PUPiL Blog: Prison-University Partnerships: New Connections, New Possibilities, New Risks - Sarah Armstrong, University of Glasgow

What value do prison-university partnerships have for prisoners, prisons, universities and others? What concerns or unintended consequences do we need to keep an eye on?

By Sarah Armstrong, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research

Prison-university partnerships (PUPs) are flourishing across the UK, and the keynote talk I gave at the recent PET symposium offered an opportunity to reflect on them: Why are we seeing growth in these arrangements? What value do they have for prisoners, prisons, universities and others? What concerns or unintended consequences do we need to keep an eye on?

Sarah Armstrong

I would like make three arguments about PUPs. First, partnerships between prisons and universities are not new, but the contemporary language and models of partnership are. Second, PUPs can support transformative education in both prisons and universities, but they can also bring or mask problematic forms of education. Third, and finally, we need to give more attention to the institutional and structural dynamics of both prisons and universities to better understand the role, potential and risks of prison-university partnerships.

My comments are informed by developments in the UK and US  and most immediately reflect my experience of Scotland, where I am part of a Scottish Universities-Prisons Network and have been involved in academic reading groups that run in several prisons here.

We need to give more attention to the institutional and structural dynamics of both prisons and universities to better understand the role, potential and risks of prison-university partnerships.

 

While flattering myself that our project was part of a vanguard, I quickly learned that universities and colleges have long been involved in prison education, with the Open University of course offering access to undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses for nearly 50 years. Many prisons also have had longstanding relationships with local colleges and other organisations providing classes and training.

So is there anything new in the rise and range of PUPs across the UK (as well as the US)? One difference is the number of universities getting involved, and the fact that many schemes are led by individual academics running single university level classes or projects (as opposed to institutional level involvement as with the OU degree courses), often in criminology but certainly not only in this discipline. Research has yet to be done that systematically captures the reasons for this, but I know many colleagues are energised by a desire to counter both the punitivity and austerity that has reduced access and funding for prisoners’ education over the past 10-15 years. In addition, many are committed to the idea that universities have a community and social duty to widen access to higher education for those who are traditionally marginalised and excluded from such opportunities.

I know many colleagues are energised by a desire to counter both the punitivity and austerity that has reduced access and funding for prisoners’ education over the past 10-15 years.

The PUP initiatives range from reading groups, art making, philosophy courses, science labs, community development projects and much more. An important distinction of these contemporary PUPs is that many involve side by side learning of university-based students with those in prison, and these aim for an egalitarian learning experience where for the duration of the class meeting, all are simply students on a course. This model not only ‘delivers’ university-level education in a prison, but offers a means for students to encounter those in prison in non-abstract, non-demeaning and non-othering ways (as opposed to prison tours or book-based learning). This has benefits for all involved: prisoners come to see themselves as no different or less able than their non-imprisoned student colleagues; university students are able to see prisoners as fellow human beings with abilities, limitations and potential just like any other person. While the prison remains the underlying context of punishment for a past harm, the classroom provides a space to work towards a constructive and shared future.

This has benefits for all involved: prisoners come to see themselves as no different or less able than their non-imprisoned student colleagues; university students are able to see prisoners as fellow human beings with abilities, limitations and potential just like any other person.

I am convinced of the transformative potential of university involvement in prison education, but our experience in Scotland also exposes certain risks and less positive implications of PUPs. Many of these are a function of wider contexts and institutional forces, which are not visible in the highly positive evaluations and feedback we see at our local project levels. This includes the context of modern UK universities, which, like prisons,  have been seriously affected by austerity economics and a general trend towards managerialist performance frameworks. Such trends mean universities are incentivised to seek out partnerships with non-academic organisations as these can demonstrate real world impact and work towards university strategies to widen access and engage communities. But this can become instrumentalized and competitive (as in the monetary and reputational benefit associated with high scoring impact case studies and the limited range of funding available to support this work), undermining the altruistic ethos attributed to PUPs.

Sarah Armstrong

In addition, many PUPs also are dependent on free labour of academics running these projects on top of a full workload, and carried out by fixed contract staff or unpaid postgraduate students. Given the recent UK academic strike which raised issues about university reliance on casualised, precarious labour as well as preoccupation with a consumerist understanding of student satisfaction, we need to remain vigilant of PUPs becoming complicit in this. The satisfaction that we get out of this work should not displace secure employment and a livable wage. The sustainability of PUPs is always an issue – many schemes have no funding or only short-term pilot funding.

On the prison side, there has been substantial disinvestment in education. Before and after 2012, OU enrolment dropped 42% among prisoners in England, and 80% in Ireland. Scotland, despite increasing its OU numbers from 45 to 60 students in the past few years, still has far fewer prisoners able to access degree courses than other parts of the UK (0.5% compared to 1% of the prison population in England). Universities entering into partnerships in this period might be seen as a means of prisons offsetting losses to core budgets. Can PUPs, reaching relatively small numbers of prisoners adequately replace core education available to all prisoners?

The satisfaction that we get out of this work should not displace secure employment and a livable wage

Finally, in my talk I provocatively considered universities as having a ‘colonial’ relationship to prisons and prisoners. We come in already having decided what course we will run and often what prisoners we will work with (PUPs still are under engaging with short term and remand prisoners, women, and sexual offenders). We generally lack training or qualification in adult education. We do not have clear exit strategies about what happens when our project ends or how our work links to and can complement existing educational provision. And we can be drawn into to reinforce local power dynamics – in our reading groups prisoners have been barred from attending for disciplinary offences outside the group. I planted the colonial idea as a means of stimulating debate and vigilance about the workings of PUP. I absolutely believe in the value of universities engaging with prisons, but also feel strongly we cannot understand or direct their impact without attention to sustainability, penal power and public sector funding.