Course to help incarcerated understand own criminality
An ethics class is helping some San Quentin residents understand what led them to crime — and prison — offering hope for rehabilitation.
Bill Smoot, an author and teacher at the prison’s Mt. Tamalpais College, is leading the class for the fourth time.
The curriculum would be familiar to other professors of philosophy. Along with contemporary issues, it covers social contract theory, virtue ethics, Kantian and utilitarian ethics, and Socrates and Plato.
The makeup of the students would not be familiar. They are convicted felons ranging in age from about 30 to 70, Smoot said in a Jan. 9 blog post.
“When I tell people that I taught a college course on ethics at San Quentin Prison, they pause, waiting for a punch line,” Smoot said. “There is none.”
Smoot does not see an ethics course in a prison as ironic or contradictory. “Teaching ethics there is not more difficult but easier,” Smoot wrote. “How often do the ‘successful’ people in society become so habituated to achieving and performing that the moral dimension of life — the value of everything we do — is lost sight of?”
Incarcerated students are in touch with that dimension, argues Smoot.
“It is with them, and that is why discussing ethics there is easier,” he said. “It is easier because so much is at stake for them and they know it.”
Smoot marvels at the candor of his incarcerated students, who live with anguish and regret over crimes committed years ago. Most people in the class are forthcoming, emphasizing that what they did when they hurt people was their responsibility. They are paying a price for their bad choices.
Incarcerated students understand the idea of a tacit agreement between society and its individual members, perceiving that obeying the law is the individual’s part of the contract. But the reciprocal obligation of society to the individual is less clear to people who grew to adulthood enjoying few societal advantages.
As Smoot has learned in 11 years of teaching for the Prison University Project at San Quentin, many of his students come from difficult backgrounds.
Their upbringings included deteriorated housing, living on mean streets, and witnessing the use of drugs and guns. They had abusive, addicted, and/ or absent parents, and went to failing schools, Smoot blogged.
Accordingly, student interest peaked when discussing the Cornell West essay Nihilism in Black America, which offers an explanation of the plight of Black Americans, focusing on a loss of hope, morality and meaning. The discussion of this topic resonated with Black as well as White students, but left a somber mood.
A subsequent discussion of restorative justice brought energy back into the classroom. Philosophy often has this effect, wrote Smoot. Some subjects are more relatable.
“Beyond the immutable past lies the open future,” he wrote. “Crimes can serve as springboards for restoration.”
As discussed in Smoot’s classroom, restorative justice “means that a person who has done wrong can work to make it right,” he wrote.
“He can sincerely repent, apologize, and make restitution to his victims or their families. He can also work to restore himself — to become a person less broken and more whole, one who truly renounces his crime and who would not do something similar again.”
Not every person who enters the restorative justice model will be successful, wrote Smoot. “Not everyone deserves the chance. But some do.”
The professor reports that about 70 incarcerated students have taken his ethics class. He has also taught classes in English, film, and critical thinking at Mt. Tamalpais College.