“Will I have anything in common with them? Will they judge me because I’m a prisoner?”

Home > “Will I have anything in common with them? Will they judge me because I’m a prisoner?”

13 March 2019

Dr Morwenna Bennallick and Westminster students celebrating completing the course.

Last semester, Dr Serena Wright, Dr Morwenna Bennallick and PET’s Rosie Reynolds ran a partnership between three institutions: HMYOI Feltham, Royal Holloway University of London and the University of Westminster. In this article, Byron and Nicholas, two of the prison learners who took part in the ‘Contemporary Criminological and Social Issues’ module, share their experience.

Byron

The Learning Together course was very beneficial when it comes to engaging with higher education study. In this reflection I am going to reveal what my experience and personal journey was like throughout the course.

When I first heard about the Learning Together course, I was having a conversation with my English teacher. I was explaining to her that I was thinking about studying law once I leave prison, just to gain knowledge for a personal interest. I specifically wanted to learn about criminal law; this was when she began to inform me about the Learning Together course, which was based upon the study of criminology.

I thought that this would give me an insight into how law would play a part in criminology, so I agreed to take part in the course. When I hear the word ‘criminology’, I instantly think about the study of crime; I later learnt that there are several subjects that are linked with the study of criminology. I was motivated to take part in this course because I wanted to be surrounded by a different crowd of people.

Learning offers a positive identity to replace that of ‘offender’ with ‘student’. This has inspired me to take part in my own journey of desistance once I have been released from prison.

I was very apprehensive about the type of environment I would be in before I started Learning Together. 95% of the university students would have a different background, culture and upbringing to me, therefore we would have a different outlook on life. Will I have anything in common with them? Will they judge me because I’m a convicted prisoner? The only way to overcome this initial concern was to be the best version of myself and see what types of responses I received from each individual conversation I engaged in. I also needed to make sure I didn’t make any generalisations or judgements on people before I spoke to them, because this could tarnish the potential relationships I could have with other students or lecturers.

In my opinion, criminals are always portrayed in a bad light, which is frustrating because I could see myself as a decent guy, despite being involved in a life of crime before I served a prison sentence. Hopefully I was able to change people’s views and assumptions about criminals.

Studying law was the main reason why I wanted to take part in the course, as I was hoping that criminology would give me a head start for when I choose to attend university. I also feel like I can be shy in certain social situations, so I wanted Learning Together to help me improve my communication skills and confidence levels. In my opinion, criminals are always portrayed in a bad light, which is frustrating because I could see myself as a decent guy, despite being involved in a life of crime before I served a prison sentence. Hopefully I was able to change people’s views and assumptions about criminals.

The only way to overcome this initial concern was to be the best version of myself.

When I started the course I was very eager to delve in to the study of criminology. What actually is criminology? Is there more to it than just the study of crime? There were too many questions flowing through my mind, but I’m glad to say they were all answered throughout the course. It caught me by surprise when I learnt that there are various subjects incorporated within the study of criminology, like sociology and psychology. I remember thinking about how hard it would be to research these subjects without internet, but the lecturers and workbooks were always helpful.

This topic was easy for me to talk about as these things have been going on in my area, so I could easily relate.

In one lecture I learnt about how social media is having a profound impact on the way us young people think and behave. In recent years, Youtube has been a source for taunts directed at gang members, which has caused numerous deaths and stabbings. This topic was easy for me to talk about as these things have been going on in my area, so I could easily relate.

Prison education was the main lecture I was interested in. Since coming to prison, I have realised there are wide ranging benefits of prison education, including employability. One thing I’ll always remember from this lecture is ‘desistance theory’. This is the process of changing from a criminal to a normal civilian in the social world. There are a range of factors in a desistance journey, including social bonds, identities and the positive effects education in prison can have.

The good thing about us as humans is that we all look at things differently, so I really appreciate the fact that I could share this experience and learn from the university students in particular.

Learning offers a positive identity to replace that of ‘offender’ with ‘student’. This has inspired me to take part in my own journey of desistance once I have been released from prison.

I specifically liked the practical side of the lectures, because we were always able to express our own points and feelings. The good thing about us as humans is that we all look at things differently, so I really appreciate the fact that I could share this experience and learn from the university students in particular.

The subject matters were very diverse and different week in, week out. They targeted many backgrounds, but at the same time they were relevant to what’s going on in this day and age. I liked the fact that some subjects were easy to relate to or that I already had knowledge about and that others were more educating and taught me things I didn’t know. The readings were very useful because they always set us up for the following session.

I liked the fact that some subjects were easy to relate to or that I already had knowledge about and that others were more educating and taught me things I didn’t know.

Overall, Learning Together was an eye opening experience that I couldn’t have had anywhere else, so I would like to thank my English teacher, Annabel and the three main lecturers, Morwenna, Rosie and Serena.

Nicholas

This course provided the prisoners with a place where they could engage in more intellectual conversation and debates that we rarely get elsewhere in the prison.

It also created an environment where we could study at an equal level with university students. This was possible because neither the prisoners nor university students had studied the subjects before and we all got the same from the experience regarding accreditation. Although we didn’t get a formal qualification, we did get a certificate at the end.

I think that the structure of a three hour session is difficult when it comes to keeping people’s attention, but it’s also important to be able to do so.

I found the topics of the sessions really interesting, some more than others. For example, the session on homelessness taught me a thing that I would never have linked to homelessness – I did not know that living in hostile or violent accommodation could make someone legally homeless or the fact that if a person makes themselves homeless, including leaving a home that is hostile or violent, then they get less support from the government in terms of finding accommodation.

The other topics I found particularly interesting were on body image, music and its social effects and the different judicial systems, where I learnt about the differences between American and English judicial systems.

I think that the structure of a three hour session is difficult when it comes to keeping people’s attention, but it’s also important to be able to do so. Although at first it was a little off, a happy medium between lecturing, the break and discussion was quickly reached due to the weekly request from the lecturers for feedback.

The breaks provided an opportunity to rest and also to chat about an unrelated subject, for example, replacing the university students’ Hollywood perception of prison with a more realistic one.

Overall, I really enjoyed Learning Together and would not hesitate to take part in it again.

Want to set up your own partnership or get tips for an existing collaboration? Our PUPiL toolkit shares the what, how and why of prison-university partnerships. 

This is part of the PUPiL blog series. If you would like to respond to the points and issues raised in this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Rosie.

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