosophy events or have run courses in the past. There is interest in expanding it to other prisons, and I went to a seminar on that last month.

Three approaches to philosophy in prisons

It became clear there are different ways to try and teach philosophy in prisons. Firstly, you use an idea or a stimulus as a springboard for Socratic discussion, which you allow to go where it wants. This is the Socratic approach of Philosophy for Children (P4C), as used by organizations like Sapere and The Philosophy Foundation. Nikki Cameron more or less uses this approach with her Philosophy Club at Low Moss. The participants seem to really enjoy it.

The other approach is to try and teach particular ideas from ancient philosophies, and then open them up for Socratic discussion. This is what I try and do. For example, I teach some ideas from Stoicism – such as Epictetus’ idea of focusing on what you can control while accepting what you can’t – and tell a real-life story or two of people using that idea today. Then, in the second half of the session, the group discusses this idea as well as what they think of Stoic philosophy in general.

The first approach aims to teach ‘critical thinking skills’. The second approach tries to teach ‘wisdom’. The wisdom approach has been particularly developed by Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy, and one of my colleagues on the Stoicism Today project.

Then there is a third approach, which tries to teach ‘wellbeing’ or ‘flourishing’ using purely Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Positive Psychology. This approach is very popular within prisons – indeed, the Scottish Prison Service spends a lot of money on CBT courses like Constructs and Good Lives.

So three different approaches:

Critical Thinking – leave it entirely open to the prisoners to come to their own conclusions.
Well-being / Flourishing – teach psychological techniques from CBT, without any room for the discussion of values.
Wisdom – teach ideas from ancient philosophy and CBT, and incorporate discussion of values. Allow participants to discuss and disagree.

My approach tries to take a middle-ground between the complete freedom of Socratic enquiry, and the more doctrinaire approach of CBT. It has a more specific normative goal in mind – it believes ancient philosophies have useful things to tell us, things we might not simply discover for ourselves, things it’s worth learning – wisdom, in other words.

However, it doesn’t teach just one particular wisdom tradition, but several of them (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism). It explores the connections and similarities within these approaches – the core of wisdom that they share – while also exploring their value differences, and allowing participants to disagree and perhaps to reject them all.

The course I’m teaching also explores some of the similarities between ancient philosophies and modern psychology, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I believe inmates are far more open to these ideas when they’re presented in the context of ancient philosophy – and when it’s permissible to discuss and reject them. Perhaps they start to feel less like a clockwork orange, and more like a free thinker being encouraged to be the ‘doctor to themselves’, as Cicero put it.

In general, I think this is an advantage that the wisdom approach has over the more strictly psychological ‘well-being’ approach – it treats people as free minds and moral agents who can think for themselves and who may reject your ideas, rather than as thinking machines who simply need to download a better running script. If you let someone criticize and reject your ideas, they are more likely to accept them.

The difference between the ‘critical thinking’ and the ‘wisdom’ approach, then, is that I have less faith in wisdom simply emerging when you put a group of people into a room and get them to talk. From my own experience, when I was very unhappy, I didn’t figure a way out for myself, I benefitted from the wisdom of previous generations – although I didn’t simply swallow that wisdom whole, but chose which bits of it made sense to me.

Which of these three approaches works best? It’s too early to say. The CBT approach is the most scientistic, with more narrowly emotional goals – it’s easier to measure depression than wisdom. However, Sfrizis’ early research suggests that the participants of Nikki’s club at Low Moss say they also learn ‘coping skills’ from studying philosophy. They learn how their perspective can cause their emotions. They become more tolerant of different opinions. All of this is encouraging.

My experience so far, after seven sessions at Low Moss, suggests the following points to me:

1) The idea that participants seem to find most useful is the Stoic idea of focusing on what you can control and not freaking out over the things you can’t control. I think this is also the idea that participants at Saracens and at the mental health charity find most useful. There’s a reason Epictetus repeated this idea over and over, in lecture after lecture – it’s a very simple idea, yet one we constantly forget.

2) It’s also useful to repeat the idea of philosophy as training – we can’t just have a good idea once, we need to repeat it over and over until it becomes a cognitive habit, and then practice it until it becomes a behavioural habit. This emphasis on habits is very important in all the wisdom traditions we study – but it’s not part of the ‘Critical Thinking’ approach (indeed, habit is anathema to free open Socratic enquiry).  I would try and reinforce certain ideas using postcards and art-work around the classroom. The idea of reinforcing good habits would seem like indoctrination to the Critical Thinking approach – I think there is an optimal balance between wisdom / dogma and criticism, and that the Critical Thinking approach leaves people too adrift.

3) There’s a challenge of how to get the course to spill out into the rest of a person’s life, outside of the classroom. For paid participants, you can set them homework or fieldwork to try out each week. In Low Moss prison, they’re not that into ‘homework’! But you can at least try and make sure the prison library stocks books from the wisdom traditions that you’re teaching.

4) Both the ‘wisdom’ approach and the ‘critical thinking’ approach seem to reach the moral goal of helping people see things from others’ perspectives. Yesterday, one participant – a member of the BNP – got really into the Islamic mysticism of Rumi, for example. Racism and religious sectarianism presents quite a challenge to Socratic philosophy within prisons – and there may be times when the discussion can get quite heated – but it seems to be able to meet that challenge over the long-term (with proper classroom management). Getting inmates to think constructively about politics, however, is very hard – they are deeply disenfranchised and conspiracy-theorist. That may be a bridge too far.

5) There is another approach to philosophy in prisons, which is basically ‘faith’. You teach inmates one particular religious path to salvation. This is what the Alpha course does, for example, which runs in prisons around the world. This approach has various advantages (besides any supernatural assistance it might have). Firstly, when inmates leave, they can join a church – that’s a massive advantage over any philosophy or psychology course. Secondly, it teaches one particular ethical approach, which it can reinforce over and over. Thirdly, it involves inmates as mentors, helping each other keep the faith. Fourth, it understands the power of story – both the stories of Moses, Joseph, Christ etc – and the story of the inmate and how they came to be saved.

And finally, it involves transformation at a deep level – it tackles the prisoner’s belief ‘I am a worthless, bad and unlovable criminal and will always be that’. It meets that low status belief with an incredibly high status response – you are the child of God, who loves you, who particularly loves sinners like you. You are an heir to the Kingdom.

Both the ‘Critical Thinking’ and the ‘Wisdom’ approaches have to ask how they can achieve those ends, or whether that’s impossible. In a session I taught yesterday, I discussed Plato’s idea that we have forgotten who we are and need to remember we’re royalty (as it were) and how that idea influenced Christian and Muslim mysticism. But obviously a pluralist wisdom approach can’t be hung solely on such a supernatural hook. Still, I think of St Paul’s idea that knowledge without love is ‘a noisy cymbal’. It really is love that transforms. How do you teach that? How do you pass it on?

All these four approaches are at play in various social institutions and structures today. This is what I and others have called ‘the politics of well-being’, and it really is political. Whose approach will be taken up? Who has a powerful coalition and political backers to get their approach ‘rolled out’?  It’s also economic – who has the funding, who gets the profit? It’s scientific – who has the evidence base? And it’s a lot about egos – whose trade-marked approach gets all the respect and credit?

I feel like an infant in such political matters. I don’t really have grand political plans. At the moment I’m just trying to refine the wisdom approach and perhaps the best way to ‘roll it out’ (in that awful political parlance) is through an online course. In fact, I think the best way to roll it out is just to put it out there and let other practitioners take what they see fit. After all, these are not ‘my’ ideas or ‘my’ approach – these are very old wisdom traditions which belong to everyone. There’s a wise quote that the best way to exert influence is not to seek the credit. As Epictetus put it, do what is in your control and accept the rest as God’s will.