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Philosophy in Prison

A new branch of outreach from the Uehiro Centre

By Joanna Demaree-Cotton

From this summer, a number of our academics and graduate students will be swapping their offices and lecture halls to teach in a different kind of venue: UK prisons.

Philosophy In Prison is a wonderful, small, UK-based charity. Run by philosophers, they organise for volunteers, like us, to bring philosophy courses to prison populations. Their approach is to make philosophy accessible to anyone in prison, irrespective of educational background and literacy.

I first taught in prison as part of the Yale Prison Education Initiative during my PhD. I taught a few classes for an Introduction to Ethics undergraduate-level course at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Connecticut in 2019. During this time, I had two related realisations. First, without realising or acknowledging it, up until the moment I actually stepped into a prison I had held a very stereotyped and, frankly, inaccurate picture of people who are incarcerated. Second, teaching philosophy is inherently humanising. In sharing ideas, in engaging deeply with the students’ own concepts, thought processes, and arguments, one is inevitably engaged in a process that recognises and acknowledges their humanity. In the philosophy classroom, we do thinking, and your very thoughts are worth expressing, analysing, developing.

Yet, it seems fair to suggest that people in prison are much, much less likely to have benefitted from positive educational experiences compared to the general population. According to a February 2024 report from the Prison Reform Trust, around half of the adult prison population were: regularly truant from school; expelled or permanently excluded from school; have no qualifications. In addition, around two-thirds of those given a literacy assessment in prison last year (based on data from the Ministry of Justice) had literacy skills expected of 11-year-olds or younger. Moreover, HM Inspectorate of Prisons ratings for 2022-23 assessed the quality of purposeful activity taking in prisons (which includes education) as being at an all-time low.

These are just some of the reasons I am particularly pleased that we are able to start doing some outreach with this underserved population. Keep an eye out for blog posts to come as our volunteers report on their classes, and perhaps even discuss some of the many philosophical and ethical issues raised by teaching in prison.

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