Plato behind bars

(Originally appeared in the Philosophers' Magazine, issue 76, 2017.)

Batteries are contraband in prison, it turns out. That’s why the wall clock in the Brixton Prison library has been standing still for a while, the Head Librarian explains. Meanwhile, other things have been moving rather quickly. The library’s dwindling stock of philosophy books, for one. Because lately the library has had the rather encouraging problem of having most of their philosophy books be stolen.

This is all quite fitting, as it’s also books that brought me to Brixton. About a year prior to my visit to Brixton Prison, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary at the time, imposed a ban on sending books to prisoners as part of a crackdown on “perks and privileges.” I wasn’t alone in finding this policy deeply misguided. For my part, I started reaching out to nearby prisons about bringing in philosophy books that I would then read with the inmates in a seminar setting. Personally, I thought it was a great idea, and expected everything to fall into place rather quickly. Not so. It turns out prisons tend to get a surprisingly large number of requests from people to come do a variety of things with the inmates, not all of which are of any obvious value to them. Naturally, prisons are also short on resources, and having a new person inside the prison can be quite disruptive. The mere process of entering the prison and then moving around naturally takes a lot of time. People need to escort you places, tell you what not to do, and constantly lock and unlock doors for you.

But I finally get lucky. During one of my many calls to different prisons around London, I end up speaking to an alum of my university, who subsequently puts me in touch with someone at Brixton who is able to get the ball rolling. That’s the person that is now escorting me around the prison, and has taken me to the Head Librarian. We talk about suitable topics. Many inmates gravitate towards philosophical topics on their own accord, it turns out. They’re interested in the idea of a utopia – perhaps not surprising, given their confinement. And they’re also interested in power – also not surprising. So we settle on the philosophy of power as our topic, and I suggest readings from Machiavelli, Plato, Hobbes and Foucault to start with. We discuss how to do the seminar sessions, and in particular the possibility of doing them as an evening reading group in the library. They explain to me that it might be difficult to get the inmates there and back in the evening, as they will need escorting to and from their cells. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” I suggest. “You’ve never worked in a prison before, have you?” the librarian replies.

I haven’t, but it turns out that there is a way. A couple of weeks later, I’m slotted into the prison’s reading and writing provision. By the time everything is up and running, Grayling’s ban has been struck down in court. But at that point, I’ve started to think of the sessions as something more ambitious than a mere book delivery system, as a way to develop a philosophical habit of critically evaluating your own thoughts and suppositions, raising educational ambitions, and providing an alternative to the mainly vocational opportunities on offer in prisons. My impression from inside the prison is that the opportunities on offer communicate certain very clear expectations about what the inmates will be able to go on doing once they get out. Maybe these expectations are realistic – I don’t know. But even if they are, the relevant career avenues are already catered to, and don’t fall within my particular area of expertise. Of course, at the time of planning the sessions, I have no idea what to expect about whether what I happen to have in mind will at all work, but decide on principle to take the risk of, if anything, expecting too much rather than too little from the students.

Minutes into the first session I realize that I’ve jumped in at the deep end. There’s the fact I’m in a prison with a room full of prisoners. But, while quite nervous, I don’t feel unsafe. This is not only the first time I’m surrounded by prisoners; it’s probably also the first time they’re face-to-face with a philosophy lecturer. I get a sense that they think of me as a novelty, and that helps – it makes them pay attention, not quite sure what to expect. Meanwhile, it’s dawning on me what I’m dealing with on my end. Many of the students have never spent any time in a formal classroom, and some of them have quite severe learning difficulties. One of the first things I have to do is try to establish a norm of not interrupting and instead raising your hand when you want to speak. It doesn’t always work, but it works often enough. Another challenge is to stay on topic. I quickly realize that they’re rarely listened to, so the Socratic practice of asking questions gets construed as an invitation to share their concerns and worries. I have to balance my desire to talk philosophy with also being someone that every now and then just listens, without thereby having the sessions deteriorate into a series of rants. Add to that the fact that the sessions are four hours long and that many of the students show up, not because they have any strong desire to learn, but because the only alternative is to remain in a cell in an overcrowded prison block. I leave each session exhausted, and with a long list of things I feel I could’ve done better. And then the next time, I do better on those things, but arrive at equally many things that need improving.

