21 July 2022
In this webinar, Professor John Vorhaus is joined by Andy West, for a conversation about his book, ‘The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy’.
Andy West is a teacher of philosophy in prisons and author of The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy.
The webinar began with a reading from Andy’s book, followed by a conversation between Andy and John, and then questions from the audience.
Andy read the following extract from Chapter Two, ‘Freedom’.
The men take their seats in the circle again.
I say, ‘The philosopher Epictetus was born into slavery, but he believed that on a fundamental level, he was still free. He said that chains constrained his body but not his ability to choose.’
‘You can still be free, in your mind,’ Wallace says.
I say, ‘Epictetus believed you could learn to be free by first understanding what you can and can’t control.’
‘Each night when the screws are coming around to lock our cells for the night, I close my door before the screw has the chance to,’ says Wallace.
‘For control?’ I ask.
‘The same reason I always finish a phone call a minute before the screws say we have to hang up,’ Wallace says.
‘What happens if you don’t?’ I ask.
‘I’ll do something I regret. A few years ago, I saw a man talking on the phone after the screw had told him to hang up. The officer put his finger on the receiver. If that happened to me, I know that I’d punch someone. So I never let myself get in that situation. I hang up early.’
‘Is that freedom?’ I say.
‘It keeps things simple,’ Wallace says.
Philosophy as human, and humanising
John asked Andy what he hoped to achieve through teaching philosophy in prison. For Andy, this work is not about teaching right from wrong. It is about recognising the lack of autonomy in prison, and the potential for philosophy to help retain at least some of it. It is also about his own intellectual curiosity; challenging and feeling challenged during discussions with learners.
Talking about his motivations, Andy said
I think it’s partly having family in prison and knowing how the prison setting really denies you any kind of subjective consciousness. It doesn’t really treat you as a thinking person. It treats you a bit more like cattle, in terms of telling you when to move, telling you when to eat, telling you when you can make a phone call, and when you can shower. I think philosophy is a wonderful subject for getting back in touch with your autonomy, even if it’s just on an intellectual level.
One participant at the webinar described this work as ‘human, and humanising’.
Philosophy as a tool for mental wellbeing
Asked about the role of philosophy in the mental wellbeing of prisoners, Andy mentioned Ataraxia, the Ancient Greek word meaning ‘freedom from anxiety’. Learners had been interested to learn that there are whole libraries of ancient wisdom about how to have good mental health.
Andy spoke about a prisoner who had spent a lot of time in solitary confinement and ‘wasn’t sure if he was in prison or in hell’. One day, he grudgingly admitted that he quite likes coming to philosophy. This was because, in Andy’s words
It reminds you that you have a mind. In the prison setting, there’s a sense that you’re cattle. Being reminded that you have a mind that can work and play with ideas, and explore, is fundamental to any kind of mental health survival in prison.
If a physical space is available that is conducive to learning, education generally enables prisoners to be learners, off the landings, somewhere else.
Philosophy as accessible, and enjoyable
The current focus on functional skills means that it is unusual to find philosophy being taught in prisons. Philosophy can be accessible to all. Andy says
I think a subject like philosophy has a very low floor but a high ceiling. You can come into a philosophical question no matter whether you finished school at 14 or if you’ve got a PhD. The question, ‘are you the same person you were seven years ago?’ is evocative. We just have an answer to it, and a good teacher will help you develop your reasoning around that.
Philosophy can get learners engaged in and enjoying education.
We’re having conversations, so you take an interest in the student, and wherever the student is that day, you can meet them where they are. Philosophy is wonderfully supple in that way.
Giving people in prison a pleasurable experience of education means a lot. There are a lot of people who have been excluded from school or certainly have an association of shame with education, of failure, of being humiliated by the system.
We are very grateful to our fantastic speakers and to the participants in the discussion.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023