Captive Audience

Alan Smith on the highs and lows of teaching philosophy in prison.


I began teaching in the prison in an offhand, unplanned way. There was a phone call from someone my wife knew asking me to step in for a teacher who was going on leave. Could I do a couple of hours with a class who were studying Hamlet? And I strolled into a fourteen year stretch. I’m not sure how it came about, but one day I mentioned that I was not actually an English graduate. “Oh really?” Jean said, Jean was the Education Manager, “what did you do then?” There is still something in me that is a bit reserved about this. I only did philosophy because it was the most obscure and useless thing on offer. When I was a kid in Sheffield in the fifties and sixties I lived in a heartland of common sense: what you needed was a good trade, security, your feet on the ground – you needed to know what was what. It was a dull deadening narrative that I hated and then, when UCAS came around, I applied for philosophy. Philosophy. It was a sort of insult, skyborn, head in the clouds. It was useless and, as everyone pointed out, would get me nowhere. Good.

“You did philosophy did you?” Jean was saying now, eyes gleaming with the romance of it all. “I’ve always thought that we should have a philosophy course here in the prison.” Of course it had only just occurred to her, but Gwen and Helen were in the staff room egging her on. Gwen wanted to make sure that I would have some takers and so she went off and spent the next couple of weeks selecting and recruiting. She found most of these students up on D Wing. It was the obvious place to look. D Wing was a little bit more steady, quieter than the other residential parts of the prison. We called it the Lifer Wing, but it was in fact for men whose sentences were longer than seven years.

Philosophy in the prison was a bit of a leap in the dark. “They’ll love it,” Gwen kept on saying. Gwen, after donkey’s years with these guys really did believe in their goodness. “He just wants his mum really,” was a typical remark for her to make when some shaven headed eighteen stoner had shuffled off, pouting, after one of her bollockings. So I shuffled off, myself, to get philosophy launched on the sea of scepticism that I was sure awaited me.

The first group she produced for me was overwhelming. Ahmed, a man I already knew from my literature class was there, but along with him he had brought Simon, Shayne and Bernard. They strolled in and, in their various ways, took me to pieces. They opened up a part of my life where I gave my class in the morning and then went to bed in the afternoon. Most of the guys were as unsure as me about what was going to happen. Philosophy: it did have a bit of a ring to it, especially doing it in prison; it sounded rather wise, stately, a little bit superior. It didn’t take long for us to leave that kind of nonsense behind. Shayne, direct as ever, got us started, “Come on then Al what’s it all about, philosophy? How would you define it?” I was tempted to ask him, “What do you mean, definition?” but some merciful instinct for self-preservation stopped me. They didn’t want some clever undergraduate posturing, these guys wanted an answer they could get a grip on right here and now, so I told them a bit about the Socratic method, the method of the idiot child. “You know,” I told them, “when some daft kid keeps on asking, why? why?” Yes, they knew about that. “Well, that’s all that philosophy is. Philosophers just ask why.”

There was a certain amount of storm to weather. “Is that it then? Is that all there is to it?”

“Well yes,” I said, suddenly fearful that they would walk out on me and leave me to face Jean and Gwen with the ruin that I had made of their bright idea.

Time went by and I settled down with a regular group of men, mostly from D Wing. People came and went, though, as sentences ended and new guys were shipped in, and this meant that there were quite regular crises as philosophy virgins were seduced into our strange ways. Philosophy attracted men who had long sentences to serve, and they brought into class the hard faced generosity that gets them through the years. They said things that frightened me to death. Shayne on abortion: “If we could turn back the years, Sim, wouldn’t it be better, knowing as we do now that you were going to turn out to be a murdering nut-case who’s been nothing but a drain on society, wouldn’t aborting you have been a good idea?” Dear God, I thought, head in hands, he’s gone too far this time. I ought to have warned him about all the trouble that Socrates was landed in by philosophy. But these guys were neighbours on the wing. They smiled at each other. Sometimes, less often now, I got a bad time for being a weakling. It was usually to do with my problems with authority.

“For God’s sake Al will you use your authority and sort these bastards out.”

“I have no authority, I repudiate it, I spit on authority.”

“Don’t start all that shit,” Simon would tell me, knowing my game.

“Right,” said Shayne, brusquely, “come on let’s get on with this.”

“I’ll read this next bit shall I?” said Simon. I would shrug and away we would go.

Shayne was a real asset; he just kept on asking the obvious questions that no one else would ask for fear of looking stupid. He knows nothing. Or does he? Were his questions just a bit too good naturedly naïve? I promised myself to get someone to have a peak in his pad where I suspect there were walls full of Philosophy books. “Hold on,” he said, playing the devious Yorkshire simpleton, “what’s metaphysics then?” Before I could tumble into his trap Bernard turned to him and treated us all to a lucid, delightful explanation. Bernard was the youngest by far and got terrible stick, but I suspected that he has just done himself a power of good. “Right, okay,” Shayne said nodding gently into Bernard’s beaming face.

