Philosophy Behind Bars

September 18, 2019, 5:30 PM HST (Updated September 18, 2019, 5:21 PM)
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Kulani Correctional Facility. Photo credit: Department of Public Safety

When Associate Professor Chris Lauer brings up St. Augustine’s “crisis of the soul” in his philosophy class, some of his students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo have difficulty relating it to their own lives.

On the other hand, his students at the Kulani Correctional Facility, an all-male prison located about 20 miles south of Hilo, can instantly relate to Augustine’s lamentations, a University of Hawai‘i press release said.

This is the second time Lauer has taught the three-credit Introduction to Philosophy course at the correctional facility. The class meets twice a week and is two hours long, focusing on student discussion.

Lauer understands why St. Augustine generates so much excitement among the inmates.

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“The crisis of the soul causes us to ask who we are, what matters to us, and how we build ourselves back up again,” he said. “When I taught Augustine at the prison last semester, the discussions got so loud and intense that the correctional officers came to check on us.”

The course is part of the Kulani Correctional workforce educational programs, which offers a range of courses from forklift training to graphic design, and whose purpose is to provide inmates with vocational development and re-entry skills training. The programs are supported by the state Department of Public Safety Education Division and offered through the Hawaiʻi Community College Office of Continuing Education and Training (OCET).

Developing skills

Lauer says that philosophy courses develop essential, transferable skills vital to the workforce.

“A person with a philosophy major tends to have among the highest mid-career incomes of any major,” explains Lauer. “This is for some of the reasons that you would expect, critical thinking and writing skills, but some of it is job flexibility—going in not expecting a career track but being willing to look for opportunities. Philosophy majors don’t expect to get a job in the philosophy factory. They pursue lots of different interests until they find what sticks.”

Richard Cowan, the apprenticeship training program coordinator at Hawaiʻi CC OCET, has managed the Kulani educational programs for the past four years. He was instrumental in growing the program’s initial course offerings from three to 15 courses, which includes Lauer’s philosophy course, the release continued. Cowan notes that the class improves the inmates’ ability to engage in discussions and debate substantive topics.

Lauer says the discussions have been brilliant since the first day of class.

“They tell me that the class was helpful for them understanding ideas, and they are articulating new thoughts that they haven’t thought of before,” says Lauer. “This class also builds advanced literacy. We are reading difficult books, which is one of the skills the students pick up the fastest—becoming a better reader.”

Since students don’t have access to computers and printers, they handwrite their assignments, which are usually four to six pages in length. The reading list includes heavyweight texts from the Western canon such as Plato’s Republic and Symposium, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Descartes’s Meditations, Nietzche’s Genealogy of Morals, Augustine’s Confessions and Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir, as well as some ancient Buddhist and Daoist texts.

Cowan says that these types of programs are instrumental in reducing recidivism rates.

“Today the national recidivism rate is around 67%,” he said. “By participating and completing vocational training, that rate is typically reduced to 30%. If an individual obtains an associate’s degree, the rate is reduced to 13.7%. With a bachelor’s degree, it falls to 5.6%, and with a master’s degree, they do not go back to prison.

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