The Bergguen Institute asks this question on its Twitter account: “How can philosophy improve our prisons?”

Its question was prompted by an article in on the question, “Do we need philosophy in prisons?”

Clearly, Bergguen Institute thinks we do, and that it can improve our prisons — the question, then, is how.

Is it by ‘teaching’ philosophy?  Surely that is one viable approach.

What if this was combined with ‘doing’ philosophy with prisoners, in which the facilitator of the inquiry into timely and timeless questions was an equal, a fellow human being who put himself on the same level with his interlocutors behind bars?

That is precisely what me and my fellow Socrates Cafe volunteers did for years at Rahway Prison in New Jersey, thanks to an enlightened psychiatric social worker there who attended our regular gathering at a coffee house in Montclair, New Jersey and paved the way for us — until we were given the boot by a new set of administrators who had more of a ‘lock them up and throw away the key mentality.’

And by doing so, those within the prison walls, as well as those like me who enter and leave after facilitating the discourse, are immeasurably ‘improved,’ enriched, transformed.

I can tell you one thing in my 20 years of experience holding philosophical inquiries with inmates at jails and at medium and maximum security prisons:  I learn far more from them than they learn from me. Or at least, we learn far more from one another, as co-inquirers putting to to use a version of the Socratic Method of inquiry in which we all contribute our unique worse of wisdom, then we’d learn if I put myself above them.

Here I include, from my bestselling Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy, one of my many rich experiences holding philosophical inquiries with inmates at this maximum security prison and other prisons (and I also include here a ‘philosophical meditation’ following the dialogue):

High Hopes

“I think hope is good — the greatest good,” is the first response I get from a participant at this Socrates Café, after they’ve chosen the question “What is good?” to explore.

“How so?” I ask.

He doesn’t respond at first. Our room is windowless, yet he looks piercingly at the wall, almost as if could see through it to the outside on this stiflingly hot midsummer day. Finally, he looks at me and says, “Good, for a person, is having something to look forward to. Hope is that looking forward.”

“So good is the same as hope?” I query.

“No, good is made up partly of hope. You can’t do good, or be good, or create good, if you don’t have hope.” Then he says, “Some days, I’m right on the edge, between hope and hopeless.”

Everyone else around me taking part in the dialogue looks at him. They seem surprised by his candid response. There are 13 of us in all. We’re in a maximum-security prison. Most surrounding me have been convicted of some of the most violent crimes imaginable.

There is a prolonged silence. The only sound is the clattering old fan set in the corner of our room, which seems only to push the hot air into our faces. Eventually another inmate says to the one who’d just spoken, “I hear you, Lou. I was taking college classes, and I was six credits away from getting my bachelor’s degree. I’d been taking classes for eight years. Then they yanked the program. I asked one of my professors why. She said the politicians decided that inmates at a maximum security prison shouldn’t be taking college classes — that it was ‘bad’ to offer us classes, because it meant we were being treated ‘too good’.”

The inmates here had been taking a wide variety of courses in a unique bachelor’s program in the humanities and social sciences — classes in subjects like “human autonomy” and “freedom” and “the rise and fall of civilizations” — until the program was summarily curtailed two years ago.

Another then says, “This place is called a ‘correctional and rehabilitation institute’. But now they don’t give us a chance to correct or rehabilitate. Now the mentality is, ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key.’ They want us to live with the absence of hope. I think that’s the opposite of good.”  Everyone nods.

“Is it evil?” I ask.

“It is,” says Mike, “if it’s intentional.”

I say to the group, “But didn’t the some of the crimes you committed take away hope from victims and their families? Wasn’t that the ‘opposite of good’ in a much worse way than someone taking away your college classes?”

Only one seems angry or upset by my question. There are no immediate responses. At last, Eric replies, “I think what you say is true. So now they’re doing the same to us — though like you said, there’s no comparison between taking away our college classes, and what we took away from people that put us in here. But they’re both ‘bad’, it’s just that one is a much worse degree of bad than the other. The mentality of the politicians is: an eye for an eye. But we’re supposedly here to be rehabilitated, not just punished. Society’s institutions, like this one, are supposed to be ‘more good’ than any individual member. But society wants us to rot here. What does that say about the level society has stooped to?”

What he says brings to mind a comment that the psychiatric social worker who paved the way for my visits here made to me when we first met. He said that the elected officials who determine funding for correctional institutions no longer care about rehabilitation, because most of their constituents do not. Ever-cognizant of those who put them in office, he says that politicians, reflecting their constituents’ views, see rehabilitation-oriented programs as a “luxury” for inmates that they don’t deserve. Anne Larson Schneider wrote in American Behavioral Scientist that “by inflicting harsh punishment upon criminals who are socially constructed as deviants, violent and undeserving, elected officials can gain the accolades of the general public without incurring any noticeable political costs from those actually receiving the punishment.”

Tommy, another inmate, now says, “I was taking classes in psychology and social studies. A teacher came in once a week, and we sat in circles like this one, and discussed what we’d read.  I was learning about myself and other people in a way I don’t learn in everyday rap sessions, or group encounter sessions, or reading on my own.”

Nodding towards the person who’d spoken before, he says, “It looks like our professors will never be able to come back. So they’ve taken away from me some of the hope I had of becoming a better person. I don’t just mean better like ‘better educated’ or ‘better smarter’; I mean ‘better wiser’. I took classes because it gave me hope of becoming ‘better wiser,’ of learning about what makes me and others tick, and how to take the bad things inside of me and turn them into good things.”

According to a National Institute of Justice study, the recidivism rate for inmates who earn a four-year degree while serving time in prison is only 12.5 percent, compared to a staggering sixty six percent of the entire population of 105,000 inmates studied. Robert Ellis Gordon, who for eight years was a creative writing teacher in Washington State prisons, until the program was cancelled, says that this “dramatic set of statistics” is “one that ought to be as meaningful to governors, state legislators, law enforcement officials and other policymakers as it is to educators and social workers”, and anyone else “who professes a belief in crime prevention.” He goes on to say, “Lacking education, which is to say marketable skills, confidence, and an expanded sense of possibilities” — which seems to be the essence of hope — “it is inevitable that many of these released prisoners…will return to what they know best: the life of crime. Thus, the polity’s desire for vengeance is being fulfilled at the price of public safety” — and, it would seem, at the price of good.

“I don’t expect anyone to feel bad for us,” says Steve. “I’ll never get out of here. But I think we all need hope in order to get out of bed in the morning. I need to hope I’ll understand better why I did some of the things I did that got me here, and how I can improve upon myself. I need hope that I can become better — and this ‘becoming better’ is to me what good is all about.”

“He’s going to think we’re feeling sorry for ourselves,” another inmate, Mark, now says, looking directly at me. “I guess we are, in a way. But all we’re saying is that even in a place like this, you have to have a reason to hope. The greatest good is to be able to look ahead, like Lou said at the outset. You know, to see yourself as ‘better wiser’ than you are today, or than you were when you did what you did to get in here. ”

Randall, who is sitting next to Mark, now says, “Hope itself is something you learn about. I mean, you learn that there’s good hope and there’s bad hope. I only used to know bad hope.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, the only thing I used to hope for was money to get good clothes, a good car, a good high, so I would be the man. I thought it didn’t really matter how I got these things, as long as I got them and got away with it. That was bad hope. I was only out for me. Now, I have different sorts of hopes, good hopes, because I don’t want just what I think is best for me, but what’s best for everyone. What I mean is, I think now that something can’t be best for me, if it’s not also good for everyone else. To learn that, I needed to take classes, so I wasn’t so ignorant anymore about these things. I mean, how can I become ‘wiser better,’ if I never have a chance to learn to ‘know better’?”

As Socrates scholar Laszlo Versenyi notes, Socrates believed that “if a man chooses and does evil rather than good”, he does so “because he is overcome by ignorance,” and so “makes the wrong choice.” But genuine good, according to Socrates, is to think of the “long-term results” of one’s actions, and how, if they are good, they are “useful” and “beneficial” to the “well-being” — what the ancient Greeks would call eudaimonia — of the individual; and how, if they are bad, they are “ruinous”. What Versenyi doesn’t make as clear as he should is that Socrates believes that good acts are those that contribute most and best both to the eudaimonia of the individual and of society as a whole. While this is always a delicate balancing act, and while such well-being and fulfillment is never achieved absolutely, in Socrates’ estimation striving for eudaimonia is the end of all properly informed and educated citizens.