We had been talking about aesthetics, and I started to realise that philosophy had the potential to create all kinds of perils. Aesthetics led us on to censorship, and one week we had been reading J M Coetzee on taking offence. Coetzee suggests that taking offence is a transaction where the powerful and the powerless exchange roles and potencies. Far too late it dawned on me that making this explicit could get one or two of the more idealistic guys into trouble back on the wings where shifts in power, suspected or real, could have swift and devastating consequences. “Now don’t try this at home,” I kept on saying, panic mounting as I wished more and more that I had stuck to epistemology or philosophy of mind.

Fortunately I had Ahmed and Simon in the class. These were the steadiest men you could hope to meet, both well into their second decade of imprisonment. Men I admired. Both of them scholars who put me to shame. They tried out the idea, tried its fit into various contexts: apartheid South Africa, family, prison. Shayne, who had really taken a shine to my version of Socratic method harried them into explanations, forced the occasional pursed lipped concession. They watched me struggle to get a word in and smiled as they saw my temper going and language deteriorating. I was so unpleasant in one session that I brought in a bag of sweets by way of apology. They were not impressed. “He only bought these,” Ahmed pointed out, without a hint of a thank you, “because he was such a right bastard last time.”

I hadn’t met Simon before the philosophy classes started. Before we could begin with philosophy there were things he had to get straight. He started me off with some conventional politics, some remarks about New Labour and then we were into the history of the Labour Party, trades unions and their relationship with Marxism. Somehow we’d drifted into Darwin and scientific method before I realised that he was interviewing me. He was a slightly built blond haired guy, and he sat there with his flask of tea in our shabby classroom wondering if he would award me a fellowship at the Oxbridge college he obviously ran.

Simon taught me how and when to go onto the attack. If I hadn’t gone for him, he wouldn’t have stayed in the class. This was quite a complicated interview. I not only had to know more than him but I also had to say upfront when I didn’t. But, not submissively. “Well, I don’t know anything about that, Simon, but what I do know is that your way of presenting that particular case is just not good enough, feeble minded even. Just think will you, just for once in your life?” Mostly the teaching life is a life of restraint and understanding; with Simon there were wonderful moments when I could just let fly.

Mo would say: “That’s a bit harsh Al.”

And I would say: “Well, fuck it,” and away we went.

Simon was absolutely determined to be himself and, to be honest, it could be a bit wearing. There would be heart stopping moments when, in a room where there were half a dozen drugs offenders, he would say:

“Anyone who deals smack is just a fucking scumbag and anyone who does smack is just a fucking moron.” A quick look around at the faces, “Alright?” There was some bleak part of him that didn’t care. I often found myself defending people against him, or perhaps I was defending Simon from the reprisals, which, to me, looked likely. Someone, inevitably someone a lot bigger than Simon, might mention God. “You fucking moron,” Simon would remark, venomously, “only a fucking moron would believe in God.” Or some similar opening gambit.

“That’s a bit harsh Sim,” Ahmed would say which would prompt me into a way of finding a way through the storm of emotion that Simon had generated.

“That you see is the sort of emotional response that first order distinctions can generate. When Simon explodes like that, philosophy wants to pull him back into something rather more cold-blooded.”

“Yeah,” Simon would say, “fuckin right.” And away we would go again.

We were a small group, and mostly we institutionalised Simon’s enthusiasm, although I sometimes felt a bit anxious, even panic stricken, at the way things were going. It was difficult for newcomers, but then quite often Simon himself took them in hand. There were close conversations during the break or while I was doing the register.

“You can’t come in her taking offence” I heard him say. With philosophy you have to leave your feelings at the door. It’s special, alright, so just forget about your ego.” I glanced up and gave him a bit of a look. Cheeky bastard, I thought.

“Simon,” Shayne said, dead pan, “is entirely without ego.”

I realised, too, that who was in the class was not entirely up to me. There was a certain amount of vetting and selecting going on up on the wings. When Steve first came to philosophy he sat there, quietly taking us in. He had come down from the lifer wing with Jason and I suppose that the guys had auditioned, and then recruited him for the class. They were pretty choosy about who came into philosophy and made short work of anyone who wasn’t up to their high standards. It was nice of them, I think, to be as delicate as they were about my feelings, leaving intact, for me and for the management, the illusion that I was in charge. Out in the corridor at tea break I heard Steve telling his pal: “Yeah, its philosophy, man, we were talking about Spider shit.” (No, don’t ask.).

Simon grabbed him. “Just keep your fucking trap shut about this, alright? Best kept secret in the prison, this class. We don’t want the fuckin riff-raff coming in.” It was the most enormous compliment and I still cling to it. Even so he could be a bit trying.

I think that my classes in the prison took me back to being the innocent working class kid stumbling into the unreal glamour of philosophy. Prison is, after all, an overwhelmingly working class environment, and perhaps this is why I felt so at home there. It is also a place where men who cannot read or write can argue the toss about Aristotle or Sartre with men who are halfway through an OU degree. As Beefy once remarked: “There’s no place like jail.”

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Alan Smith teaches at the University of Northampton and, until recently, in one of Her Majesty's Prisons. He has recently completed a prison memoir for which he is seeking a publisher.