UH Hilo professor teaches philosophy to inmates at Kulani Correctional Facility

The course is part of a workforce education program to provide inmates with vocational development and reentry skills training. Associate Professor Chris Lauer says philosophy courses develop essential, transferable skills vital to the workforce.

By Leah Sherwood.

Chris Lauer in his office
Associate Professor Chris Lauer in his office at UH Hilo. This semester, Lauer is teaching a course on philosophy to inmates at Kulani Correctional Facility.

When Associate Professor Chris Lauer brings up St. Augustine’s “crisis of the soul” in his philosophy class, some of his students at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo have difficulty relating it to their own lives. On the other hand, his students at the Kulani Correctional Facility (KCF), an all-male prison located about 20 miles south of Hilo, can instantly relate to Augustine’s lamentations.

This is the second time Lauer has taught the three-credit Introduction to Philosophy (Phil 101) course at the correctional facility. The class meets twice a week and is two hours long, focusing on student discussion.

Lauer understands why St. Augustine generates so much excitement among the inmates.

“The crisis of the soul causes us to ask who we are, what matters to us, and how we build ourselves back up again,” he explains. “When I taught Augustine at the prison last semester, the discussions got so loud and intense that the correctional officers came to check on us.”

The course is part of the Kulani Correctional workforce educational programs, which offers a range of courses from forklift training to graphic design, and whose purpose is to provide inmates with vocational development and reentry skills training. The programs are supported by the state of Hawai‘i Department of Public Safety Education Division and offered through the Hawai‘i Community College (HCC) Office of Continuing Education and Training (OCET).

Lauer says that philosophy courses develop essential, transferable skills vital to the workforce.

“A person with a philosophy major tends to have among the highest mid-career incomes of any major,” explains Lauer. “This is for some of the reasons that you would expect: critical thinking skills, writing skills, but some of it is job flexibility; going in not expecting a career track, but being willing to look for opportunities. Philosophy majors don’t expect to get a job in the philosophy factory. They pursue lots of different interests until they find what sticks.”

Kulani Correctional Facility in 2014. Photo courtesy of the Department of Public Safety.

Richard Cowan, the apprenticeship training program coordinator at HCC OCET, has managed the Kulani educational programs for the past four years. He was instrumental in growing the program’s initial course offerings from three to 15 courses, which includes Lauer’s current philosophy course. Cowan notes that the philosophy class improves the inmates’ ability to engage in discussions and debate substantive topics.

“Introduction to Philosophy was a great opportunity to provide a college level course for these individuals,” he says.

Lauer says the discussions have been brilliant since the first day of class.

“They tell me that the class was helpful for them understanding ideas, and they are articulating new thoughts that they haven’t thought of before,” says Lauer. “This class also builds advanced literacy. We are reading difficult books, which is one of the skills the students pick up the fastest—becoming a better reader.”

Since students don’t have access to computers and printers, they handwrite their assignments, which are usually four to six pages in length.

The reading list includes heavyweight texts from the Western canon such as Plato’s Republic and Symposium, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Descartes’s Meditations, Nietzche’s Genealogy of Morals, Augustine’s Confessions, and Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir, as well as some ancient Buddhist and Daoist texts.

 Stack of books: Plato’s Republic and Symposium, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Descartes’s Meditations, Nietzche’s Genealogy of Morals, Augustine’s Confessions, and Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir
Assistant Professor Lauer’s reading list for his students includes heavyweight texts from the Western canon.

Lauer explains how he chose the reading list suitable for a diversity of backgrounds. “I wanted books that could speak to people at a variety of different educational levels and backgrounds. I was looking for authors where there is a linear relationship between the amount that you put into it and the amount you get out of it. The best two philosophers that are like that are Plato and Nietzsche.”

Cowan says the philosophy course is enjoyed by students who take the course, which has a maximum enrollment of 15 students. “The course has been well attended and received by the men at the facility,” he says. “Chris is an exceptional instructor and has a great rapport with the participants.”

Lauer says he had been interested in doing something similar for a long time, and had the chance to bring to the UH Hilo campus the head of the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative, who spoke about the effectiveness of prison education. It is here that Cowan and Lauer met and started collaborating on bringing a philosophy course to the correctional facility for the first time.

Cowan says that these types of programs are instrumental to reducing recidivism rates.

“Today the national recidivism rate is around 67 percent,” explains Cowan. “By participating and completing vocational training that rate is typically reduced to 30 percent. If an individual obtains an associate’s degree the rate is reduced to 13.7 percent. With a bachelor’s degree it falls to 5.6 percent, and with a master’s degree they do not go back to prison. We therefore felt it was critical to offer as many courses as we could that were approved for college credits via the non-credit to credit application process with these courses being pre-approved by the department chair, the professors and the vice chancellor of instruction.”

Hawai‘i Community College’s Office of Continuing Education and Training provides lifelong learning opportunities by offering courses and programs that include non-credit courses, workforce training, workshops, and customized training for businesses and industries to enhance local economic development efforts.

 

Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

Photos of Chris Lauer and textbooks by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo.