Hope and the Politics of Belief: Some Thoughts on a Trip to Prison

An image of a cell door with a key in it

Through a series of interesting circumstances, I recently had the occasion to visit Lansing Correctional Facility, the oldest and largest prison in the state of Kansas. The purpose of my visit was multifaceted, but my part in the process was to bring a group of my own university students to participate in a college-level philosophy class taken by inmate students. The explicit goal was to provide both groups the chance to see how their different experiences might provide more nuanced perspectives on some introductory-level philosophical issues.

Although we did not intend to talk about the criminal justice system as one of our topics, the fact that that was the setting of our engagement was an undeniable part of our time together. Like several others in the group, I was aware of the literature on mass incarceration and the “school to pipeline” process that currently feeds the American prison system. While these models of incarceration are complex, what the evidence demonstrates is that factors largely outside of one’s control play a significant role in whether and how one experiences the corrections system. For instance, things such as race, gender, educational quality, and poverty are all determinants in the likelihood of arrest, the quality of one’s legal representation, whether one will be convicted, the length of one’s sentence, and recidivism rates.

Indeed, most of the prisoners with whom we interacted were keenly aware of these circumstances. One mentioned his abusive childhood; another pointed out the wild inconsistencies in sentencing between his crime and that of a friend with an identical offense. Others described their lack of opportunity as young people and the power of hindsight in helping them understand dynamics that, at the time, they could not anticipate or manage. Even though, again, our philosophical prompts were not specifically focused on the circumstances that led to their imprisonment, that was the road down which every conversation seemed to proceed. We talked at length about their inability to secure good jobs in their post-prison life because of the “felon” label, the fact that they could not vote,  and other casualties from which they would never recover no matter how much time they served or how hard they worked.

Despite their ability to point to the role of underprivilege and even overt discrimination in their experiences with society generally (and the corrections system more specifically), I was struck by how many of the inmates reversed this position when it came to generalized questions about choice and free will. The very same people who just minutes before were discussing the role that poverty played in their choices and mourning the fact that they could not return to a beloved career were insistent that just the opposite was true (“you can do anything at all if you work hard enough,” many told me) when the conversation became more abstract and detached.

I teach daily about the dynamics of systemic discrimination (and I also teach a relatively large number of students of color, many of whom have also experienced financial instability). I am also accustomed to hearing this double-take on social power. Indeed, it is often my most underprivileged students who are simultaneously the most insistent on their ability to overcome virtually insurmountable odds even as they are failing to master basic skills necessary for passing a college class.

Of course, what this inconsistency reveals is that those achievements we idealize are those most easily accessed by privileged people. But just as often, those who advocate on behalf of the underprivileged also endorse this vantage point to generate hope among disadvantaged populations. Although I have deep concerns about describing reality in less than honest terms, I can understand the allure of such narratives for the possibility that they may induce a degree of perseverance in the hearer that may not otherwise arise — perseverance necessary, in this case, to face the world again after having been removed from it for often decades at a time.

But what this situation revealed to me most of all is the very intriguing difference between what we think beliefs are and how they might actually operate. On this topic, I often find myself returning to my Edge colleague Craig Martin‘s pithy commentary that the most accurate way to describe the social function of our beliefs is to see them as statements on what we wish would happen, or what we think should happen, rather than a neutral description of reality. If beliefs were literally just “how we see the world” (as we often describe them), then we would have no problem sticking to them. If, for example,  I believed that “everything happens for a reason,” then according to this model of belief I would never experience disappointment since I would interpret nothing as truly disadvantageous.

Rather, what my very temporary trip to prison reinforced is that our beliefs — no matter who we are — are often statements that we make about the world that reflect more how we wish it would be rather than how it might actually be. My visit also reaffirmed that the contours of our beliefs are always political — that is, they are shaped by our own perceptions, desires, and frames — and that we don’t mind the inevitable inconsistencies so long as they serve the psychological or social functions for which they were designed.

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