Printer Friendly

Philosophy across prison walls.


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. Although there are important and obvious ways in which USF students and San Quentin inmates inhabit separate worlds, all could share the experience of being college students. USF students were not tutors or teaching assistants; they were "peer-to-peer conversation partners" who shared the same will to know as the inmate-students.

Such interactions are highly unusual. Not only is post-secondary education in college now a rare experience, due to the 1994 Congressional legislation that denied Pell Grants to prisoners (Page 2004), but the travails of organizing and maintaining a program that brings students across the prison walls requires additional effort and institutional support (both from the participating university and the prison administration) that is seldom forthcoming. One other similar program--one that combines prison postsecondary education with university service learning--is the "Inside-Out" program run by Temple University. Director Lori Pompa writes:

"As a particular model in the service-learning genre, Inside-Out affords college students an experience of immersion, providing direct exposure to the exigencies of the particular context of prison, while engendering deep interaction and connection with the men and women incarcerated there. It is the ultimate border-crossing experience. In taking class together as equals, borders disintegrate and barriers recede." (Pompa 2002, 68)

This essay, then, along with analyzing the "border-crossing experience" described by Pompa, has as its secondary purpose a call for increasing the availability and interrogating the importance of higher education in prison today. The literature on education reducing recidivism is large [2], but recent analysis of teaching in prison is quite sparse. The two most recent anthologies devoted to the topic--Higher Education in Prison: A Contradiction in Terms (Williford 1994) and Schooling in a "Total Institution (Davidson 1995)--do not take account of the drastic reduction of such programs that occurred just after their respective publication. The time is now, therefore, to place prison higher education back on the agenda, and to do so as a part of the growing movement in service learning in universities across the country.

Student to Student

"What surprises you the most about your experience so far?" I asked one of my USF students a few weeks into the course. "Well, after our readings of the prison-industrial complex, I thought I would see the inmates as people, you know, right away? But even walking in that first day, hearing the clinking of the keys on the guards' belts, the heavy weight of the gates slamming shut behind me, and the words 'Adjustment Center' in nineteenth-century script on the first building I saw, I knew that no humans could live here. And after all, these are murderers with a history of violence."

One cannot prepare for the dramatic humanization of incarcerated felons that takes place in the classroom. The current warehousing of prisoners sends the message that these are surplus bodies being piled upon one another (Irwin 2005). There are few resources available to those of us on the outside to help understand the very human struggles of prisoners. But prison is a distorted but recognizable reflection of human societies everywhere, a "funhouse mirror" that pulls, pushes, and flattens, while leaving essential features intact.[3] As my student continued, "It took a few weeks of listening to them, full of drive and personal dreams and the commitment to education, to really know that prisoners are human, too."

While USF students learned to respect the inmates, the inmate-students themselves were deeply enamored with Plato. Like most students introduced to philosophy through Plato's Apology and Crito, they were interested in the ambivalent character of Socrates, at the same time profoundly principled and individualist, but also arrogant, sly, and manipulative. The USF students were overwhelmed by hearing inmates defend Socrates's decision to remain in prison even when unjustly accused and sentenced to die for heretical beliefs and activities. Wait, isn't everyone in prison innocent, "if only you ask them," and wouldn't they escape given half a chance? No, of much more interest to the inmate-students are the twinned pair concepts of responsibility and the good. Never in my teaching career have I witnessed students probe, so intricately, the distinctions between the good and the form of the good, or more plainly, between the satisfaction of desire and the conditions for anything being desirable.

Eventually, this dogged need to probe the conditions for right action and the meaning of personal responsibility began to make sense, since inmates--particularly those who have spent a long time "down"--have reflected more on the possible means for self-transformation than the typical college student. And the "prisoners' code" requires of all with whom they interact one thing above all: that one "be straight" and not withhold information or act in such a way as to hide one's real intentions. Along with Plato, then, inmates were attracted to the strict moral theory of Immanuel Kant, for whom it is the maxim, or principle, of one's action that determines its moral worth, and not its consequences--even white lies, it follows, are no good here. (I always warn anyone entering a prison never to lie to an inmate; after all, he's probably better at it than you are, and his previous "career" may have been in large part based on knowing who was the liar and who was straight!) Kant also reminds us that things can go quite wrong between our conception of an action and its realization, a lesson many inmates have learned the hard way. Again, these are the most human of questions, and in that sense, inmate-students had a substantial body of reflection and insight that dramatized for USF students just how serious questions of moral worth might be.

