Philosophy behind bars: Why studying Law should take you to prison

Do Better Team

After years of studying Law, new graduates know everything (or almost everything) about the justice system, the legal regime, the Penal Code... But do they understand what it means to send a person to prison? Esade’s professor Sira Abenoza, who holds a degree in philosophy and business ethics, asked herself this very question. Unsure of the answer, she decided to introduce an unusual subject in which her students would study alongside people serving a prison sentence. Sira is a member of the Esade Institute for Social Innovation and founder of the Institute for Socratic Dialogue, a method of teaching she uses on her courses in prison. 

This article provides a synopsis of the interview, which you can listen to in Spanish here.

What does the subject Philosophy in Prison consist of? 

It is an optional course for final-year Law students which takes place in a prison and lasts eleven weeks. The participants are ten Esade Law students and ten prison inmates. 

Why bring Law students and prison inmates together?  

Law students usually finish their degrees without having gained any experience of what a penitentiary is or what it means to be serving a sentence. But this is a very important part of the justice system they are studying and which they are going to represent. We want them to understand the repercussions of the Penal Code, something which they had simply memorized prior to the course. 

What are the dynamics of the classes and what topics do you cover? 

The aim is that the Law students should acquire experiential knowledge, not only intellectual knowledge, enabling them to develop three things: a critical spirit towards the legal system, an ontological commitment to their professional role, and civic engagement. On this three-month course, we work using the Socratic dialogue method. Together, students and inmates reflect on the great philosophical questions. What is justice? What is fear? What is happiness? What is forgiveness? These are questions that unite them as human beings, but we also cover controversial topics on which they have very different views. 

What is Socratic dialogue exactly? 

It is the philosophical method that Socrates used. He started from the idea that every human being has a partial view of the truth. This differed from the idea that pedagogy had been putting into practice for centuries: that knowledge lies with the teacher, who must instruct students as passive recipients who absorb this knowledge. In contrast, Socrates considered that all students, since they are all human, have knowledge. The teacher acts like a midwife, helping those who take part in this dialogue to give birth to the knowledge that already exists within them. 

In the typical classroom, debate tends to be more prominent than dialogue. What is the difference between the two? 

Debate, as the etymology of the word suggests, involves a fight. It is an oral dispute in which the objective is to persuade one's opponent that you are right. Therefore, the attitude taken is not to listen, but to find holes in the other's arguments: what I want is to win. In contrast, dialogue is not about there being winners and losers. After a dialogue, there is no point in asking who has won. Dialogue is all about listening, and the idea is that one person can learn from the other. If we win, we all win, and if we lose, we all lose. It is a much more collaborative view of oral communication and of interacting with the other person. 

There are many contrasts between the Law students and the prison inmates. One key contrast is social class. What impact does this have? 

It would be difficult to find two groups that are more different from each other. Not for nothing is the documentary about the course entitled Philosophy Behind Bars: Dialogue to counter prejudice. Both groups begin the course with a great deal of prejudice towards the other. The students have a very negative view of the people who are in prison; they think they have done something terrible, they are completely guilty, and they deserve to be there. And the inmates think the students are rich kids who have always been mollycoddled, which is a very simplistic view. So, at the beginning, they clash. But soon the disparity between the two groups becomes clear, when the students hear the inmates' stories: my parents abandoned me when I was very young, I have been in and out of prison since I was 15, at home no one ever gave me a present, I have never had the opportunity to travel anywhere... A whole number of things that the Esade students find inconceivable. Yet as they become closer, they realize that, in spite of the class difference, they are all people who feel excitement, sadness and anger about similar things. 

How is the impact of the course measured? Does this impact vary according to each group?  

Keeping a field diary is an important part of the course. The students write an entry after each session. This is a moment when they can concentrate on recording and assimilating what they have experienced in the prison. There, they hear things they could never have imagined, and sometimes they emerge deeply affected. Over the years, the impact we have observed on the Law students is that, on the one hand, they gain an understanding of what the penitentiary system in Spain is like, and on the other hand, what the application of the Penal Code actually means. And in this way they can develop a critical eye towards the legal system, both as future professionals and as citizens. As for the inmates, when they see that these young people have freely decided to spend one morning a week with them over a period of months, and they genuinely want to listen to them, the impact on them is therapeutic. These people are extremely worried about how society will react to them once they are released. They have a deep fear of rejection. Having representatives of society sitting with them there and seeing that they are not rejected by the students gives them hope. 

When you talk about taking a critical approach towards the legal system, what exactly are you referring to?  

The Spanish Penal Code is one of the most punitive in Europe. You think to yourself "this couldn't happen to me." But when you go inside the prison, you realize it could happen to you as well, and this is also how the students react. This highly punitive Penal Code is reinforced by the news programs on television. The media often present these extreme and frightening cases of ex-prisoners who reoffend or who have committed dreadful, brutal crimes. As a result, citizens clamor for tougher sentences. One of the inmates who took part in the documentary (and who, like the other participants, had already succeeded in turning his life around), had spent 7 years in prison for armed robbery, but still had 12 years of his sentence to serve. He said: “at this point, I've looked inside myself and repented, and I've gained an awareness and understanding that what I did was wrong. I don't want to do this anymore, I want to have a normal life. But I say this today, when I still have 12 years to go. I can't say for sure that in the next 12 years I won't get so angry with the system that I end up trying to escape or committing suicide.”  

What would be the critical alternative to this legal system? 

According to Article 25.2 of the Spanish Constitution, prisons exist to support the reintegration and rehabilitation of persons who have committed certain crimes and who are serving custodial sentences. If, all of a sudden, the Penal Code has the effect that, instead of rehabilitating themselves, people become discouraged and end up reoffending or committing suicide, we have a problem. There are two options: either we can declare that prisons are punitive and their purpose is to punish people who have done bad things, or, if we really believe they exist to support rehabilitation and reintegration, we can adopt a penal code aligned with this belief. 

This course extends a critical eye to the field of education. Although we usually link innovation with technology, would you say that this cours is also innovative?  

Absolutely. In many respects, starting simply with the fact that it introduces something that wasn't done before. And although the Socratic method is very old, people had forgotten about it, so to introduce it again is innovative. But the course is also highly innovative as a medium for experiential learning, since the students learn from the inmates, and the prison is turned into an alternative classroom. 

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