Philosophy is for Us All: Students and Prisoners

The minimum-level security wing of Lansing Correctional Facility has an unlikely atmosphere. There is a strange sense of comfort.

The inmates, all men, dress identically in white t-shirts and blue jeans. They walk around as if they don’t have a care in the care in the world, as if they are meant to be there.

Some of them believe they are, while others have been thinking of their release from the moment they entered. A few spend less time thinking about their release and more time thinking about their personal growth.

UMKC graduate student Sydney Harvey started the Philosophy in Prison Program during the summer of 2015. It brings together philosophy students and Lansing inmates every other week to discuss philosophical texts and ideas.

“This class has really humbled me. I thought I knew a lot but I’ve got a long way to go,” Kenneth, a 24-year-old inmate said of his time in prison. “I like hearing what the others have to say, so this class gives me something to look forward to.”

The class meets in a room just above the dorms that house many of the minimum level security inmates. While entering a prison might make others fearful or uncomfortable, the UMKC students involved walk into the prison with a sort of familiarity, as though it’s completely normal for a bunch of 20-somethings to have easy access into a state prison.

“I had never been to a prison before. I didn’t know what to expect and after the first ten minutes of the first day, I was in love,” said Howard. “The men in our program are so hungry for discussion and knowledge that it makes every session the best philosophy class I’ve ever had.”

Lansing offers a variety of volunteer opportunities, though many students involved in the Philosophy in Prison Program do not think of their work as volunteering. While some of them are graded for their time with prisoners, a few attend solely for the experience.

Lansing Correctional Facility.

Lansing Correctional Facility.

“It’s a learning experience,” Kenneth said. “It’s all about growth and self-study.”

Students agree the most difficult part of the program, other than a few lofty philosophical texts, is the training. Lansing requires any group entering their facilities to attend a lengthy training session and background check. This must be done to receive ID cards that allow access to the prison.

During the training sessions, groups wanting to enter the prison are taught the prison rules, guidelines and dress codes to ensure safety.

UMKC students, however, never appear to fear for their safety.

“It just depends on how you see people,” said Ben, 25, when asked to describe how people view him as a prison inmate. “In one word? Crazy. Not in a negative way. It’s just the more I feel that I know, the more I realize how distorted my mind is. But I mean everybody’s pretty similar. Maybe we’re all crazy.”

When asked about his experiences in prison, Ben said the program forced him to think in ways that once seemed unusual.

“It’s all a good experience depending on what a person takes out of it,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to completely reshape points of views and values. There’s so much to learn about yourself.”

Many of the inmates share Ben’s outlook. Lewis, 21, spoke of how enlightening his experience has been.

“This class is kind of a safe-haven,” he said, “You can express thoughts and ideas without the fear of judgment.”
It is for this very reason that the program was established. It is an environment free of judgment, where people from different walks of life come together and discuss something we all have in common: philosophy.

“I started the program because I believe philosophy is for everyone,” said Sydney. “I believe it can benefit the life of anyone who wishes to study it.”

 

      Want to know more? Check out all our interviews with these philosopher-inmates online at www.info.umkc.edu/unews.

 

cief47@mail.umkc.edu

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