Battles Against Hope

Andy West has been working with us in prisons since 2015 and his first book on this work is published by Picador in 2021. 

BATTLES AGAINST HOPE's first thread 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 these people all the more extraordinary. In his childhood and throughout his life, Andy West’s brother, uncle and estranged dad were in and out of prison. With support from teachers, his step-dad and a lot of luck, Andy has had a different kind of life. But working in prison he confronts his own sense of inherited guilt. His quest to become free of this guilt is the engine for the book’s deeper narrative.

You can read the article that set this book in motion on Unbound. Battles Against Hope.

Philosophy in prisons, a brief history

Much has been written about doing philosophy in prisons. In the UK most notably through the Guardian education series: Philosophy in Prisons by Alan Smith, who called it a day in 2013.

Jules Evans has also done philosophy in Low Moss prison. It was an eight-session course that introduced people to the ideas and life-philosophies of various ancient philosophers, including Socrates, the Stoics, Plato, Rumi, the Buddha, Jesus and Lao Tzu. He ran it in partnership with New College Lanarkshire, which runs the learning courses in west Scottish prisons, you can read about it on his Philosophy for Life blog. 

Kirstine Szifris, whose PhD is on philosophy in prisons, wrote an article on her work: Philosophy in Prisons: Opening Minds and Broadening Perspectives through philosophical dialogue. The Philosophy Foundation worked with Kirstine up in Manchester at Thorn Cross prison delivering weekly philosophy classes for a term in 2017 (funded by the Royal Institute of Philosophy). 

In 2016, King's College London’s Department of Philosophy piloted an 8-week philosophy course for prisoners at HMP Belmarsh. With the support of Professors Bill Brewer and MM McCabe, Mike Coxhead (PhD candidate and Visiting Research Fellow in the Department), Andy West (senior specialist at The Philosophy Foundation), and Andrea Fassolas (honorary therapist at the Guild of Psychotherapists) developed and delivered a course of discussion-based philosophy classes. Content included personal identity, freedom, time, scepticism, the ethics of belief, mental health, and topics in moral philosophy. Classes were delivered based around The Philosophy Foundation’s method of philosophical enquiry.

In 2017, two further courses were delivered: a re-run of the pilot course, and a new course designed specifically for ESOL learners. Funding has been provided by both the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the Evan Cornish Foundation. 

We were funded by the Royal Institute of Philosophy in 2018 to run a course at HMP Brixton, and have continued to work at HMP Belmarsh in 2018-19. 

You can read more about this work on King's College London website.