Academic Prisons

One of the highlights at PET’s conference was the huge range of choice for attendees to take part in workshop discussions on research. Here you can read about contributions on international approaches, subjects ranging from philosophy and law, and working with different groups, such as young people or those with different learning needs.

Academics shared not just research but fascinating insights into what they had learned through running new partnerships with prisons, such as between Cambridge University and HMP Grendon where Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow talked about how everyone in their class, university students and prisoners alike had to overcome their preconceptions. They read through some powerful quotes from the group about ‘connectedness’ and how the students’ common interest, learning about criminology together, reduced stigma.

For both groups they said, the project “connected them with worlds outside their small boxes.”

Another project taking law students into prisons to offer a criminal clinic in Turkey, achieved similar results. Ezgi Taboglu said the project, which started in one woman’s prison in Istanbul and now works in five, aims to improve access to justice for prisoners. Over 9 weeks, prisoners learn about their legal rights in prison and post release, including property law and domestic violence. Women participants said during the process ‘we are treated as human beings’, ‘we have a voice’, ‘we are listened to’.

The project also has a positive impact on the students who said doing pro-bono work had made them more aware of their role in society and the experience had become better lawyers.

Teaching in prisons

Many speakers focused on their experiences teaching in prisons. HMP Pentonville tutor Jose Aguiar said his citizenship classes gave prisoners opportunities to be involved more in decisions, responsibility and a chance to work together to create positive communities within prisons. He says the three ‘Cs’ Co-operating, to Change our Communities is the cornerstone of citizenship. He was joined by ex-prisoner Steve, who was initially reticent about getting involved but soon enjoyed the classes. “It wasn't like school”, says Steve, “There was banter and debate, I got a buzz from it…It changed the way I think, I was a burden on society before, I like to think now I’m a citizen.”

Steve talked about the importance of having engaging, supportive staff who persevere with prisoners: “You’ve got to keep opening the door.”

Bridget Keehan drew on her experiences as an artist in residency in prisons to discuss how different instrumentalist and aesthetic approaches to theatre practice can help towards Creative Identities and support a rehabilitative Prison Culture.

She said using drama to work around specific issues such as family, drug issues looks at deficits while an aesthetic model highlights confidence-building and strengths.

Allowing prisoners to act out different roles helped them to empathise with the characters, to ‘imagine themselves into another embodied experience and take on a differential kind of being and physicality’ says Bridget.

It also offered the opportunity to experience identity as a process and not something that is fixed which fits desistance theory. Kirstine Szifris also discussed the findings of her investigation into philosophical dialogue classes in prisons. Based on the principles of Socratic dialogue, participants are encouraged to discuss and consider a range of philosophical topics in a safe, non-confrontational environment. Through discussion of topics such as Kant’s categorical imperative and Bentham’s utilitarianism, participants analysed the fundamental principles that lie behind our decisions. Findings from qualitative interviews indicate that such discussions provided participants with the opportunity to reflect on their own choices and behavior. They said that they could apply the philosophical ideas to their everyday lives.

Learning lessons from prison regimes

There is much that can be learned from this research that can improve current ways of working in prisons, such as the growing trend to recruit prisoners as peer mentors. Sophie Eser’s research into Peer Mentoring in two Category B prisons said there must be a balance between the benefits that men gain from taking on responsible roles within education and workshops against the pressures that come with such responsibility. While Caroline Lanskey’s project exploring the ‘ethics of caring’ amongst young people in custody found many examples of care – less education as students are frequently interrupted to go to other appointments, as learning is not seen as a priority in the secure estate. She described the benefits of ‘a caring approach’, in which care is woven into the lessons, through light conversations taking place between teachers and learners whilst learning was taking place.

PET’s Morwenna Bennallick presented on her ongoing research into the individual and cultural impact of distance learning in prisons. Learning from previous research which demonstrated the changeable nature of the ‘learning culture’ in prisons, she discussed how distance learning can pull together some important areas of desistance theory to provide opportunities for learners whilst in prison as well as on release.

This set the scene for the work she will be doing over the next two years to bring out the experiences of individual distance learners, communities of learners in prison and the wider prison culture.

Other workshops were delivered by Nancy Doyle on ‘Virtuous Circles and Working Memory: Combining synaesthesia, strategies and self awareness to spiral up from barriers to communication’ while Jason Warr discussed ‘From Disciplinary to Pedagogical Psychology: The need to shift ideology and practice’ and Anne Pike’s longitudinal study explored how distance-learning prisoners experience their first year after release, as they attempt to integrate back into society.

All presentations will be available on PET’s website later this year – watch this space for updates.