Teaching Criminology to Prison Inmates

Fourteen men—age thirty to sixty and clad in white, serving prison terms ranging from ten to thirty years for violent crimes—sit in a classroom discussing crime and punishment. When asked if they are willing to discuss the impact of their crime and incarceration on their families, their collective reply is “sure, doing time has made us tough.” Almost immediately, the room is transformed into the silence of a chapel as the teacher asks them one by one to share their stories. Two hours pass in a flash during which most of these “tough guys” are choked with emotion, wipe tears from their eyes, and some cry without shame. The emotional intensity in the room is an indescribable experience.

The above event took place in a Texas prison where the men were attempting to salvage what was left of their lives with the aid of a master’s degree from a major university. In 1974 the University of Houston at Clear Lake created a bold and controversial degree-conferring program for male inmates serving time at the Ramsey Prison in Rosharon, Texas. Today, this highly successful program offers several hundred inmates the opportunity to earn a BA or MA in the behavioral sciences and also in the humanities. (It’s worth noting that even though men greatly outnumber women in prisons—93.6 to 6.4 percent nationally—several Texas prisons offer educational programs for women as well.)

In 1989 I was hired as a member of the adjunct faculty to teach a variety of philosophy classes to both undergraduate and graduate student inmates. And I’m still teaching those classes today.

Some of my courses involve a critical analysis of key issues concerning criminal justice in the United States. Not surprisingly, these discussions are animated with passion and conflicting opinions. All of the students have a unique history of involvement with the criminal justice system and most of them are eager to share their experiences. I ask them to refrain from vulgarity, use learned language, be honest, and show respect for those who disagree with them. The courses in which these lively sessions occur are Ethics, The Justification of Punishment, Contemporary Moral Issues, Theory and Practice of Punishment and, most recently, Criminology.

In a very real sense, for the many years I’ve taught prison inmates I’ve probably learned more from them than they have from me. This is especially true when they share the realities of prison life, and the collective culture that inevitably impacts their institutional conduct and self-image.

Probably the most widely held belief about prisoners is that most, if not all of them, claim to be innocent. I can count on one hand, however, the number of my students who have appealed their case with the claim of innocence. Instead, the vast majority concede their guilt and believe they deserved to be punished. This concession to the persuasive power of the centuries-old retributive argument emerged in our many class discussions in which they acknowledged making a decision to commit a crime and described the hard coinage of punishment as their just deserts.

Numerous inmates committed their crimes under the influence of alcohol or other drugs such as crack or powder cocaine, or heroin. I ask them: if sober, would you have committed the offense? They say no, but hasten to add that they made a decision to get high and are obliged to accept the consequences. Of the hundreds who have participated in our drug abuse discussions, I can’t recall a single one who defended the view that drug addiction should absolve them of responsibility for their crimes. These discussions ignite the dark memories of many of these men who recall the cravings, the level of tolerance, and the withdrawal experience. After a thorough unpacking of the meaning of the words “addiction,” “craving,” and “compel,” most of them reject the so-called standard view of drug addiction that explains compulsive behavior by the drug’s effects on the brain. Instead, they embrace the argument that no drug is inherently addictive and that craving and a strong desire to do something does not compel one to act; one can act on a desire, ignore it, or attempt to extinguish it.

There is no disagreement, however, with the belief that the policies of the so-called war on drugs should be immediately terminated and replaced by state and federal statutes that give priority to treatment and public health. In this context, the students appeal to John Stuart Mill’s claim that individuals should have sovereignty over their bodies until they inflict harm on others. Much time is spent in attempting to reach a consensus on what counts as real harm to others, and except for physical pain, there is no consensus. It’s worth noting that the moral perspective of many of these men is very conservative. For example, they disapprove of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and allowing gay men and lesbians to adopt children. They also oppose assisted suicide and abortion. All of them, however, agree that the use of marijuana should be decriminalized, and that cocaine and heroin, along with clean needles, should be available at state-operated clinics with priority given to those who request treatment. Some inmates with a history of cocaine or heroin use favor their availability only to deter users from committing acts of theft or violence to obtain them.

