PUPiL Blog: Through the looking glass. Re-imagining self through educational experiences in prison

My dissertation was looming and as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to base it on, I had an email from my lecturer Helen Nichols to advise me that I had landed a place on the PRisoN: Learning Together module (PLT).  This was when I realised that maybe this was a chance to develop a unique dissertation. So I decided to use my position as both a student and a researcher to write my dissertation on the experiences of my fellow Leeds Beckett students as they embarked on their journey. My original idea was to evaluate whether PLT could act as a successful reintegration ritual (using Shadd Maruna’s work on desistance) however once PLT had commenced and my interviews were underway, it became clear that something interesting was emerging.

The PRisoN Learning Together course is a 20 credit, Level 6 Penology module taught as part of the BA (Hons) Criminology and BA (Hons) Criminology with Psychology degrees at Leeds Beckett University. The module was taught at HMP Full Sutton drawing on both lecture and seminar styles of teaching to ensure that the teaching strategy mirrored that used on university campus. In addition to the module leaders (Drs Helen Nichols and Bill Davies), lectures were delivered by guest lecturers including Prof Alison Liebling, Dr Ben Crewe, Dr Rod Earl and Prof Nick Hardwick. My study looked specifically at the experiences of the students from Leeds Beckett.

 

Leeds Beckett LT

 

A clear majority of my participants disclosed an entire change in their career path, from the one they intended prior to PLT. One student said:  “It’s made me sure I don’t want to go down the law side of things”. Another stated: “I know now that I definitely don’t want to be a prison officer! It’s definitely made me realise that!” It seemed clear that substantial changes were occurring.     

There were evident crossovers with the experiences of these students and the key components of desistance theory.  As literature indicates, secondary desistance denotes an entire shift in one’s identity (McNeil and Schinkel, 2016). Bottoms and Shapland (2011) argue that because identity is a social construction, an individual must see a change in how other people see them as well as how they see themselves.   The Leeds Beckett students experienced a sustained change in themselves based on how they see themselves in the future and how other people (prison-based students) view them and their place in society (their career choice).    

The Leeds Beckett students experienced a sustained change in themselves based on how they see themselves in the future

Perhaps even more interesting was the reasoning that participants gave for changing their careers, the participants spoke in a way which suggested an entire shift in their thinking.  Statements such as: “I want to help them flourish as an individual and I’ve learnt that in that position I’m not going to be able to do that” and “I don’t want them to view me as just another person that locks them away, I want to help”.  I was able to link this to Cooley’s concept of the ‘looking-glass self’.  This concept theorises that self-reflection is not a solitary occurrence but rather a process which includes others (Karp and Yoels, 1979).  My findings displayed the participants’ own self-reflection has been a direct result of engaging with the prison-based students. 

Cooley states that there are three key stages of the ‘looking-glass self’ theory (Downey, 2015). Firstly, individuals envisage how they appear to others, secondly, individuals envisage what judgements are being made of them, based on how they appear (Reitzes, 1980).  Finally, individuals begin to imagine how others may feel about them based the judgements they have come to.  These three stages result in individuals changing their behaviour (Downey, 2015). 

There were evident crossovers with the experiences of these students and the key components of desistance theory. 

I directly linked the ‘looking-glass self’ stages to how my participants made changes to their career choices. The participants had chosen a desired career prior to PLT and this choice is how they imagine people will see them in the future (first stage). The participants then began to imagine that their original career path would be looked upon in a negative way and this could be argued to be the ‘judgements’ which are made (second stage). Through the positive social interaction with the prison-based students, the participants have considered how these judgements make the prisoners feel about them, due to the negative connotations associated with these positions within the prison (third stage). Consequently, the participants changed their career path, or, ‘behaviour’. The participants would not have developed such a change in their attitudes had it not been for the social interaction with the prison-based students.  As Cooley states: “Where there is no communication, there can be no nomenclature and no developed thought.” (Cooley, cited in Downey, 2015).

In terms of my professional career, PRisoN: Learning Together has completely changed my view on what I would like to do.

My own experience of PLT was very different to those who I interviewed.  I entered onto the PRisoN: Learning Together module with some very etched-in preconceptions and I never imagined that these could be changed.  As an older student and a mother of three, I anticipated that being around some offenders would be very difficult but PLT created an environment which enabled me to confront these views. I did struggle in the first few weeks of my PLT journey and I’m not afraid to admit that and when it came to interviewing my participants I realised that they were handling the experience in a much better way than I was. I thought with more life experience I would be better equipped to deal with this unique experience however this was not the case.  I did, over time, get over my hang ups and fully engaged with every member of our class without having moral arguments with myself. I have stayed in contact with one of our prison based-students and genuinely see him as a friend.  

In terms of my professional career, PRisoN: Learning Together has completely changed my view on what I would like to do. I expected once my undergraduate degree had finished that I would go on to work within the prison system in some degree.  However, seeing first-hand the complexities of how our prisoner communities live, I have now decided to continue with prison research by continuing my studies with Leeds Beckett University with a Criminology MSc with an ultimate goal of undertaking a PhD.      

All in all, short of having children, PLT has been the most live changing experience I have ever had and I have nothing butenvy for the next cohort of students!