Philosophy in Prison - Photo Series

Photos credit: Ian Cuthbert/PET

HMYOI Isis, in South East London, holds mostly young men aged under 30. From June to November 2017, the prison teamed up with Goldsmiths University’s Open Book project, to run a philosophy course with 16 young learners.

The Learning Together course, which is the second run by the Open Book project, brought in Goldsmiths students to learn alongside the men. The HMYOI Isis students, who do not have internet access, were also able to also ask the Goldsmiths students to conduct research on their behalf. This informed final assignments, which were presented at the end of the course to an audience of prison staff, academics and family members. 

Ursula Blythe, who is completing her doctorate at Goldsmiths, says the project was a transformational experience, with philosophy particularly suited to a prison setting. 

"The learners realised that philosophy is a human endeavour that is accessible to all participants, particularly as it opened their minds and hearts to their predicament and place in the world," she said.

One learner, 'Sean', said: "Prison is a very oppressive environment, and its much easier to take action than to think, but if we stepped back and thought first that would stop a lot of harm. Before this class I was very aggressive – I used to get into fights, very silly stuff – but learning about philosophy has reminded me that in certain situations its better to step back and think twice." 

The learners' ideas and thinking were developed through an intense course of discussion-based philosophy classes. Content included political philosophy, science, the mind, personal identity, and representation. Discussions were fuelled by philosophical foundations and methods of philosophical enquiry which increased the learner’s confidence in presenting credible arguments, particularly when exploring questions of masculinity.

Ursula said learners need to be given the chance to build on their new-found knowledge and interests after the course has ended. “Getting onto a degree programme at Goldsmiths University has become a real ambition for many prison learners who take part in this sort of aspirational experience. As an educational institution, we need to ensure that fragile hopes are nurtured in robust ways, so educational dreams can become a reality.”

PET and a photographer Ian Cuthbert joined a class, where we asked learners to share their favourite philosophical quotes, and what these words meant to them. 

The Goldsmiths/Isis project is part of PET's PUPiL network, which aims to support and develop prison/university partnerships across England and Wales. PET helped set up the original partnership between the institutions and continues to work with HMYOI Isis learners to improve access to higher education for prisoners and prisoners.