There is a crisis in the prison system in this country, both within the prisons themselves and in the support of offenders after release. But the means to tackle this crisis are often simply unavailable, because of the shortage of resource, because of the shifting prison population, or because of practical difficulties in the prison estate.
We believe that some part of the solution lies in education. However, educational resources are often not tailored to those who need them most. There is a significant proportion of people in prison who do not have the educational background to access existing courses: they may be disillusioned, have low literacy skills or speak English as a second language. Our aim is to help to change this.
It is perhaps not surprising that sitting behind bars might encourage someone to wonder about freedom or to reflect on why survival is anything but a matter of indifference. Philosophy is, in many ways and at all times, about our common humanity – even when that humanity may seem to be in short supply. But the project of philosophy in prison has a different dimension, not restricted to the precise questions it asks. In the doing of philosophy – in facing the questions of an insistent interlocutor, in learning to hear others and to see the value of different points of view, in reaching for coherence and consistency and shaping well-formed argument, and in thinking about how what we do may – or may not – be governed by principle – in all of these ways philosophy gets us to think about how we think.
This can be done by anyone: thinking about our own humanity is not restricted to some humans, or to some thinkers, it is common to us all. And reflective thinking can be done in ways that uniquely flexible and accessible: philosophy can be done – can best be done, perhaps – in conversation. So it is accessible to those who have difficulties with languages or with written texts just as much as it is to those who are well advanced in education. It can be done by thinking about arguments, or about problems, or difficult questions, or puzzles, or thought-experiments: all made immediate and urgent to anyone.
Philosophical conversation works by question and answer, by speaking and by listening. So it works through accountability: both parties to the conversation are accountable for what they say. In the process, therefore, each learns to listen to the other, to hear the other, to seek to understand and even respect that account, different as it is.
Improving Quality of Life
The discipline of philosophy is thus egalitarian and collaborative. It aspires to teach lucid reasoning, careful thought and the understanding of the complex perspectives of the human condition. This aspiration, we believe, has the capacity to improve the situation in prison, both for those participating in the course and for the wider group, and to enrich the prospects beyond it. Philosophy in prison may thus provide a great benefit both to individuals and to society at large.