PUPiL Blog: Making Links with British Convict Criminology

Natalie Ellis, a student from Westminster University, writes about her experience on the Making Links project, a partnership between British Convict Criminology at the University of Westminster and HMP Pentonville.This blog is part of the PUPiL network. Sign up here. 

During my studies I was fortunate enough to be involved on the British Convict Criminology ‘Making Links Programme` at Pentonville Prison. The project’s main concerns lie with offering support to prisoners through transformative education and provided both students and prisoners with an educational environment within the prison walls, in which we were able to explore aspects and key concepts of criminology.

Darke and Aresti (2016) state “There is a desperate shortage of educated prisoner and former prisoner voices within the discipline of criminology. This is the starting point of Convict Criminology (CC) ”. Convict Criminology first started in the USA and has now been brought to the UK through British Convict Criminology (BCC) with the aim to provide support to prisoners and ex-prisoners in establishing themselves as academics in criminology by utilising the collective knowledge and experiences of everyone involved to influence policy change and the wider perspective of prison life.

The Pentonville project incorporated BCC’s style and aims focused on “developing links between university students studying inside and outside prison”, “provide a learning environment in which prisoners and undergraduate (or in some programmes, postgraduate) students study on equal terms” and “to develop insider standpoint and knowledge in the discipline of criminology” (Darke and Aresti, 2016). By working on issues of crime collaboratively, there could be a change in the views of the community and by bringing together both prisoners and non-offenders, there could be great advantages such as learning about the detrimental effects of prison (for students), and the opportunity for education (for prisoners) which could in turn reduce recidivism rates.

There is a desperate shortage of educated prisoner and former prisoner voices within the discipline of criminology. This is the starting point of Convict Criminology

In terms of the Pentonville Making Links project, I believe the project undoubtedly achieved its aims. Prisoners and students enjoyed their time together and many important issues were raised in these classes. Inside and outside learners worked together on the key points they knew best, e.g. a student does not know first-hand how it is within prison walls and hearing accounts gave them greater understanding and vice versa for students who could explain the theories of various criminologists, such as Sykes’s (1958) model of deprivation and Becker’s (1963) ‘Outsiders’, to prisoners.

On the very first session I was a little apprehensive but very excited as I had never visited a prison before. We were given a tour and shown the education department where several of the prisoner students were studying maths, arts and English. This was intriguing to see as most people can only visualise what prisons and prisoners are like from movies and the news. I was personally surprised over how friendly all the prisoners were. Most were well into their adulthood and from challenging backgrounds which could be intimidating, however they were welcoming and eager to learn. This made me confident to be myself and I got surprised as to how comfortable I was in a prison environment.

I now recognise I would not have a true and complete understanding of crime, the criminal justice system and the discipline of criminology without the Making Links Project. Speaking to the prisoners at Pentonville gave me an understanding of something which can be difficult getting access to; true knowledge of life within the prison walls. Studying with each other gave both myself and the prisoner students the opportunity for the exchange of informative knowledge and helped with the understanding of any additional aspects that we may not have previously been exposed to.

I now recognise I would not have a true and complete understanding of crime, the criminal justice system and the discipline of criminology without the Making Links Project.

Convict criminology in particular was a relevant module I took with my university when working with the Making Links Project. In this module we learnt the basics of Convict Criminology and its influences on the study of crime. Convict Criminology is driven by former prisoners who are now academics along with non-academics. Former convicts argued “what was missing from contemporary writing and research was input from those who had been subject to incarceration” (Newbold & Ross, 2012). This programme adds to the theory of Convict Criminology, along with the discipline of criminology and study of crime, thus improving the connection and understanding between life outside prison and life on the inside. Taking part in this programme not only altered my own personal view of prison and prisoners but it reinforced for me the core value of convict criminology and transferred what was academic study into a practical reality where the skills I had learnt could be applied.

‘The project has impacted on the wider prison population and prison staff and reverberates around the whole prison. Importantly, the project has impacted on the perception of education itself for the men inside Pentonville.’

Dr. Andy Aresti, who co-run the course said ‘this project offers invaluable experience for students to learn beyond the books. Not only have we seen this help the students make sense of their degree and their careers but it also gives a voice to insiders.’ Jose Aguiar, from Pentonville, said the project was also impacting outside the prison classroom; ‘The project has impacted on the wider prison population and prison staff and reverberates around the whole prison. Importantly, the project has impacted on the perception of education itself for the men inside Pentonville.’

Every Wednesday when I arrived home and I shared my experiences with my family and friends, and most were shocked at the fact I walked around the prison wings. Gradually I started to find this normal and I was shocked by other’s reaction that it was not. I was able to learn a great deal about learning with people and from people who came from completely different backgrounds and had completely different ideas, and realised that most of them felt comfortable talking about sensitive topics around me. Much depends upon initiative and a lot is expected from you in this highly life changing role. I feel that this experience made me far more aware of the significant impact one role can have on an individual’s life and the project has really given me the incentive to make a difference.

 

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