(FR)Prisons, Peace, Intercultural Dialogue, and the Experience of Being Turned Inside Out

Those of us participating in UNESCO’s intercultural dialogue program get together in various parts of the world and discuss the nature of intercultural and interreligious dialogue. But how truly intercultural is this dialogue? Are those of us who participate in such attempts at dialogue truly from different cultures? It depends on what you mean by culture. I would imagine that most of us who participate in such attempts at dialogue have had similar advantages in life. One can engage in intercultural or transcultural dialogue within one’s culture that may entail a much greater confrontation with cultural difference than the activity of participating in a conference in intercultural dialogue – in say, Almaty or Baku - though you may be from Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan and I from the United States, half a world away. One environment in which this kind of intercultural or transcultural dialogue can take place is in prison.

In some of our UNESCO conferences, we have talked about the importance of “sustainable development.” Is it sustainable for leading powers to be imprisoning more and more of its citizens rather than to be addressing the root causes of crime? In the prisons of the state of Oregon, where I live and teach, nearly 80% of the inmates suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, a statistic that is inextricably linked to why these inmates find themselves incarcerated in the first place. The United States has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population. Almost 750 out of every 100,00 people in the United States are currently incarcerated. The United States leads the world in this category. Russia is a close second, with more than 700 out of every 100,00 people behind bars.

The high incarceration rate in the U.S is a peace issue. The Global Peace Index ranks countries around the world based on their perceived contribution to world peace. In 2012, the U.S. ranked 88th out of 158 possible rankings. This dismal ranking is due largely the incarceration rate in the United States. Our UNESCO Chair, through its three-year initiative on Prisons and Peace (2010-2013), aimed to raise the public consciousness of the scandal of mass incarceration in the United States and to lift America’s ranking in the Global Peace Index.

In winter of 2013, the UNESCO Chair in Transcultural Studies, Interreligious Dialogue and Peace at the University of Oregon culminated its three-year Prisons and Peace initiative with a conference on Prisons, Compassion, and Peace. The conference itself culminated in a stirring, unforgettable production by the Eugene Opera of Dead Man Walking, an adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s testimonial book about the death penalty in the United States which was made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in 1995. In Dead Man Walking,Sister Helen draws deeply on her faith tradition of Christianity, and Roman Catholicism in particular. In anticipation of the performances of Dead Man Walking by Eugene Opera, the UNESCO Chair organized a series of lectures viewing the death penalty from a variety of religious perspectives including Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu.

For those engaged in higher education, to venture inside the prison walls is to engage a population which has often been demonized and marginalized, and thus to increase the possibility of spreading compassion and peace in the world. Through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a number of faculty at the University of Oregon are now teaching courses inside prisons to a mix of college students and incarcerated men and women. The Inside-Out Program brings together students from very different environments for a transformative experience that is a paradigm for engaging in a dynamic dialogue across differences. The University of Oregon now has the most robust Inside-Out program in the world. For the past decade, I have been teaching courses on literature and ethics behind bars. My colleagues at Oregon have taught courses on a variety of subjects, including the conflicts in Northern Ireland and in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians.

Over one hundred instructors from institutions of higher education in thirty-seven of the fifty-one United States of America have taken the Inside-Out training. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (http://www.temple.edu/inside-out/) is taught in prisons in more than eleven of these states, and it has now expanded beyond the borders of the United States – to Canada and in England, for example. At the University of Oregon, students take Inside-Out class in conjunction with programs in Global Ethics and will be doing so, as well, as a way to fulfill course requirements for a certificate in transcultural competence. One of the things that makes our UNESCO Chair special is the way in which we have integrated prison work and peace work.

Prof. Steven SHANKMAN