Fellows | 13 June 2018

Philosophy in Jail Gets Prisoners Thinking Critically


THI Public Fellowship Helps David Donley Develop Philosophy Programs for County and State Jails


At The Humanities Institute, we believe the Humanities are a cornerstone of our democracy, and should be accessible to everyone. That means bringing rigorous study and new perspectives to the classroom, the local community, and—yes—even prison. Which is why we’re proud to support Philosophy in Jail, an innovative initiative to foster structured dialogues and ethics among non-traditional students: prisoners.

“A lot the folks that are in jail, their lives are in crisis,” says PhD candidate David Donley, who teaches Philosophy in Jail courses. “The words ‘crisis’ and ‘critical thinking’ come out of the same word. ‘Critical’ is a response to a crisis. Now that they’re in jail is the time to think about: What are my fundamental values? How do they manifest in my reasoning and the actions that I choose?

As a core initiative of the THI supported Center for Public Philosophy (CPP), the Philosophy in Jail project brings the tools and insights of philosophy to a broader public and echos the broader mission of The Humanities Institute to connect scholars with the community. (Learn more about the Center for Public Philosophy and their commitment to “Find Truth in Today’s Partisan World” in the UCSC News Special Report.)  In fact, Donley’s initial engagement in the county jail was supported by the THI Public Fellows program. During the summer of 2016, Donley developed and taught a 12-week course that met once weekly. He has since remained committed to the program, demonstrating the promise of the Public Fellowship program to provide opportunities for students to apply their training and expertise outside the academy. For Donley, this work has become central for thinking about his teaching more broadly and for career opportunities after graduate school.

The program is also transformational for his students. His courses focus on ethics, using fodder from real-life legal debates. He’s had his students share their opinions on a Vermont law called “Ban the Box,” which barred employers from asking former felons to check a box on job applications. Before “Ban the Box” passed, asking former felons to identify themselves dramatically limited their job opportunities.

On one hand, inmates disapproved of the check-box because they thought it decreased equality of opportunity. But on the other hand, they thought that some types of crimes should reasonably bar someone from taking certain jobs—say, that of a school teacher. Developing a nuanced view of controversial issues that goes beyond “yes” or “no” is one of the main benefits of philosophical reasoning, Donley says.

“It’s easy to get folks to relate, given their position, and understand what it means to think about ethics in a deep and critical way,” he says.

The Philosophy in Jail program also prepares inmates to seize opportunities they might not have realized they had—namely, higher education. A lot of inmates begin the course without much confidence in themselves as students. But over the 12-week period, Donley helps them see their potential. He reminds them that the program covers the same material as a college-level Introduction to Ethics course. In fact, the lessons taught in college classes and correctional facilities are so similar, a prison team competed against a UCSC team in an Ethics Bowl debate tournament—and won. (Learn more about the debate in the San Quentin News).

“When I went to the inmates’ practice round, they had some of the most sophisticated views that I’d seen from an Ethics Bowl team,” said Donley. He hopes that the program instills inmates in the county jail with enough self-confidence to enroll in community college once their sentence is finished.

“To see them get used to the idea that they have something valuable to contribute in discussion, that makes it worth it for me,” says Donley.

While the Philosophy in Jail program helps inmates dialogue productively, strengthen their reasoning skills, and prepare for higher education, its benefits extend beyond the program participants themselves—even beyond Northern California. The Humanities Institute supports programs like Philosophy in Jail to promote democratic values everywhere, not just on college campuses. When people from all walks of life can understand how the human experience varies across different genders, races, and backgrounds, and how those variations affect decision-making, then they can work together more effectively in private and civic life.

“These programs help people outside college classrooms gain those skills that are needed for democracy to thrive,” Donley says.