Employing Philosophy in Prison Reform: A Prospective Analysis

Bust of Socrates (470-399 BC) (marble)

Back in 2006, a close family friend who was a 29 year old male at the time and a hardworking blue collar plumber got caught up in some harder drugs and decided that his life needed more excitement. So, he robbed a convenient store, stole a car, and crashed that car into a police cruiser upon which he tackled the police officer. In the midst of wrestling the cop, the report says he grabbed his holster and fired off a shot from his pistol, hitting the cop in the leg. He claimed that it went off just due to the wrestling, the cop claimed otherwise, but alas his word is worth nothing due to his previous actions and impairment during the encounter and thus: 11 years with 4 years of probation.

He was just released and allowed back into society. I happened to encounter him as he came by the house just to “see if we lived there anymore.” We talked about all the people who had died while he was in prison. He talked about the shame he’d feel if he requested to go to their funerals in cuffs. I asked him what he did in prison, “I’d lift and fight,” he laughed, “and lift and fight, I gained 80 pounds.” That’s what he did for 11 years: lifted and fought. I asked him about probation. He told me his parole officer said something along the lines of, “Look, your record is this big, I don’t want you out. I want you locked up. So, try me, do anything and I’ll have you back in there immediately.”

My uncle has been a career petty criminal his entire life. He got caught up in hard drugs as well. He has been in and out of prison his entire life. I remember one time, unsure of the date and one of the few encounters with him, I asked him if he was going to stay out of prison. He snarled and explained that he didn’t really want to stay out of prison. He wanted to go back. The outside world didn’t care about him. In prison, he got meals, he could lift, and he had a place to sleep. Outside, he had nothing and nobody wanted to hire him. He was an outcast.

When I was in middle school, I was a trouble maker. I would do stupid things purposely to annoy. I used to drop my books in classes merely to distract from the lesson. I used to sleep during most classes. I threw stink bombs on occasions. However, whenever I got in trouble, if I was supposed to get an in-school suspension, I’d do anything to push it to an out-of-school suspension.

The point of the comparison of a middle school derelict to a career criminal is to illustrate that they are both rebellious to the system. They both would prefer to be in a society that utterly doesn’t try to restrict them (my house and their prison) than to be in a society that pretends to care about them through reform (school and society). In both cases, the perceptibly best avenue of comfort is to be a repeat offender. When you couple this kind of mindset with the innate pre-disposition to criminals or derelicts, it’s a slippery slope that the outcasts take joy in sliding down. It’s a spiral of carelessness and rebellion.

In 2013, 2,220,300 adults were incarcerated in US federal and state prisons according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. The cost of a used The Republic by Plato on Amazon.com is $0.09. Therefore, to equip the entire US incarcerated population with one would cost $199,827. This is excluding the possibility of the amount of unused philosophical texts in colleges and otherwise that could be up for donation. Relatively, though, under $200,000 to allot a population of almost 2.5 million Americans with a book is chump change.

The idea is this: we employ a system where prison populations are broken into groups of roughly the size of a college class (20-25). Each group gets a different philosophical text (which would just rotate between groups so eventually every prisoner would’ve read some large amount of philosophical texts). Prison guards become teachers and mentors. Each week, the prisoners are required to read some reasonable amount of pages (20-30) of whichever text they are assigned. Each group will meet a different day of the week and discuss the reading they were assigned. Every individual prisoner will be required to write and turn in a one page paper (but are encouraged to write more) on their thoughts (and maybe prompts from the prison guards) while reading the excerpt and one page of words that they didn’t understand with the definition of the word. Every week after the first week of their incarceration, they will be required to use at least one of the newfound words in their paper discussing their thoughts on the excerpt. They are given a dictionary, a pencil, and paper to write on. If they fail to turn in a one page paper with their thoughts and a sheet of definitions, then they are not allowed to go outside (recess) until they turn in next week’s paper. Also, as an extra reward, maybe prisoners would be allowed to help do a job around the prison if, for example, they completed a month of turning in papers. Maybe, even, if they complete a year of continuous papers their sentence could be re-negotiated.

Many philosophers and most philosophical texts have themes of rebellion, critiques on society, and lots of introspection. I think the prisoners would find resonance with the philosophers and get the mental wheels turning in the right direction. After a 4 year sentence, they’d have something relatively equivalent to a Bachelors in Philosophy (just without the degree). Rather than vituperative vandals that we cultivate in confinement, we’d have thoughtful, virtuous logophiles of society. This way, we’d have hirable, reformed people rather than the wayward, faithless people that the system currently produces.

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