Long Read: Technology and Public Sector Prisons

This week we bring you a long read, an essay written by one of our fantastic Learning Together students, currently resident in prison, who prefers to remain anonymous. 

‘Does the reluctance to introduce new forms of technology to improve prisoner interaction with the outside world protect society or place it at risk?’

As a life sentence prisoner, who has spent over thirteen years in the English prison system, my experience of recent technological advances in society has been limited; but limited only to an extent, because some of those technologies have nevertheless found their way into prisons. These include mobile phones, Smart phones, Wi-Fi enabled devices, USB sticks, SD cards, readers, and various other technologies. Such items are banned in prisons and, in my opinion, for good reason; their misuse can lead to chaos, violence and even fatalities. They also have a detrimental effect on rehabilitation and pose a risk to the public. Yet although prison authorities have been engaged in an ongoing battle to find and confiscate unauthorised technologies (15,000 mobile phones and SIM cards were confiscated in English and Welsh prisons in 2017, equivalent to one for every six prisoners), their influx and proliferation in some prisons has been so relentless that some governors appear to have given up hope of complete eradication and have settled on managing the situation. This suggests that, despite the best efforts of governors and staff, physical security measures alone cannot win the battle.

In order to regain some control over unauthorised technology, I believe part of the solution lies in investing in more technology, albeit in secure and authorised forms. However, before meaningful change can happen, it will first require a fundamental shift in the mind-set of those with strategic oversight of public-sector prisons. In attempting to illustrate these points and encourage people to think more creatively about how technology might be used in prisons and its potential benefits and outcomes, I propose to share some thoughts in answer to the following five questions:

  1. Why are our prisons full of phones and other unauthorised technologies?
  2. What are the costs and consequences of unauthorised technology?
  3. What are the possible solutions?
  4. What might be the outcome of fewer phones and other unauthorised technologies?
  5. What might be the outcome of new and improved technology?
  • Conclusion
  1. Why are our prisons full of phones and other unauthorised technologies?

Compared to the revolution in IT that has taken place in society, when it comes to technological upgrades in public-sector prisons (which hold about 75% of the prison population), very little has changed. The same landline phone-boxes, which have been in place for the previous twenty years, have not even changed appearance, let alone seen a reduction in call charges. At 11p per minute, they are probably the costliest in the UK (Calls to mobile phones cost approximately 69p per minute). With the weekly wage for prisoners averaging at £8 per week, there are genuine limits to how far this can go when using prison facilities. Video conference technology is used in some prisons but solely for official procedures. An intranet system (called Virtual Campus) exists for distance learning and resettlement purposes but is greatly limited in content and relevance; and while someone can email a prisoner using an authorized email service (which is still received by the prisoner on paper printouts), there is no provision to email back in the vast majority of prisons.

Ever aware of the technological advances in society and the lower prices that accompany it, prisoners have relentlessly campaigned over the years, via different forums (i.e. prisoner councils, rep meetings), to prison governors for access to better and cheaper communication services (for domestic and legal purposes), facilities for viewing and ordering approved items, and internet access for research and educational purposes, etc. These are not just personal desires; they are officially encouraged because of the rehabilitative effects that result from, for example, strong family ties and engaging in education. Yet the pace of progress has been painstakingly slow or even in retreat in some respects. Prison service officials are wary of technology and have become extremely reluctant to offer any more than that which already exists.

And there are valid reasons for this refusal to provide better resources. Prison ministers and governors are fearful that any technology which allows prisoners access to the internet or direct contact with the public will be somehow compromised or circumvented, resulting in a security breach or, much worse, a serious crime. What could be worse than introducing a new piece of technology and it being used by a prisoner to contact a victim or commit an offence, an incident that could attract a mocking headline from a newspaper like the Daily Mail? So, the disparity between the rapid advancement of technology in society and its highly moderated existence in prisons is based largely on reluctance from HMPPS and the MoJ, reluctance that itself is grounded in fear, fear that something might go wrong. After all, the primary function of a prison is to protect the public.

However, although limiting the application of technology in prisons seems like a perfectly sensible approach, I believe that this approach is in fact a central part of the problem underpinning many of the issues effecting today’s prison system, hindering progress on many fronts. Further still, that it created some of those issues in the first place. For example, as ICT advanced in society it inevitably surpassed the comparative forms of communication in prisons; during this period, however, prison facilities were left to effectively degrade into outdated and overpriced services (reaching a point where they could no longer interrelate with modern forms of communication in society). The ensuing imbalance that developed between internal and external technology thus had a counterproductive outcome: it created a gap in the market, rationalised the motive for filling it and helped advance the situation we have today. (For the purpose of this piece, I will define and label the motives of those who mostly or solely seek to use technology for legal purposes (even though they may break prison rules to achieve this) as ‘legitimate.’)

On the other hand, there will always be those in prisons with their own reasons for wanting to use unauthorised technology, irrespective of the motives defined above. These are drug dealers and organised criminals (and, to a lesser extent, drug users and other criminals). Mobile phones and other technologies have become indispensable to those who continue criminal activity in prison because they help make their operations (smuggling and trading illegal substances) easier and, more importantly, harder to detect. For this reason, drug dealers are now the main players in many of the tech-smuggling operations taking place in prisons across the nation. That said, although determined individuals and criminals groups will often seek to exploit weaknesses in systems, the flaws that exist in our prisons (those that enable them to smuggle and trade colossal amounts of drugs) have been handed to them on a plate. (For those who seek to obtain technology to commit further offences, including drug users (although both groups may have some legitimate aims) I will define and label their motives as ‘illegitimate.’) 

