In my most vivid memory of jail, I am standing near the pay phones in Fairlea Women’s Prison, which used to be located on Yarra Bend Road in Fairfield, where the Melbourne Polytechnic is now. I am with my mother, who is dressed in prison blues and sneakers. In my memory, I am eight, but she claims I was nine. I look up at the concrete wall that looms above and around us.

I think: My mum’s in jail.

My mother is a scholarship recipient, a former secondary school teacher, and a compulsive reader. She is fluent in several languages and makes fun of people who misuse apostrophes. In Fairlea, she has been put to work in the garden.

It’s a Saturday and children under twelve are allowed free rein within the compound from nine in the morning till three-thirty in the afternoon, so long as they remain by their mother’s side. Adult visitors are limited to an hour sitting on the plastic chairs in the sparsely furnished visit centre, under the watchful eyes of the screws (a prison slang term I have recently learned and am proud to know).

I am cognitively too undeveloped to make the connection between my mother landing in prison and the series of afternoons I spent at Melbourne University some months earlier, when she took me to a quiet spot on the campus and told me to wait until she returned and speak to no one. Once I sat on a seat in a corridor of the Old Arts building, facing a fish tank. Another time, I waited on a bench in the shade of a tree near the South Lawn nursing the pup that our Jack Russell had just given birth to. It was the size of a guinea pig, with a bare belly and needle-sharp teeth.

Though I tried to do as I had been told, I couldn’t always rebuff the attempts by passing students to talk to me. When she came back, my mother grabbed me by the hand, and dragged me from the campus at a pace that shunted me out of the peaceful meditative state that an hour sitting idle had brought on.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I learned some of the stealing and fraud offences of which she was later convicted had taken place in 1991 at the University of Melbourne. I picture those afternoons on a split screen now: my mother sliding open office doors and riffling through handbags while I lifted up the mottled puppy for a passing young woman to exclaim, ‘Oh! It’s a dog!’

The Life Inside is a meditation on the meaning of prison by British philosopher Andy West. West’s first prison visit occurred when he was seven and his older brother Jason was doing time for drug-related offending. His father later also went to prison and his uncle was a ‘professional burglar’, in and out of jail for most of his life. West returned to prison as a philosophy teacher, visiting a range of British correctional centres to discuss truth, freedom, shame and kindness with men – and occasionally women – serving sentences ranging from a few months to the occasional IPP prisoner (Imprisoned for Public Protection – an indefinite sentence, potentially for life). His memoir explores confinement and punishment through the lens of philosophy, while relating the day-to-day cruelties and indignities suffered by prisoners and reflecting on his own early experiences of prison. He strives, with humour and compassion, to understand the phenomenon of prison and the impact it has on individuals: his students, his family members, the screws and his own younger self.

The long-term impact of exposure to prison life on a child is rarely discussed. The stigma can mean children dealing with a family member’s incarceration do not feel free to talk about it. They may not be told the truth about what has happened. Nor are they likely to see many cultural representations of themselves. While the majority of The Life Inside is dedicated to West’s experiences of prison as an adult and his students’ responses to the philosophy he teaches, he regularly circles back to his childhood, probing his early brushes with prison and tracing his lifelong preoccupation with the carceral back to ‘a room with lots of tables with big spaces between them’ where, at seven, he was first confronted with its reality. As an adolescent, West felt he shared in the guilt of his father, brother and uncle. As a young man, he went about life with an over-the-top scrupulous honesty and a mild paranoia stemming from the one-step-ahead-of-the-law lifestyle that some of his family members were living. West describes a ‘learned helplessness’ and a feeling that his own eventual incarceration was inevitable. While West’s feelings certainly resonate with my experiences, the dearth of literature on this subject means it is impossible to know how common they are among the children of prisoners. West feels that he carries an executioner in his head, ready to darken every moment, so that he ‘couldn’t stop anticipating how soon everything would be taken away from me.’ This creates a wall between him and other people, keeping him out of jail but not free, and we see him proceed through a series of transient romantic relationships, eventually attempting to explain his inner world to the woman he is seeing during COVID lockdown. Though he looks forward to a future with her, he finds it hard to accept her tenderness alongside the ‘inherited guilt’ he carries.

