I started doing the philosophy book group meetings at three upstate NY, mid level security, mens prisons in 2002. For three or four years I met with the groups a few times a year, always in the presence of a paid staff member from the facility, and the main order of business was a lecture on some assigned reading followed by a Question & Answer, followed by some discussion. I managed to scare up ten copies of the first text in question – The Trial and Death of Socrates – through libraries, distributed by the education coordinator for the system a few weeks before the meetings, and collected by me on the evenings of the meetings: an imperfect, seat-of-the-pants operation, run on a strictly volunteer basis (with no participation of my home institution then, Hamilton College). The first leap into a more regular, systematic schedule began in one of the prisons in which the librarian took over recruiting for and organizing the group in 2005. I then started volunteering in that prison only, meeting with my group every other week around the same times that other Hamilton faculty started volunteering to do other topics with other groups, and the college gave us an official budget line for book purchases (at around the same time that we volunteers had also gotten quite good at soliciting book donations from publishers). The librarian wanted the prison to keep the books on reserve for future book group use, but we faculty all felt strongly that it was more important to have the men own and be able to keep the books. Who won that battle? Hard to say — or rather it was a toss up – the librarian selectively repossessed a fair number of books, but many men have managed to have been able to keep their copies.
It was gratifying to have interesting adults tuned in to and eager to exploit my expertise. But in many ways it was more personally than philosophically interesting. In spring 2012 at the facility I’d been regularly meeting (in the library) we managed to convince the Deputy Superintendent of Programs to move the operation into the (prison) school building where we could meet as often as once a week, and with no supervising staff. The removal of staff turned out to have a huge, good effect on the group’s willingness to speak because – I learned – many of the men were afraid of the librarian, thought she engaged in favoritism, and did not in general trust her. From that point forward I began meeting with the group with no official institutional presence in a school building classroom down the hall from the nearest Correctional Officer, and also meeting weekly during the summer months. Finally we were working on philosophy together; we were doing philosophy together.