A Character Lesson From Inside Prison Walls

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.