It’s certainly true that many of these men exhaust the appeals process in contesting the length of their sentence, because all of them live in a personal hell of confinement; all of them desire to become eligible for parole and return to the outside world. Frustration, despair, and anger reach a high pitch in discussions of the policies of determinate versus indeterminate sentencing and the mechanism of parole that is the baggage of the latter. They emphatically agree with the observation that not knowing when they will be released is one of the worst agonies of prison life. (Texas has an indeterminate sentencing system in which inmates must serve a prescribed minimum before becoming eligible for parole.)

We also discuss the abolition of parole in Texas as an unrealistic hope. The key criminal justice legislators are convinced that, given the long sentences imposed on thousands of inmates, a determinate system would result in overcrowding and the need for new prisons. They’re probably right. Student inmates also know from our readings that overcrowding and new prisons could be avoided if lawmakers had the political courage to create a revised sentencing system in which the punishment range for felonies was greatly reduced.

In terms of capital crimes, nowhere is the moral controversy of the death penalty more relevant than in Texas, the state that executes more people than the total of the other thirty-six states where it exists. Our class discussions of the ultimate penalty include the increasingly used option of life without parole, the grim truth of past executions of innocent persons, and recent cases of factually innocent individuals released from death row. In all classes in which these issues are discussed a few students express strong support for the death penalty and most of them report knowing one or more inmates who they believe deserve to die. When asked if they’d elect to be executed rather than serve life without parole, a majority of them choose the latter.

In 2005 Texas passed legislation allowing jurors to consider life without the possibility of parole in death penalty cases. Under the old system, when the only choices were death or life with the possibility of parole, jurors were more likely to vote for death. Student inmates express much satisfaction that since 2005 the number of people sent to death row in Texas has decreased by 40 percent, and they feel the legislation was the right course of action because all the legal precautions in place will never eliminate some convictions of factually innocent people who now have a better chance at remaining alive with a chance to pursue the truth.

The Dutch-American sociologist Ernest van den Haag was an ardent supporter of the death penalty, and, similar to the stern retributive view of Immanuel Kant, argued that the state is morally obliged to execute a convicted murderer even if it doesn’t deter a single other person from committing murder. Van den Haag also maintained that despite all precautions, a few innocent individuals will be executed, but that these unintended consequences occur in nearly all human activities in which innocent bystanders are killed and don’t justify the abolition of the death penalty. My students bristle with indignation at his cavalier comparison of traffic and industrial deaths to the state imposition of the death penalty.

Other issues that unleash the raw emotions of many students concern the victims of crime. I don’t ask these men to inform me of the crime for which they are incarcerated. Nevertheless, in the heat of the moment it frequently happens that one of them will inform the class that they indeed killed or physically harmed someone. With anger in their voices, a few have even bluntly asserted that the victim of their homicide deserved his fate. The majority, however, express regret, especially about crimes in which there was no hostile provocation by the victim. What most of these men genuinely desire is the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with the victim or the victim’s family, in which they would apologize and ask to be forgiven. Such meetings occur if and only if initiated by the victim or a member of the immediate family. It is safe to assume that most victims have no desire to meet their offender and the men in my classes understand their feelings. One of my students did have a chance to speak to the mother of his victim and caused a chilling silence in class when he told us that her final question was, “What were my daughter’s last words before you killed her?” Immediately following his answer she had crossed the room, embraced him, and, in the midst of a flood of tears, said, “I forgive you.” Finally, victims have the right to protest in writing or in person the granting of parole to offenders, and many of my students articulate deep-seated resentment with this.

In response to several perspectives on the causes of their deviant conduct, these men are not persuaded by a simplistic Marxist contention that their unlawful acquisition of material goods and crimes of violence were due to an inherently corrupt capitalistic system that perpetuates social and economic inequality by denying them access to legitimate opportunities. They scoff at nineteenth-century Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s argument that, due to genetic inheritance and primitive physical characteristics, 33 percent of them have been doomed to a life of crime as biological throw-backs and born criminals incapable of genuine remorse, repentance, or the development of a moral sense. They argue that the arbitrary nature of the system breeds hypocrisy and that a very good acting job often helps the majority of inmates, who remain unchanged criminals but are successful in their bid for freedom.

Early twentieth-century psychologist and eugenicist H.H. Goddard contended that 50 percent of all criminals were mentally defective. Instead of giving primacy to individuals’ cultural and economic environments, he looked to the issue of responsibility and maintained that “those who are born without sufficient intelligence either to know right from wrong, or those, who, if they know it, have not sufficient willpower and judgment to make themselves do the right and flee the wrong, will ever be a fertile source of criminality.” Certainly all of my students, during their years of incarceration at various prisons, report meeting men of low intelligence and low to nonexistent impulse control who committed major crimes and acts of violence at the urging of others, and who are probably incapable of changing.

Even so, they strongly reject Goddard’s theory that their criminal history is the result of a feeble or defective mind incapable of resisting the lure of evil. Instead, student inmates view their past deviance as the result of choices or decisions to play the role of a “bad ass,” perhaps one who enjoys the thrill of doing wrong. Those who don’t have an extensive criminal history and are incarcerated for a single major crime also believe they made a decision that they could have refrained from making. Many of those with lengthy criminal histories share vivid memories of when, in the reckless abandon of their youth, they were magically seduced by opportunities to commit crime. And they confirm the truth of the argument that most of their acts of vandalism, theft, and violence had nothing to do with the acquisition of material goods. All of them were cognizant of their lawless behavior and none of them claim to have engaged in careful reflection about the possible and very likely consequences of their conduct. In short, they were not prudent and rational utilitarians.

Words can’t fully capture the intense feelings aroused by a discussion of readings detailing the realities of life in prison. Each man knows that on many mornings when he awakes in the confines of a small space designated as his “house,” he will experience the existential reality of where he is, why he is there, and the consciousness of being a moral outcast from society. Some of my students share memories of a time in Texas when certain inmates had the status of so-called building tenders, turnkeys, or convict guards who were given free reign to use physical violence to maintain control in the cellblocks. This is a well-documented chapter in the history of Texas prisons, and though the physical brutality is gone, the pains of imprisonment as they exist today—involving the loss of liberty, deprivation of goods and services, the frustration of sexual desire, and the constant reminders of their perceived inferior moral status—are profoundly powerful assaults on their sense of self-worth. Several years ago I was sternly admonished by a guard who observed me shaking hands with one of my students, an act which, he said, showed a respect they didn’t deserve. I’ve since learned that, although not a written policy, many of the prison staff are proud of their long record of never exhibiting this common courtesy. I continue to shake hands with my students, past and present.

Public opinion surveys regarding the fear of crime and the punishment of offenders continue to affirm the consensus that: (1) prison inmates should serve most of their sentence in real calendar time, and (2) the majority of offenders are capable of positive changes and should be “better” persons when released. In Texas the first objective is realized in many cases and close to being satisfied in the remainder. The second objective has a much lower success rate. Within one to three years of their release from prison at least 50 percent of ex-cons will be returned due to a violation of one or more of the conditions of their release or the conviction of a new felony. Given the non-existence of a magical virtue dust to sprinkle on inmates prior to their release and the consistently high recidivism rate, the critical issue at stake is whether the state should or is obliged to embrace and fund a comprehensive menu of so-called rehabilitative programs. Prior to their incarceration, some inmates were well educated and living a successful, crime-free life. However, as I’ve argued for many years, a great majority of inmates never achieved such status; their thinking and conduct were totally at odds with rehabilitation and no one with any good sense would attempt to restore them to the way they were.

I have discussed this issue with hundreds of inmates and all of them agree that the battle-worn ideal of rehabilitation should be replaced by a concept of “habilitation,” a Socratic conversion in which the power of newly acquired understanding and knowledge grab a human mind and change the direction of a life. More specifically, I tell my students that in order to live a permanently responsible life, their university education must lead them to a radical revision of how they think about their individual rights and obligations to others.

Finally, none of my students express the belief that they have any kind of a “right” to demand that the state provide financial support for a university education. Instead, they embrace the view that the extremely low recidivism rate of graduates who are released on parole confirms that the interest and safety of the public are protected by this highly successful venture. They are right!