June 13 2024

Incarcerated Trust: The Challenge of Prison Teaching

by James Wetzel, Villanova University


I teach philosophy at Villanova University, but as a student of Augustine, I try to be mindful of philosophy’s religious dimension, or the reverence that drives, and sometimes shipwrecks, a quest for wisdom. In Spring of 2007, I began teaching a variety of philosophy courses—some foundational, others more specialized—at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Graterford, located thirty-one miles northwest of Philadelphia. Graterford is the largest maximum-security prison in the state of Pennsylvania, holding well over 3,000 men. Villanova has been running a program of college study at Graterford since the early '70s. Our Graterford students can earn either an associate of arts degree or a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies, though it does take considerably more years to earn a degree in prison than it does on campus. Among the lifers, there is active alumni chapter; they are Villanova’s diaspora.

My experience of teaching at Graterford has renewed my faith in the power of a philosophical language to render the inarticulate intuitions of a life’s struggle into shareable insights. I will not venture to say that I have thereby become a better teacher, but I have, I think, become a more self-aware one. I am aware, more than I have ever been, that I cannot evade the question my ancestral mentor, Augustine, would have readily embraced. The question, in its most basic form, is this: must I revere, or come to love, those with whom I expect to share a common wisdom?

I am in no rush to embrace this phrasing of the question, being still part of an intellectual culture that mostly distrusts the language of love. In my case, I don’t distrust the language as much as I distrust my ability to use it in an illuminating way. And so, for now, I divert to this rephrasing of my question: how much do I need to trust those whom I expect to teach? (Trust and love live in the same neighborhood, but not always in the same house.) In the context of a prison school, where the students are convicts and the sentences are grim, it is easy enough to imagine how trust might be a problem—like a clueless out-of-towner is a problem in a biker bar. But trust, though certainly a problem, turned out not to be the problem I was imagining it to be.

Foundation Course

I didn’t come to Graterford with any special training for teaching in a maximum-security SCI. The most I could claim along these lines was a mandatory, all-afternoon orientation session, conducted at the prison by a former correctional officer, and mostly consisting of cautionary notes: don’t be naïve; assume that the inmates are better at deceiving you than you are at reading them; don’t exchange goods of even the most trivial sort; keep your professional distance; don’t make friends; strictly conform to all prison regulations; blow your whistle (supplied at the orientation) if you find yourself in the midst of a violent altercation; don’t be a hero. I wasn’t sure how to apply all this to teaching human beings (“inmates,” as they were being presented to me, didn’t seem teachable). And while I certainly took the orientation seriously, it mainly confirmed for me my sinking suspicion that I had no idea what I was getting into.

I was supposed to be teaching a liberal arts foundation course that coming term: Ethics 2050 – The Good Life: Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems. This is a course that is deeply informed by a Catholic appropriation of Aristotelian ethics, where character counts for more than isolated acts, and it is required of all Villanova undergraduates, the incarcerated ones included. I thought about whether I ought to be teaching the Graterford version of Ethics 2050 differently than were I teaching the course on campus. (Bear in mind that my sole experience of the prison to this point had been my orientation session.)

I decided to shade the course’s emphasis on character ethics somewhat differently to reflect my one major—and wholly untested—preconception about what the men’s ethical experience, up to and into prison, must have been like. I assumed that if you were serving out a long sentence for a serious crime and yet had sufficient self-possession to qualify for a program of college study, then you would have already done significant work on yourself—work perhaps dramatic enough in its effects to count as a moral conversion of some sort. Assuming you were such a person, surely you would find the neatness of Aristotle’s distinction between barbarism and a virtuous community less compelling than an ethical life that passes through chaos and heartbreak and takes root in humility? I consequently structured the course around three core readings: Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Book of Job, The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, and James Baldwin’s bluesy novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.

The Job narrative drives a wedge between culpability and being held responsible, and it suggests that a life of privilege, lived with little self-awareness, is more imprisoning than it seems. The Boethius and the Baldwin reading, each in its own remarkable way, renders the invisible prison of lies and loveless narcissism as terrible as the iron that shackles and confines bodies.

Reading trajectories such as these suggested to me a pedagogical way forward, but I remained worried that the implicit theme of the course—ethics as liberation from a self-imposed prison—would, in the context of an actual SCI, come off as facile and presumptuous. What, after all, did I really know of a place of bars and bolts, constant surveillance, chaotic violence, and coercive authority? Perhaps the invisible prison is, on most days of the week, the lesser evil. I wasn’t in a position to assume either way, but what sort of uncertainty is appropriate to venture in a place like Graterford? That, too, I didn’t know.

My very first session with my Graterford ethics class proved to be revelatory in a way I did not anticipate, and from there on my assumptions about prison classroom space and my authority within it began to shift. One of the more senior men in the class—an “old head”—introduced himself to me as I entered the room, and I started to fret about book distribution and the course roster (I can get a little obsessive about details). He thanked me on behalf of all the men for having enough faith in them to give of my time and energy and make my way onto their side of the prison walls. I appreciated the gracious gesture of gratitude, but I didn’t immediately notice what I was being offered.

For you see, Andre (the old head) really could speak on behalf of the men in the class. I was not facing a group of mostly disconnected individuals, each with his own independent agenda; I was looking at a community of men with distinct but interdependent roles to honor: old head, young buck, imam, skeptic, activist, artist, educator, organizer—and then some. Over the course of my time at Graterford, I would come to learn something about the imperfect but renewable art of becoming aware, from within prison walls, of who is there with you and of how, when people have left themselves, to fetch them back. But I always begin with the knowledge that I was, at the start of it all, shown more trust than I was ready, in my self-doubt, to show in return. It is a burden of humility that I am grateful to carry.

Framing Things

Now I want to share a few thoughts about the framework within which I began to view first my Graterford courses—and, then, with a modest leap of the conceptual imagination, much else.

In spring of 2015, I joined forces with Ron Hill, a friend and colleague of mine from Villanova’s School of Business, to teach a new course to be offered both at Graterford and on campus. The course was called Philosophy of the Social Venture, and its basic conception was the design of three doctoral students in philosophy and an intrepid MBA. These four met regularly to work on the course, and our charge to them had been to put together a set of readings and a structure that would bring business students, philosophers, and Graterford men into a common conversation about the possibilities of a postconsumer economy where growth is tied less to consumption and more to consciousness.

This would not be the first time I would teach with Ron at the interstices of the university and the SCI, business and the humanities. Two years prior we had taught a course together on the value assumptions that lend monetary exchanges their curiously absolute quality, as if a means of representing value were to have become a value in itself. In the Social Venture course, more directed at the notion of economy itself, I was particularly eager to explore the ambivalence (or outright contradiction) that seemed to me to lie at the heart of a moneyed economy. Money is valued for its capacity to manage trust; most of us are well acquainted with the practice of exchanging goods or services for a symbol of value, the redemption of which we trust anyone in our economy to honor. But it may be claimed with equal force that money is the opposite of trust; it quantifies the needs that (seem to) motivate human interdependency and replaces trust with the exploitable need for trust.

Roughly halfway through Social Venture, Joshua Dubler (also writing in this issue of Spotlight)—a discerning student of religious life at Graterford and a former adjunct teacher in the Graterford program—accepted my invitation to visit our two student constituencies. On the road from Villanova to Graterford, he asked me an important question that, to my surprise, I realized I had never asked myself before. He wanted to know whether I generally felt it necessary, when I was teaching in prison, to make the prison part of the lesson.

Not long into my teaching at Graterford, I had become aware of “mass incarceration” not simply as a reference to crowded prison conditions, but as the name of a crisis in the criminal justice system and, more broadly, in American political culture. The crisis to which I refer has much to do with the fact that criminality has come to be regarded by many in the culture as an indelible identity and a type of disfigured humanity, and no longer a temporary persona able to be set aside once a person has, through some combination of suffering and education, become trustworthy again.

In Social Venture, I was beginning to see the linkage between the cultural archetype of the criminal and the consumer economy that values the exploitable need for trust over trust itself. Since I am of a mind to think that trust and not need is the true driver of education, I am also inclined to think that as long as I have to teach in a contrary economy, the prison has to be part of the lesson.

The Trust Problem

So here is a way to put the problem of trust structurally: Within prison walls, Graterford students are students and not criminals; outside prison walls, Graterford students are security risks and so criminals once more. When I try to harmonize these two views of the same men, I seem left with two choices. I can assume that they are trustworthy only when made to suffer the restraints and deprivations of a prison environment, or I can entertain the possibility that we are struggling as a culture with a myth of indelible criminal identity. At the root of this myth we are likely to find a tangle of entrenched assumptions about economy, social value, and human difference, much of which a university, conscious of its higher calling, will not want to endorse.

I am not suggesting that the choice between my two options is neat and self-evident. I am suggesting that the university cannot venture into prisons without putting the quality of its trust to the test. This, to my mind, is an indispensable test. For perhaps the best reason for a university to be in a prison lies in its resolute and collective desire not to become one.


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Dubler, Joshua. 2013. Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

McCorkel, Jill A. 2013. Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment. New York: New York University Press.

Price-Spratlen, Townsand, and William Goldsby. 2012. Reconstructing Rage: Transformative Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration. New York: Peter Lang.

Scott, Robert. 2013. “Distinguishing Radical Teaching from Merely Having Intense Experiences While Teaching in Prison.” Radical Teacher 95: 22–32.

James Wetzel is professor of philosophy and Augustinian Endowed Chair at Villanova University, where he also serves as the associate director of the Augustinian Institute. His research centers on Platonism as a spiritual tradition of philosophy, and he has written extensively on the Christian Platonism of Augustine: Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (Cambridge University Press, 1992), Augustine: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2010), Augustine’s City of God: A Critical Guide (ed., Cambridge University Press, 2012), and Parting Knowledge: Essays after Augustine (Cascade, 2013). He is currently working on a book-length meditation on Wittgenstein’s quasi-confessional appropriation of Augustine in the Philosophical Investigations.  In May of 2014 he received the Arts and Sciences Medallion for excellence in scholarship. Since 2007, he has been very active in Villanova’s college program at SCI Graterford, where he has taught ethics, philosophy, civilization courses, and, along with a colleague from the School of Business, hybrid courses in business and philosophical ethics.

Photo: A student raises his hand in a English seminar facilitated by Cornell University at the Auburn Correctional Facility. Credit: Cornell Prison Education Program.