Philosophy can and should give people the tools with which to sharpen their minds for the better.
Our curriculum was designed in response to meetings with prison psychologists during the Crito Project's planning phase. They voiced concerns that inmates commonly showed distinct patterns of rationalising anti-social behaviour along relativist lines. The idea that there are no moral absolutes, and that our culture inflicts arbitrary laws that stand in conflict with the more self-interested ‘true nature’ of mankind, was reported as being rife in psychologists’ conversations with inmates.
The course's introductory module was thus designed to begin from a nativist account of the mind – one in which its innate faculties are made explicit. These faculties are the regulative ideals by which we begin the study of philosophy: always with one eye on the conceptual and linguistic life we share, and therefore also on our innate creativity, our apt & innovative actions within the dynamic environment of our world, and our unbounded potential for conceptualising that world in new ways. From these characteristics, certain ethical imperatives can be derived: the self-sovereignty of a free-willed and reasoning creature can help to determine what our moral code should be, and the violation of a person’s rational self-determinacy becomes a strong basis for comprehending what morality means.
Happily, we have found that relativism and scepticism have abated in our students, and in their place a curiosity and admiration for the capacities for human free thought and language have arisen in their place.
Why Philosophy at Degree-level?
The Crito Project proceeds from two central premises: 1) that education is the most cost-effective and successful mode of reform available to our society. We believe this to be an uncontroversial truth that too often goes unappreciated. 2) That our universities have a duty to seek out students in unconventional settings, specifically those whose lives stand at critical junctures, and who can benefit the most from access to the rigor, reflection and growth that higher learning can bring about.
In New York State, Bard College has run a prisoner degree program for over fifteen years. In that time over 400 inmates have graduated with honours; a remarkable achievement. One aspect of this which has garnered a lot of attention is that, among its graduates, the rate of recidivism has dropped from the state-average of 68% to just under 2%. Bard College's remarkable success is not only a lesson in the feasibility of delivering a degree level education within a prison environment, but it is also a startling testament to the power of higher education to transform people's lives for the better. Higher education in prison should not be seen solely through the lens of recidivism, however.
Higher education, understood either as a medium for reform or as a life opportunity, can and should play a contributing role in our own prison system. The Crito Project's mission is to bring lasting and positive reform to the opportunities to be found in - and hence also the efficacy of - our prisons. We want to work towards a society in which we can provide a first-class education to inmates, as a means to achieving reform that is real and lasting: reform on the level of an individual's concepts, self-esteem and life opportunities.