Prisoners rarely get tertiary lessons, let alone have undergraduates study alongside them, but the results can be profound. Helen Lock reports. March 15, 2018
HMP Isis is located in south-east London, not far from Goldsmiths. Although the university has plenty of experience teaching former inmates through its well-established Open Book programme, it started teaching inside prisons only last year, beginning with a successful 10-week pilot programme covering social sciences. The male inmates are all between 18 and 30, so they fall into the typical age range for students. However, they have a variety of prior education levels, to which the courses must be able to adapt. Learning alongside the prisoners are current students from Goldsmiths, taking extra credits or on access courses.
Thomas is very impressed by the response to the programme from her inmates. “They are avid learners, which has been very exciting to see,” she says. “I wanted to get something like this to happen because it’s aspirational – there tends to be a focus on vocational training in prisons, which is important, but this is something different.”
It is hard to overstate the genuinely transformative impact that the course seems to have had on the group. One of the speakers says that by taking part in the course he realised that everything could be questioned and that his opinion was important. Another found that, as a gay man, he identified with the writings of Michel Foucault, and observed that a discussion on the topic of sexuality had led to a shift in the wider group’s attitudes.
It is nothing new to find teachers and academics working inside prisons; various types of ad hoc education have been on offer to prisoners for years. But formal, university-led lessons such as the programme at Isis have developed only relatively recently in the UK, Clark says. The model that Goldsmiths is using – of undergraduate students learning alongside prisoners – was pioneered in 2014 by Durham University with its Inside/Out criminology module. The following year, the University of Cambridge launched a similar programme, called Learning Together.