No easy choices in a philosopher’s work
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 03:02
Sleepless nights are in the nature of Sarah Tyson’s work. “I’ll wake up at night sometimes and think about people I know who have been sexually assaulted, and people I know who are in prison, and people I know who have been sexually assaulted in prison,” she said. “And it’s like, these are real lives. These are real human lives being shaped by these events.”
Tyson was studying women and the history of philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville when she took a class about philosophy on death row, where she read and discussed philosophy with the prison’s condemned. Just being able to walk out of the prison into the Tennessee sun was the turning point in her work. “In that time on death row, I was thinking that nobody should live like that,” she said.
Tyson was facing the dilemma of reconciling what feminist dogma had taught her was the solution to violent crime—lock up the bad guy and throw away the key—with what she had seen in prison, and her knowledge of the prevalence of sexual assault in the prisons themselves. “It seemed to me that we had a contradiction then, in that we’re relying on a system in which there is so much sexual assault, as an answer to sexual assault,” Tyson said. “It became a really pressing contradiction for me that I couldn’t live with.”
Today, Tyson is more sure than ever that the ‘lock them up’ mentality is not the way to solve the problem of rape. She’s presented and written on the subject multiple times in papers with titles like “The System Is The Same: Redressing Feminist Complicity With Mass Incarceration,” and “Mass Incarceration And The Construction Of Femininity.”
Tyson has been teaching at CU Denver since she answered the university’s search for a professor of feminist philosophy. Born in Los Angeles, she’d moved all around the country before she found herself on Nashville’s death row. “I’m really enjoying getting to know the university and getting to know the students here, and Denver,” she said.
In her class, Tyson makes a special effort to help writers who are struggling—a feeling she’s known all too well. “I really work in my classes to help students realize that they weren’t born a writer or not a writer,” she said. “I know the terrible, terrible feeling it can be to sit in a class and know a paper is coming, and to just think, ‘I am so in trouble.’”
Despite her efforts to find an alternative solution to prisons, Sarah Tyson knows there are no easy answers to the questions she faces. “Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I feel like people have been really willing to talk with me, and to engage my ideas, and to say ‘Well, if not prisons, how are we going to keep people safe?’ And that’s the hard work we have to do.”