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2017

Philosophy in prison

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In 2016, the King’s Department of Philosophy piloted an eight week philosophy course for prisoners at HMP Belmarsh in south-east London.

With the support of Professors Bill Brewer and MM McCabe, Mike Coxhead (PhD candidate and Visiting Research Fellow in the Department), Andy West (senior specialist at The Philosophy Foundation), and Andrea Fassolas (honorary therapist at the Guild of Psychotherapists) developed and delivered a course of discussion-based philosophy classes. Content included personal identity, freedom, time, scepticism, the ethics of belief, mental health, and topics in moral philosophy. Classes were delivered based around The Philosophy Foundation’s method of philosophical enquiry.

The course aimed to offer participants a safe, non-adversarial environment in which to discuss, articulate, and critically reflect upon their opinions and experiences; an introduction to philosophical thought and theories as a way of seeing the world; and an opportunity to re-engage with education in an environment aimed at exploration and self-development, without the spectre of examination. Attendance was voluntary and averaged at 90 per cent with a zero per cent dropout rate.

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Importantly, the course was designed to be accessible to participants with a broad range of educational backgrounds. Whilst 40 per cent of the cohort had undertaken some form of higher education, 30 per cent had either finished formal education at school or had no formal qualifications whatsoever. In addition, 40 per cent were English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) learners. Consequently, content was delivered conversationally and literacy was not a requirement.

Members of the group expressed in feedback how much they enjoyed the course. For some, it was the highlight of their week, offering a stimulating educational environment in which to discuss challenging and complex ideas. One participant identified the course as a way into what he termed ‘highbrow’ education and ‘an upper-class subject’. Another had been inspired to start reading again. Many reported that they valued being part of structured and open-ended group discussions, in which they could both listen and be listened to. Participants also reported a positive impact upon their mood and sense of self. For some it improved their social lives, creating a sense of belonging within the group and fostering new relationships outside the classroom. It helped others come to terms with their own situation, providing a new opportunity in which to think and reflect.

In 2017, two further courses are being delivered with support provided by both the Faculty of Arts & Humanities and the Evan Cornish Foundation: a re-run of the pilot course and a new course designed specifically for ESOL learners. The university is currently considering how to continue, evaluate, and expand the project for the future.

Find out more about the Faculty of Arts & Humanities here.

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