PUPiL Blog: Lessons from Learning Together in Latin America

This blog looks beyond the UK to Latin America. Doctors Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong, founders of Learning Together, tell us about what they have learned from visiting long-standing prison university partnerships in Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina.

The piece is also available in Spanish at the Learning Together blog site: https://learningtogethercambridge.wordpress.com/ 

Learning Together in Latin AmericaThis is a confession. We recently walked into a prison with our mobile phones, but committed no offence. In some prisons in Uruguay this is allowed. We signed them in with an officer on the Gate, and we signed them out when we left. We were able to take pictures as we spent time in the education block of the prison. There might have been no tarmac on the paths in the prison, and a barely water tight classroom, but there was a sense of progression and hope, at least in the education block. 

Communidad EducativaThis photo was taken on one of our phones. We handed it to one of the people held in the prison and he snapped us all, spending time together in the ‘Communidad Educativa’. Ever such a normal feeling, to meet people, to bond over shared interests and to take a picture to remember our time together. ‘Chicken Licken’ would be proud. We did something understood in our penal institutions as unacceptably risky - as criminal - and the sky did not fall down. We didn’t just get a nice photograph – we also learned that sometimes different ways of working and thinking can help to unseat the given wisdom from which you depart. 

This classroom is in ‘Unidad 4’, one of the two prisons in which we spent time in Uruguay, during a trip which also included visiting prison and university partnerships in New York, Mexico, and Argentina. The work in New York is impressive, varied and well publicised but is very much the (comparatively) new kid on the block. In Argentina, the University of Buenos Aires has been working in partnership with local prisons for over 32 years, with university buildings in three prisons, offering classes from 9am-5pm every day, supporting students through the syllabus of seven different degree courses. Teams of lecturers are bussed into the prisons every morning and afternoon. The university exists within the prison, to the extent possible, in much the same way as in the community.

 We did something understood in our penal institutions as unacceptably risky - as criminal - and the sky did not fall down.

In many ways, there are Latin American roots to our work, and Learning Together. Inspired by Freire’s ideas of education as the practice of freedom, we have sought to be methodologically rigorous in delivery and evaluation, pragmatically co-produced, experientially open, and politically engaged. In light of these origins, perhaps we should not have been so impacted by the very different starting point academics and criminal justice professionals take to partnership working in Argentina and Uruguay. In these countries, as is common across Latin America, access to higher education is a right, and it is free, for everyone, and for every degree. This has challenges for effective delivery, as well as some benefits for the point of departure in terms of institutional commitment to working together.

Learning Together in Latin AmericaWe spoke with higher education and criminal justice colleagues at a Ministry of Justice convened roundtable in Argentina, and at a Parliamentary meeting in Uruguay.  Unlike in the UK, we were not hearing either prisons or universities obliquely utter ‘but this isn’t really part of our job’. They understood partnership working and permeable institutional walls as core business. There was a shared understanding of education as a tool of both individual and social progress, and a commitment to state institutions playing their role in facilitating this. Headline concerns were not about risk factors and whether or not people leaving prison can safely form part of university communities, but rather whether, by delivering whole degree programmes in prison, prisons and universities might not fulfil their obligation to facilitate day release for people to actually come to universities to study. 

There was a shared understanding of education as a tool of both individual and social progress, and a commitment to state institutions playing their role in facilitating this.

We are painfully aware that much of the theoretical framework for Learning Together, and for our university and prison partnership practice, draws from a western Anglo-American scholarship and cultural context. This stands in contrast to the practice and politics of educational partnership working as it has grown in a rather different Latin American context. We are aware of many new interesting theoretical approaches to political criminology developing out of Latin America, and our visit has only enlivened our determination to practice our Spanish and take the time to read the literature from colleagues in this region. 

Learning Together in Latin AmericaWe feel traction when we talk of the importance of porousness between prisons and universities in the UK and America, but in Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay, the challenges felt different: if education is a right of all, how do you make it sufficiently bounded to deliver something that is individually responsive and enriching? If the concern of education becomes delivery rather than quality, is there a risk that the push for inclusion can create experiences that are ultimately unsatisfactory, substandard and thereby exclusionary? If you try to be everything to everyone do you risk being nothing to many? We like walking on tarmac, and we enjoy a classroom that is waterproof, but there were many aspects of this trip that helpfully unseated our ideas about the kinds of provision, educational and otherwise, that are the most important. Our visit made us realise anew the importance of learning together – sometimes different ways of working and thinking helpfully challenge the ‘given’ wisdom from which you consciously and unconsciously depart.

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 Morwenna.