But what, then, constitutes the service aspect of the USF students' participation? What, after all, can young, privileged students offer to these hardened yet sensitive cons? USF students, initially quite reticent in the San Quentin classrooms, were nonplussed by the way in which inmate-students would turn to them and ask, "And what do you think? Why?" They wanted to know what a "real" college student thought about the matters at hand; they wanted to know so that they, too, could properly consider themselves students. It is well known that one of the greatest difficulties of the prison educational environment is the lack of resources for teaching and learning. There is no internet, no laboratories, no office hours or random encounters with faculty, and a comically restricted library. One can also say that, in some sense, there are no students. Inmate-students are forced to imagine what and how a college student thinks, reacts, writes, questions, with their only guidance the few teachers available. And since these are to some extent natural behaviors, they manage quite well (and prison instructors will tell you that inmate-students are always their most devoted learners). But they are not just natural behaviors; they are part of a tradition of the university system hundreds of years ago, and some of the best parts of this tradition do not pass through the prison gates except on two feet.

People typically assume that USF students' most important contribution to prisoners, their service, is their intellectual expertise, their abilities to explain and guide. But I believe their very presence and interaction is the true heart of their service. They are a lived embodiment of the kind of open questioning that comes only through absorption in a culture of inquiry, from which prisoners are so shielded. And with a sort of innocence they flow through these different worlds and remain themselves. Most people, I submit, are unable, or more accurately, unwilling, to do this. And this is the importance of service projects such as the one I am describing here, where service blends into political intervention.

Permeable Prison Walls

USF students learned quite early in Prisons and Punishment that the presumed analytical link between punishment and crime has been severed, first by the system of capital accumulation generally and then conclusively by the rise of a prison-industrial complex. This idea stems from Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer's Punishment and Social Structure (1968 [1938]), which argues that systems of punishment need to be understood as the effects of systems of production, and not as an independent force. This analysis has recently taken a leap forward with Angela Davis's Are prisons obsolete?, which argues that the prison system today punishes for the sake of punishment (a system of profit and racial supremacy), and not as a genuine response to crime (Davis 2003). And sociologist Loic Wacquant has provocatively argued that today there exists a "carceral mesh" made up of the "deadly symbiosis" between prisons and the post-industrial hyper-ghetto, two sites with no functional and very little cultural differentiation (Wacquant 2005).

The significance of each of these analyses is that there is a smooth flow of politics, information, money, culture, and human bodies moving back and forth across the walls of the prison system. This is contrary to the basic assumption of most U.S. citizens, who imagine that prisons are designed to keep criminals in, and thus also to keep us, along with our privileges and resources, out. Prisons, after all, are not just a means of physical or psychic punishment, but a means for segregation and exclusion, following a pre-modern impetus to exclude the deranged and abnormal from the limit of the community. This exclusion may have been a significant element of prisons for much of their history; with the rise of the prison-industrial complex, however, it is no longer true. Prison construction, police and surveillance networks, probation and school discipline, correctional practices and employees--these are some of the most important players driving social policy today. Combined annual spending for corrections, courts, and policing is estimated as nearing $200 billion (Dyer 2000, 11). With over two million people incarcerated in jails, prisons, and other detention facilities, over six million under correctional supervision (including those on probation and parole), and a few more million ex-offenders stripped of significant civil rights and access to social resources, we have become a prison nation (Herivel and Wright 2003). Nonetheless, we remain content to allow prisons to serve as a kind of "black hole" into which our eye cannot see, and our imagination loses any critical ability. Misperceptions driven by television shows from COPS to OZ, and by the selectively leaked pictures of prison life in the mass media, lead us to continually imagine prisons as "outside" the normal functioning of the society, an "add-on" feature and not an essential element.

In consequence, we have relinquished the most significant tool we have to influence the prison system and change the ways in which it affects every social institution today: our ability to cross the imaginary walls of the prison. Imaginary, because prison walls keep out nothing except for the critical input of a public currently regulated by the manipulators of our prison society. And thus the service being performed by USF students is not simply to the inmate-students with whom they are interacting, it is to the society as a whole, each member of which needs to be taught that the prison boundaries are permeable. It is up to us intentionally to move back and forth, consciously, critically, if we are to take back control of our own lives from this behemoth.

The Disciplinary Society

"This Foucault guy, was he ever in prison? This stuff about the 'disappearance of the body from punishment', let him be thrown in the hole for a week, he'll find out about the existence of torture in the prison. This is just another fool academic who thinks he knows what it is to be down." Inmate-students did not warm quickly to Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish.[4] Foucault traces the history of the prison, demonstrating how the modern prison is an outgrowth of a series of reform movements, each of which helps the prison adapt to emergent needs of the wider society, including new forms of labor power necessary for urban industrialization, and the management and redefinition of crime that emerged with the shift from landed to movable capital. He argues that the classical age discovered the "disciplines," practices that increase the intensity and range of power, resulting on the one hand in "docile bodies" accommodated at the deepest levels to systemic imperatives, and on the other in the production of delinquency as a means to continually surveil the members of society en masse.

USF students typically walk around in a daze for a few weeks while studying Foucault. They see the practices of control and obedience to which they have been subject, and which they have welcomed; they see the rise of a surveillance society in which the "eye of power" (or what Foucault calls the "panopticon") is introjected into their very perceptual makeup; they recognize the similarities between prisons and the schools in which they have been trained. As a result, the normative basis of society is revealed to be contingent, shot through with power relations and thereby de-absolutized. Inmate-students, more in need of those absolutes learned from Plato and Kant, reject Foucault's Nietzschean exposure of contingent and power-inflected social institutions. They cannot help but think that Foucault is somehow making fun of them, failing to be straight, ironically toying with their beliefs while offering none of his own. What they seek, though, is important to recognize; as one inmate-student insightfully phrased it: "What would this philosophy look like if it was done from the prisoner's perspective, not these uppity sociologists and philosophers who don't know thing one about life inside?"

While I remain largely sympathetic to Foucault's insightful deconstruction of the normative basis of society, I am also sympathetic to the demand of the prisoner. What we need, today, is a phenomenology of the prison, a critical and reflective organization of knowledge that begins from the radical perspective of the experiencing subject. Inmate-students are no better or worse than other students at purging the misleading impulses of desire, or at least guiding them in such a way as to be epistemically productive. It is a mistake to think that they don't have the richest, if not always the most complete, understanding of the varied roles that the prison plays throughout society. It is their profound intelligence that we need, today, if we are to have any impact on their lives and on our own.

And in addition, we need mechanisms for translating these insights into common public currency. It is here that a slightly revised conception of service learning comes back into play. While in many cases students may, for instance, create public art or assist in homeless shelters or intern at service organizations, it is also possible that service can be the transformative act of demonstrating the permeability of social divisions that have typically been thought fixed and immutable. Prison work is not easy, as at every stage we must adapt to the ever-changing regulations and policies imposed at whim by prison authorities. But it is hard to imagine an act of service that so directly intervenes in the public imaginary and the future of an institution that has taken over much of our society, without much of a hue and cry.


Since that first Ethics course, administrative hurdles put up by the San Quentin administration have hampered the service learning component of my USF course. Students are continuing to engage in a wider variety of prison education programs, from inmate organized seminars at San Quentin to performance workshops and GED preparation courses at a local juvenile facility. In these experiences, much like when they were participating in philosophy classes in prison, they continue to make connections based on respect, mutuality, and concern. One student wrote:

"C. looks exactly like my grandfather did, only black and a bit younger, so every week I am always drawn to him and I have taken his words to be the most accurate and important. I realize that these men so desperately want the Penitentiary to be a rehabilitative place, and that after many of them have lived terrible lives and been in and out of this same prison, they desperately want the tools and assets to redeem and rehabilitate."

Prisoners are forced to take on the responsibility for their own redemption and rehabilitation, as the prison itself provides little in the way of resources or encouragement, and outside the walls society turns its blindest eye. Describing one evening's events, in which a fight in a cell block resulted in an immediate lock down, this student clearly understands how prison is a place filled with men like himself, not objects to be studied or deviants to be helped. This final quote serves as the best possible description of the purpose and the effects of combining service learning and prison education.

"A guard appeared at the door, which is somewhat unusual, and talked to E., then E. looked at everyone and said, We have to go, now. And then he looked and said, You too, hurry. The men seemed to realize the gravity of the situation and were out the door and lined up within two minutes. We hurried towards the gate, while across the courtyard the men were led away in line. It was really only in moments like these that I came to remember that we were actually in a prison, but not like a prison should have felt. It was more like a friend had just been sentenced to twenty years and was being escorted off."


Camus, Albert. 1988 [1942]. The Stranger. Matthew Ward, Trans. New York: Vintage.

Cole, David. 1999. No Equal Justice. New York: The New Press.

Davidson, Howard S., Ed. 1995. Schooling in a "Total Institution": Critical Perspectives on Prison Education. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Davis, Angela. 2003. Are prisons obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.

Dyer, Joel. 2000. The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Erisman, Wendy and Jeanne Bayer Contardo. 2005. "Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-state analysis of postsecondary correctional education policy." Washington, D.C.: Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Foucault, Michel. 1977 [1975]. Discipline and Punish. Alan Sheridan, Trans. New York: Vintage.

Gordon, Robert. 2000. The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison. Pullman: Washington State University Press.

Herivel, Tara and Paul Wright, Eds. 2003. Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor. New York: Routledge.

Irwin, John. 2005. The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishing Company.

Miller, James. 1993. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Morgan, Michael L., Ed. 2001. Classics in Moral and Political Theory, 3rd Ed. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Murphy, Jeffrie G., Ed. 1994. Punishment and Rehabilitation, 3rd Ed. New York: Wadsworth.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1998 [1887]. On the Genealogy of Morality. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen, Trans. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Page, Joshua. 2004. "Eliminating the enemy: The import of denying prisoners access to higher education in Clinton's America." Punishment & Society 6 (4): 357-378.

Plato. 2002. Five Dialogues, 2nd Ed. G.M.A. Grube, Trans. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Pompa, Lori. 2002. "Service Learning as Crucible: Reflections on Immersion, Context, Power, and Transtbrmation." Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 9 (1): 67-76.

Rusche, Georg and Otto Kirchheimer. 1968 [1938]. Punishment and Social Structure. New York: Russell & Russell.

Wacquant, Loic. 2005. Deadly Symbiosis. New York: Polity.

Williford, Miriam, Ed. 1994. Higher Education in Prison: A Contradiction in Terms? Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Jeffrey R. Paris, University of San Francisco


[1] The Prison Education Project was formed in 1997 with all volunteer teachers, assistants, and tutors. More information is available at http//

[2] In a recent report, The Institute for Higher Education Policy (Erisman & Contardo 2005) analyzes opportunities for postsecondary correctional education, but fails to distinguish between job training programs and accredited degrees in arts and humanities, or between on-site and distance education programs.

[3] See Gordon (2000). Robert Gordon taught creative writing for years in the Washington State prison system, and this book compiles both his own writing and that of inmates from his classes.

[4] Foucault writes that in the eighteenth century, "The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared" (1977, 8), replaced by more insidious forms of punishment and behavioral modification. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was France's greatest post-existentialist intellectual, whose prison activism began in 1972 with his investigative research as part of the Groupe d'Information sur les Prisons, a militant anti-prison organization. See Miller (1993, 208244) for an engaging account of this period in Foucault's life.

Jeffrey Paris, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco, and a volunteer teacher in the San Quentin Prison College Program.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:prison education and service-learning courses
Author:Paris, Jeffrey R.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Previous Article:Teaching fiction using tangible questions.
Next Article:Nature and use of curriculum in special education.

Related Articles
It's our Christian duty to educate prisoners.
Cons teach cons peace.
History from the inside out: prison life in nineteenth-century Massachusetts.
Prison Inmates Meet Socrates.
Service learning and the induction of teachers.
Leaving campus behind: plenty of "life learning" takes place outside the ivied walls.
A search for reciprocity: service and learning.
Communication service-learning work themes.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters