Blog: empowering the research community

18 Jun 2015

On the 9th June, PET welcomed academics from around the globe to the University of Cambridge for our second annual symposium, Academic Prisons. Morwenna Bennallick, PhD researcher for PET, who organised the event writes:

"The Prisons Research Centre at the Institute of Criminology is an international forerunner in research into the impact and experience of prisons, so we were delighted to be hosted by the team.

Professor Alison Liebling and  Dr Katherine Auty from the University of Cambridge, and Zhi Soon from the Behavioural Insights Team launched the event, as part of a panel discussing learning cultures in prison. Liebling, who leads the team that runs the MQPL, a survey that looks at the quality of prison life, said that ‘prisoners talk all the time of the ability of education to change their lives’. 

Speaking of the value of education she said: ‘It’s like food and water - I can’t imagine life without education and people not believing in its gross value’.

It is difficult to pick a highlight from the event as the presentations were so varied and of such a high standard. But the main themes that arose was the importance of engaging prisoner learners, pushing innovative practice and empowering the prisoner education research community.

Engaging Learner Voice

Including Learner Voice (hearing from learners directly) was an important part of the day and we heard from many current and former prisoners about what their experiences of learning in prison and what this has meant for them.

Stephen told us that it was a sense of survival (as well as boredom) that drove him first into education. He was determined to escape the ‘almost inevitable institutionalisation’ that he feared would come from a long sentence. But he soon began to realise that he ‘was capable of learning’ and soon became ‘not just a prisoner, but a student’ and has gone on to achieve two masters’ degrees.

Steve, who had taken part in Jose Aguiar’s citizenship programme whilst in HMP Pentonville spoke about his journey: ‘I was a burden on society before, I like to think now I’m a citizen’. The importance of engaged and engaging staff was made clear as he spoke of not giving up on an individual: ‘you’ve got to keep opening the door’.

We also heard from ‘inside’ students Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong (pictured far right with L-R Stephen and Baz Dreisinger and John Samuels) had supported on their Learning Together programme who spoke of the powerful impact of learning with professors and students from the University of Cambridge. One student stated that ‘Not only do I want to help people, I’m starting to believe that I can’ because of the ‘completely genuine example of normalisation that has taken place here’.

As he pertinently explained, ‘the more we feel like we are part of society, the more likely we are to continue to try and stay part of it’.

Innovative International programmes

They day brought together people working across the world on some groundbreaking programmes designed to connect prisoner learners to the world outside. We heard from Prof. Baz Dreisinger, who’s successful programme Prison to College Pipeline flips the idea of the school to prison pipeline on its head. Using a mixture of in prison teaching, holistic support on release and a guaranteed place at the City University of New York on release, the programme has been working with prisoner learners for the past four years. Central to the approach is seeing the purpose of prisoner education as outside of reducing reoffending. Baz stated that the discourse should be around improving access to education as a civil right.

We also heard from Assoc. Prof Helen Farley from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. Farley is responsible for pushing an agenda to improve the access to in-cell technologies for prisoner learners. Building from a pilot scheme which provided E-Readers for in-cell work, Farley is due to begin work to roll out the provision of netbooks for the students to continue on their distance learning projects.

‘Energetic’, ‘Inspiring’ and ‘Empowering’

The purpose of the event was not only to showcase ongoing academic work, but to bring researchers and practitioners with an interest in prisoner education together. It is important to continue this discussion so that we can highlight areas of great work, find gaps in knowledge and push for policy and research to become closely entwined. We will be continuing our annual events but will also be looking for ways to stay engaged in between these days.

We will be collating the work of the 2015 speakers to develop an online compendium from the event and will be developing a more formal academic network to keep the discussion as ‘energetic’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘empowering’ as delegates found it on the 9th June.

If you are interested in signing up to our academic network, please click HERE.