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Morality Behind Bars

An Intervention Study on Fostering Moral Competence of Prisoners as a New Approach to Social Rehabilitation

Kay Hemmerling

Prisoners prefer moral ideals like justice and responsibility just as much as non-prisoners. However, they lack moral competence, which Georg Lind has defined as the ability to solve conflicts through deliberation and communication rather than through violence, deceit and power. The data of this experimentally designed intervention study show that imprisonment mostly makes things worse. It leads to a regression of moral competence. Further, these data show that – with appropriate training methods like the Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion (KMDD) – moral competence can be effectively and sustainably fostered. The KMDD lets participants learn to solve stressful morally dilemmatic moments with mutual respect, thinking and discussion – the keys to a non-delinquent life in society.


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His guilt [of the average criminal] lies in the contradiction of his actions to his own conscience. To make him aware of this contradiction is the first task of criminal ed- ucation. (Radbruch, 1993/1922, p. 72)i [The prisoner] must be put into circumstances where he will be able, through his own exertions, to continually better his own condition. A regulated self-interest must be brought into play, and made constantly operative. (American Correctional Asso- ciation, 1870, p. 1) A large number of recent surveys find that violence is correlated with low autono- my, unstable self-esteem, a high dependence on recognition by others, and limited competence in coping with conflict. Together, these correlated may well be inter- preted as subdimensions of low moral individualism. (...) The secular decline of le- thal violence occured when institutional structures and educational practices sup- ported stabilization of that type of individualized identity that is shaped to meet the challenges of modern life. (Eisner, 2003, p. 7) School education alone is not capable of awakening the sense of rightness in every- one. The sense must manifest itself directly, but by itself. The problem of justice re- appears in the life of a school community almost every day. A teacher only needs to provide the students with opportunities to fully experience what they live through every day, virtually every hour. He only needs to make them aware of their uncon- scious intuitions and together with the students think through, from the beginning to the end, what they know...

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