From Grendon to graduation

28 Apr 2016

Students at one of the world’s most prestigious universities and the residents of a therapeutic prison would appear to have few similarities. But at a graduation ceremony held in Grendon prison, they shared common ground and a shared achievement.

For twelve weeks, men at HMP Grendon and criminology postgraduates at the University of Cambridge studied together as part of an initiative that aims to dismantle stereotypes and open up educational possibilities.

The Learning Together programme, devised by lecturers at the University of Cambridge, invites students and prisoners to study on equal terms, working together on criminology-related topics such as the legitimacy of power and the democratic voice.   

The graduation ceremony marked the completion of the second Learning Together course in Grendon, and a chance for students from all backgrounds to reflect on the experience. In his graduation speech last year, one prisoner learner from said taking part in the course had allowed him to unearth an identity beyond his crime. He said:

“For a large part of my sentence, ‘who I am’ has been entirely synonymous with the reasons I ended up in prison. Through the initiative, I was reminded of being someone other than the person who committed these offences.

“I am someone who has valid and useful opinions, I have an interest in how society works, and the connectedness we feel with the other people who we share this world with. I am developing a sense that not only do I want to help people – I am starting to believe I can.”

Another Grendon student, Zaheer, said: “[The course] gave me self-esteem and confidence in my own abilities […] Being able to put our past behind us and do something positive like this has helped our confidence, transforming our lives.”

Encouraging a shift away from a criminal identify and towards something more positive is a core part of desistance theory, and a key aim of the Learning Together programme. Dr Ruth Armstrong, who developed the initiative with her Cambridge colleague Dr Amy Ludlow, said encouraging this shift in identity is a key aim of the programme.


She said:

“The course overturns the assumptions of many prisoners that a university education is something that they will never be able to achieve, by highlighting their ability to handle complex subject matter on an equal footing with their Cambridge peers. 

“We show people in prison that they are not fixed and defined by their offending, but that there are avenues for them to progress. That’s a very powerful message.”

This message is just as potent for the Cambridge postgraduates, said Ludlow:

“The experience of studying with others profoundly affected the ways in which all students viewed themselves and thought about the future. Many of them talked to us about how, before Learning Together, their world views were small. Studying together, in dialogue, helped everyone to see how individual ideas and experiences interact with bigger institutions, histories and social forces.”

HMP Grendon’s Governor, Jamie Bennett, praised the scheme: “The therapeutic work of Grendon helps to explore and manage some of the profound traumas and problems experienced by the men in our care,” he said. “Whilst doing this, it is also important to offer opportunities in which they can discover and develop their talents. This course is an example of that.” Since the Learning Together course began in Grendon take up of higher education in the prison has doubled.

The Cambridge and Grendon collaboration part of a wave of partnerships that have formed between UK universities and prisons, and which is expanding into new institutions and to subject areas beyond criminology. Last month, PET’s Chief Executive Rod Clark was attended a graduation ceremony at Pentonville prison, where prisoners had been studying alongside students at Westminster University. 

PET warmly welcomes these initiatives. Rod said:

“Problems within prisons – safety concerns, overcrowding, limited access to classes – can make creating a healthy learning environment incredibly difficult. But prison/university collaborations help to achieve just that, offering tremendous benefits for people on both sides of the prison wall. They allow prisoners to recognise their potential and raise their ambitions and motivations, while giving university students new perspectives on criminological ideas.

“For those prisoners who are inspired to continue learning after the programme finishes, PET stands ready to support them with distance-learning courses they can undertake in prison.”

An article by Armstrong and Ludlow on the evaluation findings of the first Learning Together course in Grendon appeared in the latest edition of The Prison Service Journal.

Since this article was first published Gareth, quoted above, has been offered a place to study a master's in criminology at Cambridge University