We met the so-called Touchstones Program during our study trip in the United States. Within the framework of this program, political philosophy training is provided in very different environments – elementary and secondary schools, community high schools and also in prisons. The main idea of the prison project had a deep impact on us: all people have the right and are able to develop an opinion on political, philosophical, moral issues, and debate on these with others, and this opportunity enriches everyone. Another important inspiration has been the participatory action research organized by Professor Michelle Fine, where they analyzed the impact of a higher education program in a prison for women, with the active participation of female prisoners as researcher. We have been considering for several years to initiate a similar project in Hungary. Finally, it happened in April 2015 when we have started our 12-week-long course on social inequalities in the Drug Prevention Quarter of the Budapest Jail and Prison in Kozma Utca.
Similarly to the Touchstones Program, our fundamental principle has been that knowing and thinking about society, economic-political processes and basic moral issues related to these are as important for social participation as keeping the rules or working. We believe that through the knowledge about the emergence and consequences of social inequalities, prisoners can better understand social dynamics and power relations around them. It may also help them reintegrate more successfully after their release.
Since neither of us has had experience in this kind of environment, we had a relatively long preparation phase before starting the training course. Besides consultation with the institution’s management and the official authorization of the program we also had to prepare professionally for this task. We have been supported by the psychologist of the institution, Titanilla Fiáth who advised us during the planning and authorization phase and also gave us a one-day training on law-enforcement and drug prevention in Hungary and on the institution’s program, the prisoners’ social background, everyday life and social relations. On the Hungarian social context of drug abuse we had a short training provided by Ferenc Dávid from Kékpont Foundation.
At the same time, we worked on curriculum development. After mapping the social science literature available in Hungarian, we concluded that it is better for us to write the main pieces ourselves. The most important texts related to the course are either not available in Hungarian or the Hungarian texts are not accessible for undereducated people. As early school leavers are significantly represented among prisoners – exactly because of the social inequalities we were going to discuss during the course – we prepared a reader containing the short Hungarian summaries of the most important social science texts on social inequalities in an accessible and clear language. We would like to say special thanks to Csaba Jelinek for his contribution to the compilation and editing of the reader. Among others, we included texts by Pierre Bourdieu, Loic Waquant, Iris Marion Young and Amartya Sen, and numerous Hungarian social scientists and people writing about poverty and social exclusion.
During the course we studied the following issues: social exclusion and oppression, labor, geographic and housing inequalities, school segregation, inequalities in access to knowledge and information, ethnic inequalities, prison and criminalization, gender inequalities, global inequalities as well as cultural and symbolic inequalities.
After the long preparation, we finally have started the course in April 2015. On average we had 12 to 15 participants each time, men between 25 and 65, with various social backgrounds. The prisoners in the Drug Prevention Quarter enjoy some advantages (open cells, community space) and in exchange they participate in different programs and pledge not to use any drugs. For many of them, this obligation has been an important motivation, but after a few weeks a team of 12 to-15 men formed with enthusiastic members who were eager to participate in the course.
The experience we gained has exceeded our expectations in every way. The participants were very interested in the course and played an active role from the beginning. Most of them read the homework texts and shared their opinion, debated, and posed more and more questions. The most challenging was to facilitate these discussions, as we tried not to limit the torrent of ideas and thoughts.
“As long as the representation of the individual’s interests depends on financial circumstances, we cannot speak about equality”. This was our starting point, written by one of the prisoners in his essay for the course. The method of starting from the participants’ personal experiences and then adding the points made in the readings in order to reach a more general conclusion worked very well. This methodology helped participants understand the most complicated socio-political contexts while their interest was constant. The operation of the neoliberal capitalist socio-economic system was summarized by one of the participants in the following way. “The upper class closes opportunities through exploiting the lower class, and emphasizing equal chances does exactly the opposite. Constantly subordinating the lower classes and ethnic minorities and through the self-serving use of their labor for the wealth of the upper class is an ongoing activity.”
The youngest participant was – very understandably – interested in the inequalities of the Hungarian educational system. He wrote about this topic in his final essay: “With an elementary school degree and constant financial problems, you have less chance for an honorable job… Getting into the different educational institutions is determined by your class, by your family background. The children of wealthy families will be more likely accepted by society than those coming from poor families. The ones from disadvantaged environments will have less credit, they will not be respected probably, they will not become bosses, leaders, but ranked to lower levels of the society.”
Based on Pierre Bourdieu’s text, one participant wrote the following on the inequalities reproduced through everyday habits, activities and cultural characteristics. “The spread of consumer goods symbolizes that we do not feel ourselves inferior… Consumption determines your position in the social hierarchy. Consuming is blinding and shameful for people at the same time. Your goods and lifestyle define your place in the social ranking. So the wealthier, upper class people’s lifestyle becomes the example and those who cannot follow these remain “ordinary” people.”
The following thoughts were inspired by Bourdieu , too. “(Earlier) I never thought about how our body plays a crucial role in our social status. The way we look also represents our social position, the kind of work we do, the kind of food we eat. Minor things say a lot about us to the world. The body that we shape represents our place in the hierarchy… Capitalism makes profit out of our adjustment to norms.”
And finally, one participant drew the following conclusion concerning the central question of the course: “Justice does not mean that we distribute our material and natural goods equally, but it concerns all fields of social life: how we speak to each other, how we behave, what kinds of decisions we make for the common interest and what kind of work we do. Oppression means disadvantages and injustice. It exists because of social inequalities. The fundament of equality would be placing the economic and political institutions, habits and cultures on the same level. Racism is present in most social institutions.”
Because of our approach based on critical pedagogy, we tried to remain open during the whole course concerning the methods we used and the literature we read. The very closed and segregated environment of the prison was a real pedagogic challenge, so we tried several teaching techniques. We leant that methods based on role plays worked especially well. Once we organized a so-called Oxford debate on gender inequalities, which was very popular among participants and was extremely useful to process the topic.
Concerning the content, it became clear quite soon that it is not enough to tall only about inequalities as it generated a lot of tension in the participants. To address this issue, we tried to bring additional readings about civil initiatives and civic actions reacting on the types of inequality we studied. Based on the following participant reaction, it seems to have been a good solution:
“Many times after the course I left very angry about how things are going in the world and in Hungary… Still, I would like to mention a positive example that touched me! A nurse raised her voice bravely on the situation of health care… I think there is a need for more initiatives of that type.”
Besides personal development, we hope that the course will have an important social impact as well, as participants become more conscious citizens. A democratic community can function well if its members have the opportunity to make well-funded decisions concerning their own life and the community. We hope that the training will support the more conscious social participation of trainees by introducing the social phenomena and processes affecting their lives. They could not learn about these correlations in the Hungarian public education system in a comprehensive and critical way. It is very promising that several of them said they would like to visit the School of Public Life after their release and participate in other courses as well as they would like to become more active citizens in the future.
For closing some feedback that made us very proud and that made us think that our training course has reached its goals:
“I watch the news on TV from a different perspective”
“Thank you for the opportunity to learn to see things clearly”
“The last 14 weeks presented new ideas for the participants on every occasion. Mondays grabbed us out of our everyday monotony, and led to discussions outside of the course that spiced up our everyday life.”
“Thank you for starting up my neurons!”
From September, 2015 we will continue the training course with the same group in cooperation with TASZ (the Hungarian Civil Liberty Union), concentrating on the topic of civil rights in theory and practice. We are very much looking forward to it!