But I’m not alone in working hard. Think about it from their perspective. Most of them have no idea what philosophy is. And then some random person gives them a copy of Plato’s Republic and asks them to read it. Many of them understandably show up to the first session confused and wondering what on earth is going on. But then we start talking about it. I give a brief, 20-minute lecture with some slides, introducing the general ideas and some key quotes. Then we start reading passages from the books aloud, stopping after each one to look up difficult words, and trace them to their Latin or Greek roots to start seeing relationships. They stumble and struggle but keep going, all the while throwing new words at whomever is handling the dictionary at the moment, or helping each other out when one of them happens to know the definition or remember how to pronounce ‘Thrasymachus’.

They get into it, and in a surprising amount of cases they get it. They have no problem understanding Hobbes’ notion of a Leviathan. As they point out to me, they happen to live under an incompetent Leviathan: they have surrendered all of their rights, but are also left vulnerable as a result. And what they struggle to understand is sometimes equally interesting, if not particularly surprising upon reflection. For example, it turns out the Prisoner’s Dilemma is not a dilemma for prisoners. No one in the session feels the pull of confessing, and I don’t need to elaborate on the reputational effect of confessing in the case of repeated games.

I’m even more impressed when they show signs, not only of understanding the material, but of reasoning in philosophical ways unprompted. During one of the sessions, we read from Machiavelli’s The Prince, and then an obituary of Saddam Hussein. We imagine that Machiavelli was Hussein’s political biographer, and talk about what the former would have to say about the reign of the latter. During this particular session, a staff member drops by and asks to sit in. After a couple of minutes, he interrupts. He asks us to consider the matter from the perspective of the Kurds gassed by Hussein in the 1988 Halabja Massacre. Then he leaves. His point is that Hussein was a terrible person. I don’t say this, but it’s an excellent example of what we’re not doing in the session. We all think Saddam was a horrible person. What we’re practicing is something many people struggle with, including many philosophy undergraduates while still new to the field: setting your own perspective aside, and putting yourself in the mind of some particular philosopher – in this case Machiavelli – to see what they would say about some other viewpoint. Irrespective of whether we happen to agree with either. It’s the first step towards being able to have a rational discussion that engages seriously with ideas irrespective of who puts them forward. And, interestingly, I don’t have to explain any of this to the students in the session.

Another instance where philosophical reasoning arises organically happens when we do a session on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The students take turn reading from the first few pages, describing in excruciating detail the public torture and quartering of Robert-François Damiens in 1757, in punishment for his failed and rather pathetic attempt at assassinating King Louis XV of France with a pen knife. I want to talk to the students about what you feel when reading it, and specifically about Adam Smith’s point that, in the case of torture, you imagine yourself in the body of the other, and feel their pain. The mood in the room becomes increasingly heavy as we read on – heavier than I had expected. Smith was right, but I’m not quite sure where to go from here. Unprompted, one of the students jumps in to make a distinction between empathy and sympathy. He mentions someone on his wing who he sympathizes with, in that he feels bad for the situation he is in, but that he doesn’t empathize with him because he doesn’t fully understand why someone would have gotten themselves into the situation this particular person is in. Others chime and in and offer further examples. For a couple of minutes, I feel wonderfully redundant.

All of that said, I’m not completely sure what the students make of the sessions. I have them fill out anonymous evaluations which come back more positive than I had dared to hope – they say that the sessions feel relevant to them, and virtually everyone who didn’t consider higher education prior to the sessions say that they are after the sessions. The only complaint I get is that I’m not bringing in biscuits, which puts me in a bind. I can only bring in biscuits if they don’t ask me to – if they ask for something, and I bring it in, it’s contraband. But that aside, I also wonder what the evaluations are really telling me. Some of the students almost become a bit protective of me. They help me keep order in class. And when one of the students, who a couple of sessions earlier had gone on a rant about how prison education is just another way for prisons to make money, finds out that I’m doing the sessions for free, he comes up to me after the session to thank me. Overhearing us, another student looks up and, before returning to his evaluation sheet, says ‘You need to get paid, Kris. Don’t worry about it – we got you.’

So, whatever hard data I have from the sessions is most likely contaminated. And it’s contaminated for reasons that make me think that, while the great majority of my expectations about what doing the sessions would involve ended up being frustrated – frankly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into – the most important one did not. If you want people to become better versions of themselves, don’t take away the good things, or treat those things as perks and privileges. Instead, give people good things, make clear that they deserve them, and expect them to take those things and do something good. Treat them as the people you think they want to be – in the case of these sessions, serious learners, or more generally people who see a wider set of possibilities for what they can do and what they can be than what available options might be taken to suggest. If you do that, and they see that you put in some hard work for them in turn, they will do the same, and repay you with a commitment to what you’re doing together.

Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij