Philosophy in prisons

Using philosophy to enhance prisoners' critical thinking and interpersonal skills

What was the question?

Prison education in Scotland is challenging on several levels.

First, educational backgrounds differ among prisoners, and one-fifth of prisoners report difficulties with writing, numbers, and reading.

Second, there is no national curriculum to ensure uniformity in what prisoners learn.

Third, the emphasis on vocational courses is crucial to help inmates prepare for employment, but does not address the need to also prepare inmates for social integration.

For social integration, it is necessary to also develop prisoners' critical thinking skills (e.g. to understand why they hold a certain belief) and their ability to take other people's points of view. Research shows that these latter skills can be improved through studying philosophy.

What changed?

Low Moss and Cornton Vale prisons offered seven-week Introduction to Philosophy courses to inmates. The courses were designed by Philosophy researchers at Edinburgh, and delivered through small-group tutorials by postgraduate students.

Prisoners reported that they learnt to respect the person they were talking to by listening carefully to what was being said and their reasons for it. Prison teachers reported that prisoners began listening more to each other’s viewpoints and were better able to cope with disagreement. Prisoners valued the interpersonal and critical reasoning skills they gained through the course, feeling the skills would help them after release by raising their self-esteem and increasing their ability to understand other people.

I think this course gives you more understanding… whereas before you would just look at it from your own point of view, which is quite selfish, you know.

Student at Cornton Vale

Following the course, several students went on to study National 5 Philosophy, and both Cornton Vale and Low Moss prisons are extending their Philosophy teaching due to interest from inmates.

The university is working to extend the programme to other prisons in Scotland.

It kind of gives you respect to the person you’re having a conversation with; it’s letting them know that you’re really listening to what they’re saying and that you’re not jumping in and assuming what they’re saying.

Student at Low Moss

How did we contribute?

The project was led by Professor Duncan Pritchard, Director of the EIDYN research centre, in collaboration with Dr Mary Bovill (Moray House School of Education), New College Lanarkshire, and Low Moss and Cornton Vale prisons.

A central theme of Pritchard's own research concerns virtue epistemology. This is a theory of knowledge emphasising an individual's cognitive character - the ability to acquire the skills to determine true beliefs for themselves, and to understand why they (and others') hold the beliefs they do - rather than simply focussing on whether or not they hold true beliefs. Pritchard argues that this intellectual autonomy is (or should be) the ultimate aim of education: educators should seek to encourage the development of intellectual virtues (e.g. open-mindedness and critical thinking) rather than merely transferring factual information.

The Philosophy in Prisons project aims to use prison education to develop these intellectual virtues. Working with the Moray House School of Education, Pritchard and colleagues developed a suite of learning resources (e.g. leaflets, critical thinking exercises) based on the hugely successful "Introduction to Philosophy" Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

The course was taught using small group tutorials led by a postgraduate student in Philosophy or Education. Tutorials took the format of guided discussions using the Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI) format, a pedagogical method which does not presuppose any particular knowledge or literacy level from students and which work to strip away prisoners’ previous assumptions about themselves and the world. For example, during tutorials, students could not talk about themselves or use personal anecdotes, which encouraged them to focus on the conceptual discussion (linked to the MOOC’s content) and the steps in reasoning that make up a philosophical argument.

After the end of the course, the researchers were invited to speak about education prisoners at the Holyrood Policy’s “Offender Learning” event (October 2015). Their research continues to contribute to the current discussion on prison education in Scotland and reducing offending.

More information

Introduction to Philosophy MOOC