Randall then says to me, “People I studied, like Nelson Mandela, spent decades in jail, but for trying to do good things. White society in South Africa tried to take away his hope — it hoped to take away his hope. That was an evil kind of hope, because white South Africa was showing it didn’t care about reaching out to all the people of its country. It only cared about maintaining the status quo for the privileged few, so they could continue with the ‘good life’ just for themselves. But Mandela’s dream, to bring social justice to everyone, was a good hope, because it was a kind where there couldn’t be a good society unless everyone had a shot at the good things in life. And if you look at South Africa now, where there’s no more apartheid, you see that he inspired everyone, white and black, to get over their ignorance and ‘know better’ — to know that over the long haul, you can’t have a good society if it only benefits a few.”

There’s a stretch of silence. We all seem in deep thought about all that has been said so far. At last, Darryl says, “I hope someday that I have the right to hope that the families of those I wronged can forgive me, maybe not all the way, but at least some of the way. But before I can hope that, I first have to feel like I’ve changed enough. So first, I hope that someday I feel like I can be in a position to forgive myself, maybe not all the way, but some.”

He looks at me and says, “I’ve been here 14 years. I know I’m not in any way the person I was all those years ago. But I’m still not sure I deserve to hope for these things. I’m still trying to understand that person I was, why he was so angry and even evil.”

Another now says, “It’s hard to be the ‘better’ person you know you’ve become when a lot of the guards who work here still treat you like you’re the same ‘bad’ person who walked in here all those years ago. I wish I could say it didn’t get to me.  Everyday, when I wake up, I hope and pray that I can be a bigger person than they are. That’s a good hope.”

Now, one after another, without any prompting, the inmates take turns revealing their ‘good hopes’:

“I hope that if I get out, people I used to live around will no longer see me as, or expect me to be, that person I used to be. I hope I live by my expectations, rather than anyone else’s.”

“I get out in three years. I was hoping to be educated by then. But I’m just part of the way there. I hope to find a way to get back in school and finish up my degree. When I’m out, I want to be a drug counselor for youth.”

“I hope someday to wake up and have the sun blinding me through my bedroom window.”

“I hope that my kid still recognizes me. And I hope he isn’t a thing like me when he grows up. It scares me how much like me he is. He looks like me, carries himself around like I did when I was his age. I hope I can drill some sense into him never to be like his dad.”

“I hope to be more a part of the solution than the problem. Right now, my way of doing this is, no matter what the people who run the prison system to do me, I will not let them take hope away from me. They can take away my college classes, they can away my privileges, they can take away my dignity by talking to me like I’m a nobody, but they can’t take my hope. That’s my way of doing good. Because once, I didn’t have hope. I didn’t care, so I didn’t care what happened to me, or to others. That’s why I’m in here. I’ll never let that happen again.”

I think everyone has said all they have to say, but then Spencer says, “I’m starting to think that maybe it’s how you act when you have no hope that’s the measure of good.

“How so?” I ask.

“It’s when you’re the most down and out, the most without hope, that determines your character, what you’re really made of on the inside, whether you’re made of good or bad stuff. I’m in here because when that happened to me, when the last drop of hope within me disappeared, I acted in an ‘I’ve got nothing to lose’ kind of way — in a bad way. But you can also act in a ‘you’ve got nothing to lose way’ in a good way. You can keep on keeping on, keep trying to overcome your circumstances, especially when you’ve lost hope.”

To which Mark responds, “I live with hope because I feel I have nothing to lose to live this way. I’ve seen and tasted the bad type of ‘nothing to lose’, and I hope I’ve gotten that type out of my system for good.”


Hope and Deliverance

Park Knong-ni, widely considered one of the greatest contemporary writers in the Republic of Korea, writes that if life were idyllic — “no tears, no separation, no hunger, no waiting, no suffering, no oppression, no war, no death” — then there would no longer be any need either for hope or despair.  Such a state of affairs, he contends, would not necessarily be good, because “(w)e would lose those hopes so dear to us all.”

What would life be like without despair born of the worst forms of suffering and oppression? Without such despair, would anyone have reason to hope? What would we humans be like if we had no need to hope? It seems to me that there are good and bad — redemptive and non-redemptive — types of despair. A good type may be one in which you set lofty goals for yourself, because you are blessed to be in circumstances to do so; but still, at times, you may despair that you will realize your highest hopes. Still, you persevere, more so than ever, because it is what makes life worth living, and because you have the choice and opportunity to persevere. A non-redemptive type may be experienced by a mother of a child born in poverty. She may despair that her child will never have enough to eat, will never live in safety away from gangs and drugs, will never have a decent education or job opportunities. Her stark life circumstances may lead her to a type of despair born of utter hopelessness.

The noted writer Bharati Mukherjee, born in Calcutta, says in her book The Holder of the World that “(t)here is surely one moment in every life when hope surprises us like grace”.  If so, this would suggest that all of us are touched by “good” at least once in our lives. Unfortunately, I think tens of millions of people living today, and billions throughout human history, have never been graced with even one moment of the type of forward-looking hope of which she speaks.

In the U.S. alone, for many disadvantaged children and youth who run afoul of the law, the message passed on to them today from the system is that they are not worth the effort of being helped to turn around, so they can have a decent future. Many are in essence told that they are hopeless cases. In Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court, Barry Feld, professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, writes that “within the past three decades, judicial decisions, legislative amendments, and administrative changes have transformed the juvenile court from a nominally rehabilitative social welfare agency into a scaled-down second-class criminal court for young people.” At-risk children and youth are treated and tried as adults, and they are written off by society. Yet juvenile court was created in 1899 by progressive reformers to “do good” in a way that jibed with Socrates’ notion that good actions were those that struck a balance between benefiting individuals and society as a whole over the long-term. Feld writes that juvenile court was founded to provide “individualized treatment” and a “rehabilitative alternative to punishment,” not to enact “punitive policies.” Today, however, Feld says juvenile court is a “bankrupt institution with neither a rationale nor a justification,” where “punitive juvenile justice policies impose harsh sanctions disproportionately on minority youths,” and young offenders are given “neither therapy or justice”. Consequently, the will of those directing the juvenile court system today would seem to be to give no forward-looking hope for at-risk juveniles — such a will, by Socrates’ count, would be tantamount to evil and “ruinous”.

What about the inmates in our correctional system who are adults? Is it okay for the rest of us to give up hope that they can ever be rehabilitated? If we give up hope, is it the same thing as telling them they should give up hope on themselves?

Peter G. Herman writes in The American Prison System that “to appreciate the importance of incarceration in contemporary American society, one need only look at the statistics. The United States has more prisoners than any other country in the world: with approximately two million people behind bars, it holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, though it comprises only 5 percent of the world’s population”. The U.S. imprisons “six to ten times more…than any other industrialized democracy,” with “73 of every 1,000 people” behind bars; and “almost one-third of African-American men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under the control of correctional institutions.” What’s more, Herman points to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics for the year 2000 that show that “the total number of men and women behind bars, on parole, and on probation has reached 6.3 million, more than 3 percent of the U.S. adult population.”

If, as the statistics indicate, citizens in the U.S. largely determine whether their society is “good” by how safe it is, then has our penal system made our society safer? Scholar Anne Larson Schneider contends that just because there are more people than ever behind bars doesn’t mean that less crimes are being committed, much less that society is any safer. More than anything, “the increase in prisoners is accounted for by public policy changes,” she asserts, such as “longer sentences, mandatory sentences, three strikes you’re out, no parole, no early release, and the huge increase in penalties for drug offenses.”  No matter how many people are put behind bars, she does not think society, as a consequence, will be made any safer. “Perhaps prisons will never be effective enough in producing public safety, because public safety is more contingent on societal factors, such as families, communities, schools, nonprofits, economic opportunities, and the absence of race and class discrimination” — factors which are the bedrock of hope for the nation’s underprivileged.

Author John Edgar Wideman, who describes himself as “a descendant of a special class of immigrants — Africans — for whom arrival in America was a life sentence in the prison of slavery”, says that “(f)rom every category of male relative I can name….at least one member of my family has been incarcerated.” He notes that “which candidate is tougher on crime was the dominant issue dramatized in TV ads during the last election campaign,” and says that what bothered him was “the absolute certainty that …the ones they were promising to lock up and punish, by design, would never be their people. Always somebody else. Not their kind.”

What if we enacted correctional policies based on these questions: If my son or daughter, father or sister, committed a crime, a terrible crime, what would I want the system to do to them, for them, with them? Would I want the system to do them “any good,” to help them in any way become rehabilitated?

What if, as Wideman suggests, “we expand our notion of prison to include the total institution of poverty”? If we could help more people escape from poverty, would we also help ensure that they much less frequently took drugs to escape from hopelessness, and that they much less frequently committed crimes undertaken in part out of a non-redemptive nothing-to-lose attitude?  If statistics are to be believed, very few rich and middle class people are incarcerated in comparison to the poor. So helping people escape from poverty would seem to be an enormous part of any long-term public safety solution. Will enough people in a position to effect such radical social change — which clearly would be for the good of society over the long-term — ever care enough to make this happen?[1]



Is a “good society” one which, among other things, creates the most favorable conditions for assuring that the fewest people possible will set foot in prison, or return to prison once they’ve served their time?

In A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World , a landmark look at incarceration around the globe, Vivien Stern, who was director of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, asserts that the prison system “urgently needs to be reviewed”, because today prisons provide “a setting in which profound abuses of human rights can be carried out under the reassuring justification that this is needed to protect the public.” She contends that “imprisonment no longer fits modern societies and their needs,” and that it is riddled with the type of inefficiencies that “in many cases gives rise to more problems than it solves” — does more bad than good. In posing “a threat to our future”, Stern says this state of affairs makes the future for us all more bleak.

It seems that many in society who hope primarily for a safe world put most of their stock in building more prisons and passing more stringent punitive laws. I think that if they put at least as much energy and resources into eradicating the conditions that lead to the commission of crimes born of hopelessness, they’d stand a much greater chance of having their hope for a safe world fulfilled.

A number of countries are at the forefront of prison reform, the U.S. not one of them. In post-apartheid South Africa, for instance, where the conquering colonizers imported the prison system into the country, Stern notes that its government now is looking at how to reinstitute the pre-colonial “reparative model” used originally by the nation’s indigenous people. In this model, “the values and processes of traditional African law” are incorporated, in which the ends are “a respect for human beings, reparation of damage, and personalizing the relationship between the offender and the victim and the involvement of the community in finding justice are all principles worth resurrecting.” These ends would seem to be consummately “good” ones for individuals, and for society as a whole.

[1] Interestingly, many of the most ardent pro-abortion advocates, who claim to cherish the sanctity of all human life, are also the most strident supporters of get-tough-on-crime policies. At minimum, many favor the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” brand of punishment, and pay only lip service to endorsing the implementation of the types of national social services programs that hold promise of improving the quality of life for the marginalized, and so reducing the chances that people will have to be put behind bars, or worse, in the first place. Those “right to life” advocates who do not espouse the right to a quality life, and do not work tirelessly towards seeing to it that everyone has a decent chance at such a life, would not seem genuinely to practice what they preach. Additionally, pro-choice advocates should be just as devoted to creating societal conditions that give the poor the same rich range of choices in life as the privileged. Realizing this end would help ensure that anyone choosing to bring a child into the world would be able to give her a life filled with promise; and it would help ensure that anyone choosing not to do so would not be making this choice out of despair over never being able to give a child a quality life.

Afterword: What I didn’t relate in Six Questions was that, soon after this particular dialogue at Rahway, I received a letter from one of the inmates who took part.  He said that he’d gotten in a fight at was put in solitary as punishment — and that while there, he read my Socrates Cafe.  He thanked profusely for taking the time to write that book, and especially for the “prison dialogue” (held in a medium security prison in San Francisco) that I recounted in it. He said whenever he takes part in a Socrates Cafe, his mind is set free, and he forgets for a while his physical surroundings as his mind and heart soar far afield.