Philosophy offered West a way ‘to become uncondemned’ as he discovered the more nuanced interpretations of life it offered and became liberated from prison’s rigid dichotomisation of right and wrong. Descartes’ idea that all of life could be a dream captured the sense of unreality seeded in West by seeing his older brother in jail, but when he puts the proposition to a group of prisoners, one man declares, ‘I know I’m not in a dream because I never dream I’m in prison.’ Another replies, ‘You haven’t been here long enough.’ When preparing to deliver his first class, he strives to make the material accessible to men who, he imagines, may be illiterate or at least, uneducated. But his summary of the ideas of John Locke is interrupted by a student telling him he is mistaken.

‘Locke didn’t only care about memory.’ He points at my whiteboard. ‘It was more consciousness.’ Shortly afterwards, another student points out how Rousseau might disagree with Locke.

In the course of teaching, West hears the ideas he is explaining related to the everyday lives of the prisoners. A man picks up on the idea of finding a sense of freedom in understanding what you can and can’t control, sharing that he is always sure to hang up the phone receiver before a screw can interrupt him to tell him that his time is up. A woman says she does an intense workout in her cell every morning so that when the screws open the door, instead of seeing her waiting for them, ‘they’re gonna see me flying.’ A man resists the suggestion that it is possible to transform into a different person in one’s lifetime, pointing out that each time you come back to jail you are given the same number. Another comments that if Pierre-Simon Laplace is right and free will does not exist, then no one should be sent to prison. However, when West starts delivering classes to Vulnerable Prisoners (many of whom are sex offenders and are at risk from other prisoners), a screw says, ‘Philosophy? With those people? Those people are animals.’ Other screws respond to him tersely, as if he is wasting their time, or are so mired in the minutiae of procedures and paperwork, that they can’t answer a simple question. His classes do pique the interest of one of the security officers though, with the man admitting, ‘I’d love to hear what they think about the world’ after being plied with questions about the nature of freedom by a prisoner.

Although West’s brother and estranged father went to prison, it is his uncle Frank whose experiences of being inside take up most space in the book. Frank was first incarcerated as a fourteen-year-old, and later enjoyed a career as a burglar who prided himself on the fact that the police had a map of England up on their wall with pins designating all the sites where he and his colleagues had ‘done work’. He does not regret doing crime, but he does regret going ‘egging’ as a youth – destroying birds’ eggs and killing unborn birds when he could have just taken ‘a picture of the eggs with a camera’. During one of his stints in jail, day after day, Frank was made to dig holes eight-foot deep in soil that was ‘all fucking wet and clay’, only to be made to fill the holes back in. He tells Andy he survived by pretending to love the job and when pressed, insists ‘I loved it, Andy. I just used to pretend I loved it.’ The necessary lie seems to have been embraced so fully that it is indistinguishable from truth.

With his uncle Frank in mind, West discusses the story of Sisyphus with his students, telling them that Albert Camus viewed the man as a hero for choosing to be happy as he kept pushing the rock up the hill, his happiness an act of defiance of the gods. To this, a student responds, ‘I can imagine the boulder rolling down the hill and Sisyphus shouting across to the man on the next mountain pushing a boulder, “Fucking miserable, isn’t it? Camus has gone and told everyone I’m happy.”’

The philosopher Sam Harris, West tells his students, believes that we should almost always tell the truth, as a lie is a missed opportunity to deepen a connection. The class is punctuated by the boasts of a student who claims to have won the lottery, dated Miss Spain, won a medal fighting in Kosovo and written a song sung by Ed Sheeran. However, when the fibbing man contradicts West about a historical anecdote, his sense of reality is so destabilised that he rushes off to google the fact. The discussion of truth leads West back to his first taste of prison life, when his mother refused to acknowledge the truth of their situation, saying ‘Jason is away at work,’ even while driving towards the prison to see him.

The third time my mother goes to jail, she is once again released after a short period on remand. Back at our house on the edge of the Smythesdale Forest, she sits on the couch and cries into my chest. ‘No one believes me!’

Outside the loungeroom window, the world still looks the same. Our eleven-acre property with the driveway curving around the top dam. The two big gum trees between the dam and the house. But the world has changed completely. It has swung sideways into a nightmare where the police think she is a criminal and even our family don’t believe her.

‘I didn’t do it!’ she sobs. ‘I don’t know why they’re doing this. I don’t know why this is happening!’

West was preoccupied from an early age with the work of Franz Kafka (a preoccupation I recognise from my own adolescence). While Kafka’s work has been celebrated for its evocation of alienation and existential anxiety, it has also been used to focus attention on the human rights issues surrounding penal practices. While West feels an affinity with Kafka’s visions of nightmarish arbitrary condemnation, he worries that his fixation may be making the executioner in his head more powerful. In his youth, he recalls, he went away for a weekend with his girlfriend to a hotel with sex toys on the room service menu, only to spend the morning poring over Kafka. When they got back home, his girlfriend broke up with him.

Kafka reportedly had an abusive father, to whom West tells us he eventually confessed ‘my writing was all about you.’ For many of Kafka’s characters, as for West, it is always too late as the past has determined the future. West recalls a particular fascination with the short story, ‘In The Penal Colony’, in which a man has already had his fate determined by the time the story begins and faces execution by having the law he broke carved into his flesh repeatedly, until he bleeds to death. He has not been told his sentence and has had no opportunity to defend himself. A man identified only as ‘the Traveller’ is given a tour of the execution machine but does not feel free to express a view on the practice and limits his criticisms to minor details; the officers’ uniforms are too heavy for the tropics, he notices.

West is deeply ambivalent about prison and seeks to work within the system ‘while also wanting to tear it down’. The cynicism of the more hardened screws who tell him never to trust a prisoner is antithetical to his teaching ethos, which relies on treating the students as trustworthy. He has seen the prison population double since he first visited his brother inside, while the prisons remain the same size. Staff shortages mean there are screws as young as eighteen and lockdowns occur simply because there is an insufficient number of staff to run the prison securely. A lockdown means his class, which provides what one student calls a ‘two-hour holiday’, must be cancelled. Yet his students constantly argue that prisons are necessary and have to exist; that if they were closed, chaos would follow. West reflects that his brother, post-incarceration, has the same ‘almost offended response to abolitionism’, which he sees as ‘a denial of the kind of life he’s had’. The position West takes is not abolitionist or reformist. Rather, his narrative, episodic and at times absurd, exposes the barbarity and buffoonery of the prison system.

West sees his preoccupation with prison as something akin to survivors’ guilt. He recalls feeling there was something wrong with the fact he was allowed to leave the prison and his older brother was not, and as his mother drove away after one visit, he turned around, knelt on the seat and stared at the prison, unable to look away, despite his mother telling him to sit down and face the front. The experience so defines him that ‘living in the present would mean something like allowing myself out of jail.’

In 2009, I am escorted into Berrimah Prison. I am a junior solicitor with an Aboriginal legal service and it’s my first prison visit in decades. Talking to my client in the visit centre, an outdoor area covered by a metal shade structure, I can see the concrete wall looming around and above me and I feel the echo of a much younger self’s moment of surreal recognition.

With time, as a busy duty lawyer in the Darwin Magistrates Court, I find that the majority of people sentenced to prison are, in my assessment (and generally by their own admission), guilty. While the injustices associated with imprisonment are many, the story of prison as one big injustice slowly loses its hold over me.

West often hears prisoners defending prison as an effective deterrent against crime. While he disagrees with this as a socio-political position, philosophically, he can appreciate their acceptance. When West’s brother was in jail, he recalls:

I quickly became irritated by the mention of other countries that had more progressive ways of dealing with addiction and how they had less crime and fewer deaths. The days were more manageable if I told myself, ‘It is what it is.’ If I’d allowed myself to imagine a world where Jason could be getting the help he needed, I’d have been constantly furious. If another world was possible, I didn’t want to know about it.

