Learning Ethics in Prison

As part of the Tufts Prison Initiative, a philosophy teacher and her students held an Ethics Bowl with incarcerated students

The students huddled quickly after receiving their prompt. They had only a few minutes to consider the pros and cons of an issue—in this case doxing, which is revealing someone’s personal information online without permission—before taking a position drawing from the ethical and moral philosophy they’d learned in class.

Soon they were presenting their arguments to the judges at the Ethics Bowl—a debate-like competition—showing a nuanced grasp of the material.

These weren’t Tufts undergraduates from the Medford/Somerville campus, though. They were students enrolled in the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT), men incarcerated at the medium security Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Concord.

As part of the incarcerated students’ writing curriculum, Susan Russinoff, a distinguished senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, and a handful of her undergraduate and graduate students from her course Ethics Bowl taught a series of classes on ethics and moral philosophy. Russinoff had taught a moral philosophy component in the TUPIT program in 2019, and late last spring brought it back again.

The classes this year culminated in the Ethics Bowl for some 20 incarcerated students. Similar competitions are common for undergraduate philosophy students. Russinoff has her Tufts students participate at intercollegiate Ethics Bowls—one year they came in second place nationally.

This year, Russinoff had her Tufts students teach the incarcerated students about different ethical frameworks, such as utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, with a smattering of Kantian ethics along the way. “It was a crash course in how to reason about ethics, how to construct an argument, and then facilitating a discussion about the cases,” Russinoff said.

It was also an eye-opening experience for the Tufts students.When we first walked inside, it felt like a prison, but when we got to the classroom and started talking to these other students, it felt like a Tufts classroom,” said philosophy major Claire Ganiban, A22, AG23.

“Many of these people are not accustomed to being heard, to having their opinions valued, to have people listen to them carefully and consider what it is that they’re saying.”

Susan Russinoff

Quinn Williamson, AG22, who got his master’s degree in philosophy, was struck by the incarcerated students’ eagerness to learn—and it wasn’t just because they didn’t have devices and laptops to distract them in class.

“Everyone there really cares about what others have to say,” said Williamson, who is now program coordinator for TUPIT. “And when someone says something, the next person doesn’t try to just quickly insert their thoughts. They respond directly, taking into consideration what the other person said.”

Param Upadhyay, A24, said the students “were so cognizant of the opportunity that they had been given—they wanted to make the most of it at every moment.” After the Ethics Bowl was over, the TUPIT students “were saying how it really revolutionized the way they looked at the world, and I just thought that was completely incredible,” he said.

“Ask About Snitching”

Under Russinoff’s supervision, the Tufts students also worked with the incarcerated students to teach them what a good argument is. “In philosophy, we teach students to anticipate how somebody might respond, how to strengthen your argument,” said Russinoff.

For the Ethics Bowl, the incarcerated students had to learn how to reach consensus on their arguments. Some were anxious about public speaking and the competitiveness of it, but quickly coalesced as teams, Russinoff said. They were helped by mentors—men who had participated in the first Ethics Bowl at MCI-Shirley in 2019. “It really became a bonding experience for this group,” she said.

On the two days the Ethics Bowl took place, two sets of two teams faced off against each other, with Tufts students acting as judges, and men from the 2019 Ethics Bowl teams acting as moderators, overseeing the flow of the competition.

“It was honestly such a life-changing experience for me.”

Param Upadhyay, A24

One team in each competition was given a prompt—such as the issue about the ethics of doxing—and had 10 minutes to present their response. The opposing team then huddled to come up with their response and presented it to the judges. The first team gave a short response, and then the judges asked questions of each group.

Upadhyay, who was one of the judges, described how one of the moderators, from the 2019 incarcerated student group, leaned over to him and said in reference to the doxing question, “Ask about snitching.” He did, and all the students understood the nuanced connection between doxing on the outside and snitching on the inside.

“Everyone just started laughing, and people said, ‘Oh my God, he got us,’” Upadhyay said.  

Then the tables were turned, as the second team took on a new prompt. The team that won then squared off against the winner of the other two-team competition. In the end, one team was clearly the best, said Russinoff—but in a larger sense, they were all winners.

“Many of these people are not accustomed to being heard, to having their opinions valued, to have people listen to them carefully and consider what it is that they’re saying,” Russinoff said. “They were learning what genuine dialogue consists in, something that most people aren’t very good at.”

The Ethics Bowl also gave the incarcerated students “an opportunity to look at difficult problems through different perspectives, to realize that their perspective might not be the only reasonable perspective to think about something from,” she said.

At the end of the program, the TUPIT students were asked to write reflections on the experience. “To be able to . . . examine both sides without taking a personal view is a skill that will benefit me for the rest of my life,” wrote one. “So often us as humans have particular views on certain things because of our experience, so to be able to put these feelings aside and take a non-biased approach to something is amazing to me.”

Another wrote that his Ethics Bowl experience “was life changing. I believe the Ethics Bowl to be the pinnacle of our liberal arts degree because it allowed for us to think about both the pros and cons to any ethics issue at hand.”

At the end of each session with the Tufts and TUPIT students, a guard would come in and tell them it was time to leave. The incarcerated students “every single time would fist bump us, shake our hands, and say, ‘Thank you, thank you,’” said Upadhyay. “And they’d file out. They would leave us all thinking, oh, if only we had an hour more. If only we can just do this again. One more time. It was honestly such a life-changing experience for me.”

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