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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?


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,


Where are the ethics in Cummings’ Odyssean education?

Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s special advisor, has penned a 237-page Jerry Maguire-style memo, a few weeks before leaving office, which outlines his vision for England and Wales to become a sort of ‘school to the world’, much as Pericles suggested Athens should be.

I’m impressed by Cummings’ cognitive surplus, and the sheer range of his references, from Mendel to Kahnemann, from Thucydides to Nate Silver. The memo covers everything from Big Data to darknets, from ABMs to RCTs, and sometimes reads like the sort of breathless brain-dump of someone who’s stayed up all night watching TED talks on Red Bull.

The memo has grabbed headlines for its criticism of teachers – most of whom are ‘inevitably’ mediocre, according to Cummings, though I think by ‘mediocre’ he just means ‘average’, which is statistically true. It must be annoying for teachers to be constantly criticised by non-teachers like Cummings, but his criticisms are more structural than personal. And he may have a point that our system is being blighted by an acceptance of low standards – we’re now 21st out of 24 OECD countries for literacy and numeracy, and the only country where standards have stalled in the last 40 years.

Beneath the noise, Cumming’s broader suggestion is that we need to develop what he calls ‘Odyssean education’,  a term coined by Nobel-prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann to mean a synthesis of the Apollonian skill of rationality with the Dionysian skill of intuition. An Odyssean education would, Cummings says, combine the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities.

Odysseus possessed both rationality and artistic intuition, apparently

This all sounds good to me – I’ve also argued that our education system needs to be broader, needs to specialize less early (I’d prefer the International Baccelaureate to A Levels for this reason) and, at degree level, it needs to be closer to the Scottish or American liberal arts model, perhaps with science majors expected also to take courses in the humanities, and vice versa. I also love the idea of finding a synthesis between the Apollonian and the Dionysian – in a way, that’s what I’m trying to do, having written one book on cognitive therapy and Socratic philosophy (the Apollonian) I’m now researching another on ecstatic experiences (the Dionysian).

My problem with Dominic’s vision, however, is that it’s entirely Apollonian. It’s entirely scientific, rationalistic and technocratic in its focus, without any Dionysiac sense of the value of the arts or religion, or indeed of emotions, beliefs, values, narratives, myths and meaning.

Look, for example, at the seven bold goals that he thinks the education system should fix:

1. Maths and complexity. Solve the Millennium Problems, better prediction of complex networks.
2. Energy and space. Ubiquitous cheap energy and opening space for science and commerce.
3. Physics and computation. Exploration beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, better materials and computers, digital fabrication, and quantum computation.
4. Biological engineering. Understanding the biological basis of personality and cognition, personalised medicine, and computational and synthetic biology.
5. Mind and machine. Quantitative models of the mind and machine intelligence applications.
6. The scientific method, education, training and decisions. Nielsen’s vision of decentralised coordination of expertise and data-driven intelligence (‘a scientific social web that directs scientists’ attention where it is most valuable’); more ambitious and scientifically tested personalised education; training and tools that measurably improve decisions (e.g. ABMs).
7. Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes. Replacements for failed economic ideas and traditional political philosophies; new institutions (e.g. new civil service systems and international institutions, a UK DARPA and TALPIOT (non-military), decentralised health services).
The ideal product of Cummings’ education system would be a computer

Noble aims all of them, but these are all technocratic problems that would be best solved by a super-computer. Indeed, after reading Dominic’s paper, with its 100 pages of complex systems analysis, one imagines the ideal product of his education system would also be a computer, without any messy human emotions clouding its rational analysis.

There is no sense of the value of emotions as motivators for learning, as there is in education theorists like, say, Aristotle or John Stuart Mill. What is an education system without the emotions of wonder, play, tragedy and joy? Nor is there a sense of the need for meanings, myths, and narratives as motivators of human beings – which happens to be the arts and humanities’ strong point.

There is a great deal of genuflecting to American technologists and social scientists (this is typical of our political class, which tends to keel over in awe at any American idea, no matter how faddish) and no mention of our world-leading strength in theatre, movies, art, music, literature, design and computer graphics. We hear a lot about foreign science academies, but there is no mention of the BRIT school, for example, which has managed to produce several of the top-selling artists worldwide in the last decade. The omission suggests this government really doesn’t get the value of English and Welsh arts – neither their value to our economy, nor to our spiritual health as a society, nor for engaging young people and making learning fun.

More fundamentally, there is a yawning meaning-gap at the heart of his vision. It’s a Weberian, technocratic vision of education, dedicated to the smooth and efficient running of the machine, without any clear articulation of what the machine is for, what education is for, what indeed life is for.

Cummings might say that asking what the system is for is teleological thinking, and therefore bad. Plato and Aristotle were guilty of this sort of primitive teleology, he says. The great leap forward into modernity is to abandon teleology, and embrace Darwinian evolutionary thinking. But at least Plato and Aristotle had a clear idea of what the moral goal of their education should be, and what sort of character values it should produce in young people.

Cummings, by contrast, puts his entire faith in scientific thinking. Science and the market have disenchanted the world, led us out from superstitious belief-systems like religion and into godless complex market technocracies. Yet, crucially, he admits that science has ‘not produced ‘a rational basis for morality’.’ So we find ourselves in a complex machine without a morality.  We find yourself in what Weber described as a ‘polar night of icy darkness’ – without God, without myths, without meanings or values, even without emotions – simply a machine running on without a driver.

Clearly there is a meanings gap in this vision of education and life. It is an entirely Apollonian system – a system of rational technocratic control or, in neurobollocks terminology, a system dominated by left-brain-hemisphere thinking. To become a truly Odyssean system, it would need to bring in the right-brain hemisphere, the domain of intuition, emotion, the arts, narrative and myth.  Cummings has half the system right – he’s just missed out the other half.

Look back to Periclean Athens – it had both the Apollonian rationality of Thucydides, Hippocrates and Socrates, and also the Dionsyiac insight of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Agathon, Pindar, and the cults of Eleusis and Dionysus. Athens managed to find a fragile Odyssean balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or between the sciences and the arts and humanities. Perhaps we can too.