When Associate Professor Chris Lauer brings up St. Augustineâ€™s â€œcrisis of the soulâ€� in his philosophy class, some of his students at the University of HawaiÊ»i at Hilo have difficulty relating it to their own lives. On the other hand, his students at the Kulani Correctional Facility, an all-male prison located about 20 miles south of Hilo, can instantly relate to Augustineâ€™s lamentations.
This is the second time Lauer has taught the three-credit Introduction to Philosophy 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.
â€œThe crisis of the soul causes us to ask who we are, what matters to us, and how we build ourselves back up again,â€� he explains. â€œWhen I taught Augustine at the prison last semester, the discussions got so loud and intense that the correctional officers came to check on us.â€�
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 Department of Public Safety Education Division and offered through the HawaiÊ»i Community College Office of Continuing Education and Training (OCET).
Lauer says that philosophy courses develop essential, transferable skills vital to the workforce.
â€œA person with a philosophy major tends to have among the highest mid-career incomes of any major,â€� explains Lauer. â€œThis 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 donâ€™t expect to get a job in the philosophy factory. They pursue lots of different interests until they find what sticks.â€�
Richard Cowan, the apprenticeship training program coordinator at HawaiÊ»i CC OCET, has managed the Kulani educational programs for the past four years. He was instrumental in growing the programâ€™s initial course offerings from three to 15 courses, which includes Lauerâ€™s philosophy course. Cowan notes that the class improves the inmatesâ€™ ability to engage in discussions and debate substantive topics.
Lauer says the discussions have been brilliant since the first day of class.
â€œThey tell me that the class was helpful for them understanding ideas, and they are articulating new thoughts that they havenâ€™t thought of before,â€� says Lauer. â€œThis class also builds advanced literacy. We are reading difficult books, which is one of the skills the students pick up the fastestâ€”becoming a better reader.â€�
Since students donâ€™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 Platoâ€™s Republic and Symposium, Aristotleâ€™s Nicomachean Ethics, Descartesâ€™s Meditations, Nietzcheâ€™s Genealogy of Morals, Augustineâ€™s Confessions, and Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir, as well as some ancient Buddhist and Daoist texts.
Cowan says that these types of programs are instrumental to reducing recidivism rates.
â€œToday the national recidivism rate is around 67 percent. By participating and completing vocational training, that rate is typically reduced to 30 percent,â€� he says. â€œIf an individual obtains an associateâ€™s degree, the rate is reduced to 13.7 percent. With a bachelorâ€™s degree it falls to 5.6 percent, and with a masterâ€™s degree they do not go back to prison.â€�
â€”By Leah Sherwood, a UH Hilo graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program. Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo.