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Breaking down walls between the ivory tower and prison

The MIT Prison Initiative provides an academic framework for undergraduates and local inmates to explore the human condition.
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Lee Perlman (in maroon shirt) lectures on the philosophy of love at MIT. Perlman also teaches classes at Massachusetts prisons with a mix of both MIT students and prison inmates.
Lee Perlman (in maroon shirt) lectures on the philosophy of love at MIT. Perlman also teaches classes at Massachusetts prisons with a mix of both MIT students and prison inmates.

In 1987, while teaching a class at MIT on nonviolence, philosophy lecturer Lee Perlman had a novel idea: Why not take the students to a prison, to talk with men who had committed extreme forms of violence?

Needless to say, the experience was an eye-opener for students — a powerful way to help them understand, at a visceral level, the nature of violence. And it also sparked Perlman’s lifelong professional and personal interest in the prison system. That interest continues today in the MIT Prison Initiative he founded in 2016 with the support of his home department, the Experimental Study Group (ESG). Through the initiative, Perlman teaches classes to a cohort of both MIT students and prisoners at two medium- to maximum-security Massachusetts Correctional Institutions in Norfolk and Framingham.

Over the past academic year, Perlman has taught two philosophy courses at the prisons: ES.S40 (Self and Soul) and ES.112 (The Philosophy of Love). Each week, Perlman and 10 MIT students traveled by van to Norfolk or Framingham to engage in discussion and study with 10 imprisoned fellow students, many of whom are incarcerated for life.

“The kinds of courses I’m developing for the MIT Prison Initiative are designed to allow students to speak about their personal experience, but do it within a serious intellectual framework,” Perlman explains. Taught as part of ESG’s General Institute Requirement offerings in the humanities and social sciences, these courses reflect the program’s emphasis on “out-of-the-box” educational experimentation and on teaching and learning as part of an academic community.

Teaching philosophy in a prison setting broadens the perspective and learning of both student cohorts, by exposing them to people and life experiences vastly different from their own. That’s certainly been the case for freshman Eva Lisowski. “Dr. Perlman’s Self and Soul class was one of the most life-changing and influential opportunities I have ever had,” she says, adding: “Being able to actually look into the inmates’ eyes and have an intelligent discussion about advanced philosophy readings with them completely changed how I view them.”

Philosophy as community building

The intersection of philosophy with politics and policy has been a mainstay of Perlman’s career. After studying philosophy as an undergraduate at St. John’s College, the famed “great books” school, he served as the executive director of Common Cause in Maryland. Later he combined his two passions, philosophy and politics, in a doctorate at MIT in political philosophy.

In 1984 Perlman joined the teaching staff of the Experimental Study Group, MIT’s first freshman learning community, where he has taught for most of the last 33 years. Founded in 1969, ESG offers a tight-knit intellectual community that fosters innovation and creativity in the educational process. Courses in philosophy and other humanities subjects strengthen this sense of community by encouraging conversation and personal sharing in class. “ESG is a wonderful place to teach philosophy,” Perlman says, “because the program attracts intellectually curious students who enjoy learning for learning’s sake.”

In 2012, Perlman moved beyond visiting prisons to teaching in them through Boston University’s Prison Education Program, one of the few programs in the country that grant bachelor’s degrees to incarcerated students through an in-house university program.

Expanding his teaching into the prison system was deeply personal for Perlman. “Teaching philosophy is what I have to offer to the world, and offering it in prison was offering it to people who don’t get this opportunity,” he says. “I find it a really remarkable experience to see people grow intellectually, people who never thought about their lives this way at all, who never thought about thinking as an activity that you do for its own sake in your life.”

Bringing the “outside” in

The study of philosophy, especially when focused on the concept of love as in ES.112, provides a fundamental way to work on interpersonal relationships, which is of particular consequence to the prisoners. “Understanding love better or in a different way can help build friend and family bonds, which are extremely important when you are incarcerated,” said one inmate. “It’s given me a new perspective on how to grow and develop my relationships with my friends and family outside.”

Prisoners appreciate the opportunity to interact with MIT students. As one of them noted, working with his MIT classmates motivates him to bring his “’A game’ to class.” Their sense of motivation is inspiring to Tally Portnoi, a senior in the Philosophy of Love course. “Even people who are there serving for life are striving to educate and better themselves. It’s just unrelenting. It’s amazing to see that.”

The incarcerated students also view the classes as a window on the “outside.” One commented, “The outside students tend to bring an entirely different perspective to discussion than we would normally receive, because we are essentially from very different worlds.” Another noted that the combined class simply enhanced his learning by “making me feel a sense of normalcy.”

Perspective and gratitude

For the MIT students, Perlman’s courses provide a window to reflect on the lives of their incarcerated peers — as well as their own. Gil Goldshlager, a senior in the Philosophy of Love course, gained a deeper appreciation for the phrase “accident of birth.” “The reality that I’ve come to believe is that these guys really are the same as me. …You realize that the things you do are not necessarily indicative of your moral character as much as you’d like to believe, but of the situation and what you’ve been taught,” he says.

For senior Madison Stoddard, who has been a teaching assistant for several of Perlman’s classes, interacting with the prisoners has challenged her assumptions about others. Her understanding of human nature feels less “fragmented” now, she says, which has changed “how I interact with people and what I expect from people who are very different from myself.”

Many students find that sharing a classroom with their incarcerated peers is a reminder of the importance and privilege of getting a college education. Junior Taylor Craig, who was a teaching assistant in the Self and Soul course, says the experience led him to re-examine his value system and what he hopes to get out of his college experience. “It got me thinking about what education is for. That’s something we don’t get a lot of chance to think about, especially here at MIT.”                                                         

“Every week I would leave feeling especially grateful for everything I have,” says Elyse Paneral, a junior in the Philosophy of Love course. For her, the classes were a reminder of “all the educational opportunities I have, the wide variety of career choices, the fact that I have the luxury of being able to change environments to an environment I like and that suits me well — just how much choice we are lucky to have on the outside.”

To date, MIT students have been able to take classes in prison with Perlman and Justin Steil, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Through the MIT Prison Initiative, Perlman plans to broaden the outreach and opportunity by organizing course offerings into a cohesive program. Funded through an Alumni Class Grant, the initiative will ensure that courses are offered every semester; raise awareness of this opportunity for MIT staff to teach, thereby increasing the number of classes taught; and institutionalize the courses by giving them a place and number in the MIT course catalog.

“Most of us in the whole course of our life don’t spend this kind of time getting to know people who are living their lives incarcerated,” Perlman says. “It would be great if there was a point at which there were more opportunities to do this.” The MIT Prison Initiative is providing just that — the chance to move beyond the walls of MIT to catch a glimpse of what it’s like to live in another’s shoes. 

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