Social Capital: Therapeutic communities and think tanks

26 Apr 2017

The governor of HMP Grendon says his prison is in many ways like a university, “but with less drugs and alcohol” as he shared the experience of building learning communities within the UK’s only therapeutic prison.

Speaking at PET’s Academic Symposium, on a panel exploring how education can create social capital, Jamie Bennett described the set-up of Grendon, which is made up of therapeutic ‘communities’ rather than ‘wings’ and in which men are referred to as ‘residents’ rather than ‘prisoners’.

Each resident helps make decisions about how their own community is run, making decisions that effect both their own and others’ lives - who can access what activities, what sanctions apply when a rule is broken and whether to support people applying for progression or release.

Residents also take on a voluntary job on behalf of their communities - anything from chairing a group, to organising social events to looking after the garden or fish tanks. They will host people from outside the prison, including making a meal twice a year for family members. 

In this way, said Bennett, Grendon is trying to create an environment where people were “practicing their responsibility not only for themselves but for one another”, building a “living learning environment” where psychotherapy is reinforced by the whole environment.

“Learning is not just about what happens in a classroom or an exam hall or what is produced in an assignment or a portfolio,” said Bennett. “It’s something more about social togetherness; being part of a shared experience.”

Grendon also gives its residents the chance to take part in activities such as attending lectures and joining societies – prompting Bennett to liken it to a more abstemious university. However, he noted that the period spent in Grendon (which usually comes at the end of a long sentence) was often the most difficult part of an individual’s journey through the prison system.

“They had explore very traumatic experiences in their own lives, as well as go through their offences and ask profound questions about the harm they have caused as well as the harm that’s been inflicted upon them,” Bennett said.

Bennett was joined on the panel by two representatives from the Inside/Out programme, who reflected on how the programme could create learning communities in prisons which can be further cultivated after a course’s completion.

Hannah King is the programme director for Inside/Out at Durham university, which was the first UK university to adopt the programme. She said the scheme aimed to “break down prejudices and barriers” by giving all students the opportunity to study together as equals, gaining the same university credits, with the ethos of “everybody is a teacher everybody is a learner”.

“Written and aural skills flourish as students finish the course equipped to engage in social citizenship with a keen sense of social justice,” she said.

To ensure that prisoners have the chance to continues this after the course’s completion, King has set up a think tank at HMP Frankland, through which prisoners who  have completed Inside/Out continue their work - delivering workshops for staff and designing courses to be peer delivered.

From the audience, former Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick asked about the value of allowing to participate in the courses. “How you can create the communities you’re describing if some of the people in the room are excluded?,” he asked.

King said that although she had had enquiries about staff taking part, they had decided it was not appropriate, due to the “don’t tell, don’t ask policy” which meant participants did not discuss the nature of someone’s offence. At HMP Frankland, which is a high security prison, they have actually had moved from having three prison officers stationed in the room to none at all. “It’s significantly more conducive for the students in that room to just be able to explore the topics together,” said King.  

King was joined by Caroline Chatwin from the University of Kent, who has just completed her second Inside /Out course at HMP Swaleside. She was helped by four of the original prisoner participants, who came back to act as teaching assistants. These men supported students with assessments, helped those who have personal confidence issues, and even helped teach the classes themselves.

“The role of the teaching assistants have been fantastic,” said Caroline. “They help with group dynamics by making everyone feel immediately at ease. They can also play a great role in kick-starting discussions when not everybody rushes to answer a question.”

Chatwin said she’d like to see former participants play a “greater and greater role” going forward, including potentially running taster sessions for smaller groups of students and helping to inform prison staff of what the programme involves.

The course has also had a profound impact on the students from Kent.  

Chatwin said: “Coming back on the bus with them, the buzz of the group was so powerful. You could have a lecture on prisons for a whole year and people just don’t get it, but just that one afternoon in the prison and the chance to meet people inside it can be life-changing for students.”

Read the rest of the panels from PET's 2017 Academic Symposium here.