A Character Lesson From Inside Prison Walls

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Leanne Drapeau, an Atlantic reader and high-school teacher in Connecticut, has a story that illustrates just how valuable education can be in shaping good citizens. Her class of seniors in a summer credit recovery program had been reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Malcolm X’s autobiography when she came across a 2015 Atlantic essay about teaching philosophy in prison that references both of these works. Leanne writes:

Naturally I brought the essay into school the next day and it was an incredibly empowering class for the students, who, now equipped with Plato and Malcolm, could fully enter into discussion … both with regard to the essay itself and education behind prison walls.

That essay, “Incarceration, Education, Emancipation,” is by Eric Anthamatten, who teaches college-level philosophy courses to inmates in New York, Texas, and Connecticut. After one lesson, a student who was serving a life sentence told him, “I’ve never felt so free as when I’m in this class.” Anthamatten reflects:

How is it that anyone can experience “freedom” inside a place that is designed to make the person unfree? One answer is that “freedom” is a private, internal experience of power and understanding. In the case of these inmates, that also means being able to dialogue with the past, express themselves to others, and to imagine and articulate a future. It means actively participating in and contributing to a conversation, a problem, and a solution. It is the experience of being recognized as a whole person.

Back to Leanne. Her students were so interested that they asked to go to a prison with a college education program and interview the inmates.

When an in-person visit wasn’t feasible, they developed a different project:

We made contact with the CPE [Center for Prison Education] program at Wesleyan University and asked if we could send some questions about education and the value of education to students in the CPE program. This initial action began to reform all of our thoughts on the inmates themselves, as they became “fellow learners” as opposed to vilified individuals quarantined from society. Their responses amounted to 50 pages of the most important literature we read all year.

Around the time we received the responses we found out Nancy Wyman, the Lt. Governor of Connecticut, was holding a public hearing at our school on the prevention of urban youth violence. Equipped with their own stories and empowered by the responses of the CPE students, three of my students spoke at the hearing. This resulted in a personal invitation to meet with the Lt. Governor. At this point, with permission from our contact at Wesleyan and the CPE students, we gave a copy of the CPE students’ responses to Lt. Governor Wyman. It was a powerful moment to hold in our hands responses from people cut off from society that would help educate a political leader; I will never forget when we placed it in her hands.

Meanwhile, at least one of Leanne’s students felt that hearing from the prisoners had, to borrow Paul Barnwell’s phrase, fixed his moral compass. After reading their letters, the student, A.T., wrote a poem, which concludes:

Never really thought that letters would make me better
listening to others
It changed me, very clever
I put myself in that position
then I thought about my decisions …
after all that
I noticed it was time to leave that dark past.

Do you have strong feelings about the value of philosophy in schools, or stories about lessons that shaped your sense of right and wrong? Please share them.