Shorts: Why Do It In Prison?

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by New Philosopher on August 17, 2013

“Why do it in prison? Well, why do it anywhere? I do it in prison because I was asked, and I carry on because no-one has stopped me,” said Alan Smith, a “prison philosopher” in the UK.

Alan’s philosophy classes in prisons such as Wandsworth are part of the Prisoners Education Trust, which was established in 1989 by David Burton and Vernon Cocking. The two men said “they had become disillusioned with the narrow range of classes on offer to prisoners, and with colleagues considered how a broader education could be provided.”

However in April this year, for Alan the sessions did stop. While the classes continue for inmates, Alan decided to call it a day. He had simply had enough. “After almost 14 years, it was time to go,” he wrote in the Guardian. “I couldn’t just walk away, just leave the guys flat. I offered them a deal. I would stay as long as they did. There was a certain amount of dark laughter. ‘You might have a long wait,’ said one.”

You can follow Alan’s journey via the 30-odd articles he wrote over an 8-year period, a heartening and depressing tale all at once.

He asks himself why the prisoners sign up for the program in the first place. “A good reason is that it passes the time and it puts us in a magic place where there is no prison and we are all much much better people if only for a couple of hours…there are probably other reasons: it makes you more intelligent, more humble, self-confident, more inquisitive, it improves your self-esteem. Most of all it gives a more sure foothold amidst all the drift and babble.”

It could be argued that we all dwell inside a Foucauldian prison of our own making. Philosophy may well be a way out.

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