Andy West has taught philosophy in prisons since 2015. This the first thread of the story – it shows the world of prison through philosophical questions; and provokes philosophical questioning by showing the world of prison. Men who are locked up ask what freedom is. People serving indefinite sentences debate if time exists. Perpetrators try to define forgiveness. Men judged as guilty contemplate whether blame is a necessary concept. Incarcerated women wonder what feminism should look like. In a prison where young black men are over represented, the students consider if race is a fiction. Boys withdrawing from drug addiction enquire about the nature of desire. A man soon to be released from jail wants to know more about social contract theory. The jail setting makes the philosophical questions more urgent; and the philosophical discussions offer a level from which to see prison life most insightfully. As the reader learns about philosophy, they learn about prison; as the reader learns about prison they learn about philosophy.
The second thread is more personal and makes this people all the more extraordinary. In his childhood and throughout his life, Andy West’s dad, brother and uncle were in and out of prison – recurring and at times, serious criminals. Andy comes – and managed to escape from – a family of crime. Going to jail is the rite of passage he managed to evade and the initiation he never had. Working through his own conflicting feelings of innocence and guilt is the engine for the book’s deeper narrative.
He holds a BA in philosophy from the University of London and has written for 3AM, The Guardian, The Times Education Supplement, The Millions, Litro, Boundless and Bloomsbury. He lives in London and works for The Philosophy Foundation.