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Northwestern University

Philosophy Behind Bars

Professor Jennifer Lackey heads to Stateville Correctional Center to teach inmates a course on values

These will be 15 students unlike any other Jennifer Lackey has ever encountered.

There will be murderers and rapists, drug kingpins and violent criminals, a far cry from the fresh-faced undergraduates that Lackey, a philosophy professor at Northwestern since 2007, encounters on the university’s idyllic Evanston campus.

But Lackey is energized by the possibilities of her new endeavor, an 11-week course called “Values” at the maximum security Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Ill.

In conjunction with the Alice Kaplan Institute for Humanities, Lackey’s new course aims to help 15 male inmates develop and defend arguments about values as they relate to topics such as abortion, the death penalty, morality and social inequality.

“I would like my classroom to be a place where the students grow as thinkers and as individuals, where they are given tools for critical thinking and engagement with ideas that will enable them to feel more in control of their lives in all sorts of ways,” Lackey says, adding that personal enrichment, not rehabilitation, is the end game.

In addition, Lackey hopes her course will address the isolation many inmates feel, offering the incarcerated a weekly opportunity “to leave their cells and interact with others in a productive and fulfilling environment,” while also granting them a rare break from a world in which their daily actions are dictated and controlled by others.

It’s an extension of Lackey’s long-standing interest in the prison population. As a 12-year-old, in fact, she penned a note to the warden of the Cook County Jail on Care Bear stationery that led to a visit to the jail’s women’s facility.

“[That visit] stemmed from my conviction then that there is shared responsibility for where many inmates end up, given that so much of criminal activity is the result of poverty, racism, unemployment and other forms of social inequality,” she says.

Heading into her fall class, Lackey anticipates a unique experience at Stateville, where prison officials have instructed Lackey on everything from her attire and inmate contact to what she should do if she hears gunshots. Her assignments will even require prior institutional approval.

Despite those abnormal circumstances, Lackey hopes the content and culture of the classroom overcomes all.

“I hope to foster an environment in which [the students] feel free in some very important senses: where they can try out new ideas and arguments, be exposed to different ways of thinking and engaging with one another and feel as though they are respected and taken seriously,” she says.

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