What happens when students from universities and prisons learn together?

by Drs Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow

24 Jul 2015

This week the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove M.P., Secretary of State for Justice, called for a renewed focus on the value of education in prisons. He said, “We must be more demanding of our prisons, and more demanding of offenders, making those who run our prisons both more autonomous and more accountable while also giving prisoners new opportunities by expecting them to engage seriously and purposefully in education and work.”

The British Academy is supporting the implementation and evaluation of a course called Learning Together that brings together students from Cambridge and serving prisoners to study.

In his speech Michael Gove called on wider society to play its part. Universities are one part of society’s public education system that could have an important role in supporting people’s journeys towards a life beyond crime. What’s more, we think that in playing such a role, Universities have much to gain.

This academic year we piloted an initiative whereby 12 students from the University of Cambridge studied a short course in criminology alongside 12 prisoners. There were readings to complete each week. There was a lecture component where leading academics in the field taught the students. There were supervision groups of four or five students supported by an academic supervisor, and there was a final essay to write in order to graduate.

It was a demanding course for the students, and for the staff. As academics, we had to think hard about how we delivered masters level criminological material in a way that was accessible without diminishing the content. Our students had to prepare for each class by reading two papers that were challenging and then discuss the ideas they encountered in light of their own experiences.

Courses such as Learning Together are not entirely new. Many of the founding fathers of criminology in the UK began their careers participating in experiential learning initiatives. In the 1950s and 1960s Max Grunhut ran the ‘Crime-a-Challenge’ society at the University of Oxford. Members of the Society regularly entertained local borstal boys with tea and scones in their Oxford college rooms. Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms explained how the borstal boys were impressed by the Oxford students’ demonstrations of how they escaped from and returned to their colleges after hours by scaling the perimeter wall.

Professor Nigel Walker took this further. He realised that he knew little of the people in prisons who were the subjects of his penological expertise, so he organised classes for his Oxford students in HMPs Grendon and Oxford. Later, as Director of the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge, he organised classes in HMP Bedford. In his memoirs he writes that he found it ‘shocking’ that anyone could gain a criminological education without ever interacting with someone convicted of a criminal offence. Classes in prisons were not voyeuristic exercises, but a chance for people in very different circumstances to come together, to learn together and to get to know one another.

Regrettably, these learning practices largely ended with Professor Nigel Walker’s tenure at the University of Cambridge. Meanwhile, over the last twenty years, ‘Inside-Out’ education initiatives have become widespread across universities in the USA. One recent innovation at John Jay College, Central University of New York, has extended the idea beyond delivering courses for students in prison, to providing accredited classes within prison as the beginnings of a guaranteed admission and qualification for any prisoner who is released from prison and wants to continue their education. In this way, the ‘Prison to College Pipeline’, run by Baz Dreisinger, seeks to reverse the so-called ‘school to prison pipeline’, where low educational achievement and exclusion all too often becomes a pathway to incarceration.

We are writing this blog on a flight to Philadelphia, where we will undertake the training course run by ‘Inside-Out’ in the USA for tertiary educators considering running this kind of initiative in the USA. While we are aware that the higher education and prisons contexts in the UK are very different, we are looking forward to learning from their experiences.

We were thrilled to hear Michael Gove prioritising education for those who may struggle to access it, because we have witnessed our students come to life as they have engaged with ideas through engaging with each other. We have also witnessed the vitality brought to our University Department by the renewed enthusiasm of staff and students involved in Learning Together for their broader teaching and learning within the University. We ourselves have felt enlivened as we have realised how important it is for research to have an impact not just ON society but also IN society. Our impact might not be judged simply in terms of WHAT we do, but also with WHOM we do it. Who we study with shapes the contours of our learning. This prompts important reflections for higher education institutions about how, and through whom, we serve society.

When students from universities and prisons study together it makes us all realise that the distances between us are smaller than we imagine, that the potential we all possess is liberated in encounter with each other, and that the ideas we study have life and power beyond books. It makes us see the possibilities for doing good in the world through and with connectedness and knowledge. When we learn together we realise we are more together.

We will continue this blog as we learn from our colleagues in the USA this week – from Lori Pompa the Founder and Director of ‘Inside-Out’ at Temple University, and from the Think Tank of prisoners at Graterford maximum security prison. We hope to use these experiences to reflect upon how we can respond to Michael Gove’s call to make education a tool for social justice, perhaps by creating communities of learning within and between universities and prisons in the UK.

Ruth Armstrong is a British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Criminology. Together with Dr Amy Ludlow she is the co-founder and director of ‘Learning Together’, a course where students from the University of Cambridge study alongside students currently serving time in prison.

She studied an undergraduate degree in Law with American Law at the University of Nottingham and the University of Texas. Her post-graduate studies at the University of Cambridge examined life after release from prison in the USA, focussing particularly on the role of faith and faith communities. Her Ph.D. was awarded the Nigel Walker Prize in Criminology. Her first post-doctoral study, funded by the ESRC ‘Transforming Social Sciences’ grant was a team ethnography of two high security prisons in England, entitled ‘Locating Trust in a Climate of Fear: Religion, Moral Status, Prisoner Leadership and Risk in High Security Prisons’.

Ruth is currently contributing from this study to a book entitled ‘Prisons and the Problem of Trust’.  Her British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellowship supports the implementation and evaluation of ‘Learning Together’, particularly focussing on how perceptions of others, self and potential futures develop when people who often live in separate spheres are brought together to learn.

Read more by Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow:

Learning Together Unwired

Learning Together and Improbable Friendship

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