On Philosophy, Prison, Freedom and Shame
Andy West is Philosopher in Residence at HMP Pentonville, and the author of the frankly brilliant The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy, which is due out from Picador in February 2022.
Q: One of the reasons I’m interested in doing these interviews is I want to get a sense of what it means to do philosophy. So my first question is this: how did you get into philosophy? And what drives you as a philosopher?
When I was a kid and my brother was inside, it was painful to experience how flattening the narratives were around people in prison. I think experiencing stigma so intimately installed this fundamental sense that things are always more complex than they appear. I think that might have been my first taste of the philosophical instinct. I think it’s still the main thing that drives me today: the idea that the more space we make for complexity, the less space there will be for shame.
Q: Your book, The Life Inside, is incredibly rich. It is part memoir, part account of teaching in prisons, and part meditation on freedom, confinement, prison, guilt, contingency, and philosophy itself. If you could pin down the book’s central philosophical, or even existential, preoccupation, what would it be?
Shame. Books written by political prisoners like Edith Eger and Ahmet Altan tend to focus more on oppression, resistance, and surviving confinement. But I think there’s a different flavour to books like A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, by Stephen Reid or Redeemable, by Erwin James. Those men were convicted for serious crimes. Although they engage with the structural problem of prisons, they write to confront shame and to figure out if it’s a teacher or a tyrant. These are the writers I feel closer to.
A year into writing The Life Inside, I realised I was writing about the inherited shame and survivor shame of having family inside. For the next twelve months, I used the book to try to answer the big questions about shame: What is it? How does it feel? How does it shape a life? How do people let go of it? How do people live in spite of it?
Q: Your book is underpinned by a profound ambivalence about prisons and regimes of confinement…