When he hears a man arguing in favour of imprisonment, he finds his equanimity ‘beautiful’ despite knowing that ‘his story didn’t hold; prison is a lousy deterrent, especially for the type of crime he’d committed’. While the reader can sympathise with West’s reluctance to impose his own ideas on the prisoners, where does this leave the debate around prison abolition and reform? And what validity, one is tempted to ask, do reform and abolition movements have if their agendas are not co-opted by those most affected? Perhaps in his work as a philosophy teacher, West did not meet any prisoners who possessed a class consciousness and were active in the prison abolition or reform movements, but the absence of these voices risks making his misgivings about prison feel elitist.

West looks forward to leading a class discussion about race, but this does not eventuate due to the outbreak of COVID. By the end of the book, the pandemic has meant that many of his students have had their hearings postponed for months. His classes cannot be held, and prisoners are no longer able to receive visitors. One man who gets released feels he doesn’t know how to live in the outside world under lockdown, while everyone else has already adapted.

As a young adult struggling to understand my past, I located a fragment of memory. I am about four and at the bank with my mother, who is at the counter filling out a withdrawal slip. The bank teller hands her some bank notes and she folds them into her purse.

‘How come you can’t just sign someone else’s name and get out someone else’s money?’ I ask. The mores of the adult world are a mystery, but my mum is a teacher, and patient and thorough with her explanations. The teller smiles indulgently as my mother assures me that banks have tight security and signatures are difficult to forge. Now I imagine her lying in bed that night, a single mother wracked by worries about unpaid bills. I remember her checking behind the couch for dropped coins, trying to scrape together enough to buy bread. And I think about how my childish question must have resounded in her mind.

The squalid prison conditions that West describes in the UK are, if anything, surpassed in Australia, where the incarceration rate is the highest it has been in a century despite the crime rate going down in many categories of offence. In Australia, as in the UK, prison privatisation is making the criminalisation of citizens more and more profitable. The Pilbara’s Roebourne Regional Prison, which houses a mainly Indigenous prisoner population has still not been fitted with air-conditioning in a climate where temperatures can reach 50 degrees during the day (with overnight lows as high as 30). The treatment of young people like Dylan Voller focused public attention on conditions in prisons and youth detention centres, spearheading the #raisetheage campaign, a movement demanding that the age of criminal liability (currently ten and below the international average) be raised. The campaign has risen to prominence among community lawyer and activist circles but is not on the mainstream political agenda.

West portrays prison, for all those involved with it, as requiring a slow recovery. His sister-in-law, Laura, worked in prisons as a security officer and she and Jason are united by ‘shared recovery’ from the experience, albeit from different sides of the door. West tells us, ‘They both look back on their respective pasts with a sense of lost time and wasted potential.’ Yet Jason is not opposed to imprisonment as a sentencing practice. Does it perhaps take an outsider, like the Traveller in In The Penal Colony, to witness the minutiae of prison life, be in proximity to it, without participating in the system, to feel the full tragedy of the situation? And like the Traveller, West feels bound to maintain a polite veneer when dealing with the attendants of power, while keeping his innermost thoughts to himself.

For some readers, West’s evocation of prison life may be eye-opening; for others, much of his account will be familiar terrain. For someone who had childhood contact with prison, it is refreshing to see the experience engaged with in a serious manner. The book’s focus on the prisoners’ inner lives and West’s sidelining of the behaviour that led to their imprisonment is also a welcome change of pace from traditional conversations about prison. The most striking difference between West’s experience of prison and mine is the persistent sense of guilt he describes, having known from an early age about the crimes of his family members. For a child who grew up believing in her mother’s innocence, the legacy of the experience was the reverse – indignation and keen focus on the social justice aspects of the situation – which became warped and complicated by my eventual confrontation with the truth. The Life Inside is a memoir about prison that also serves as a deeply unconventional introduction to philosophy. For readers who haven’t been exposed to the prison system, it may provide some striking insights into this world. For those who have, it is a fascinating counterpoint to a highly personal experience that is rarely discussed.