Although the above groups are collectively responsible for sustaining the influx and propagation of unauthorised technology in prisons, their motives for doing so are varied and not necessarily based on bad intentions. Nevertheless, despite the security measures in place to prevent contraband entering prisons, whether it is smuggled through visits or receptions, thrown over walls or fences, flown in by drones, brought in by staff, or transferred between establishments by prisoners, the main reasons they are full of phones and other technologies are overwhelmingly because of the objectives of both groups described above, made possible by poorly conceived policies on prison technology.

Additional considerations:

As previously defined, there are two separate groups of prisoners who sustain the influx and proliferation of unauthorised technology in the prison system, those with mostly or solely legitimate motives and those with mostly or solely illegitimate motives. An important detail worthy of note, however, is that neither group exists in isolation. To varying degrees, individuals from both groups rely on each other and interact on a daily basis, forming tech-networks in prisons which are perceptible to prisoners but highly obscure to prison authorities. This observation and distinction between prisoners’ motives is important because their ultimate separation could be one of the keys to a safer and more manageable prison population.

Another important consideration (although less central to this piece) is the distinctions between the prisoners who sit within the group of those with motives defined as illegitimate. Within this group there are two main categories: those who sell drugs for profit and those who purchase them for personal use. The inter-dependency that exists between these two sub-groups is incredibly strong because of the ‘wealth and power’ that can attained from the sale of drugs and the ‘control and influence’ of addiction itself. That is why, where technology is concerned, drug users are vital components for drug dealers in their smuggling and concealment strategies. Their inter-dependency is also why it remains a very difficult affiliation to break. So although it is a relationship which is not the primary focus of this piece, if the link between the legitimate and illegitimate groups can be broken, it would have a detrimental effect on the relationship between drug suppliers and drug users within the illegitimate group. Nevertheless, when talking about the link between the two main groups, the focus will largely be on the inter-dependency that has developed between those with legitimate motives and those in the illegitimate group minus the drug users.

Before moving on to possible solutions, it might be worth considering an example of how someone with legitimate aims might come to be dependent on criminal links (and vice versa) and subsequently drawn into a network that is not only damaging for the world in which they live, but potentially detrimental to the needs they are seeking to address in the first place. Such insights are necessary if we are to examine how parallel relationships can be deterred. A common example of how inter-dependency can occur is when the standard pressures of family life (maintaining a relationship and/or remaining in contact with your children so you can nurture them as they grow) arise. These pressures, constrained by the limited funds to spend on antiquated prison pay-phones and lacking any other authorized means, are often enough to tempt someone to seek out alternative solutions to fulfil their needs. And so, in order to achieve this, the easiest solution, because of availability and convenience, is to request a call from an associate or criminal entity, or maybe even acquire a mobile phone for personal use.

Like drug addiction, on experiencing the benefits, the individual with initial legitimate aims may start to become reliant and perhaps unwittingly begin to support the motives of a lender with criminal intent, possibly by agreeing to ‘look after’ (hide) the phone to obtain a free but regular call with family. In seeking to alleviate the pressures of family life or service some other legitimate need, the individual inadvertently buys into a subversive network, becomes more protective and secretive about it (including criminal networks or individuals) and, as a result, protects it from disruption by already stretched security measures. As the means to satisfy the need is now provided by a fellow prisoner and, evidently, not the state, the psychology of ‘Us and Them’ starts to play a more influential role. The criminal- or tech-network then has a more sympathetic or reliant component that ensures its longevity. So whether the purpose is to make a phone call to mum, send a photograph to your children or view the clothing range on a Hugo Boss website, these interactions occur on a daily basis, countless times across the prison system, sustaining thousands of tech-networks that have far reaching consequences.

2. What are the costs and consequences of unauthorised technology? 

Pre-mobile phones, all phone calls and contacts with the outside world were routinely monitored and recorded by prison phone systems, enabling a range of checks and balances to be applied. This not only allowed prison authorities to safeguard the public or deter the arrangement of contraband entering the system, it provided a means to capture anti-social or risk-related behaviour and, if necessary, apply additional safety measures or arrange interventions in the form of offending behaviour work. The arrival of mobile phones and other technologies in prisons have now rendered almost pointless one of the most important apparatus for protecting the public and ensuring the safety of staff and residents.

With mobile phones and other technologies at the disposal of almost every prisoner in the system, it is now possible to make unlimited, unmonitored calls or carry out illegal activities with near impunity. This includes small, medium and large-scale drug dealing, drug and phone smuggling, financial transactions, witness intimidation, victim harassment, downloading and/or viewing illegal or extremist material, and bullying and intimidation of fellow prisoners, to name just a few. Mobile phones have also made it possible to continue running, from a prison cell, criminal operations in the community, or (as has previously happened) order ‘hits’ on members of the public. Many deaths have also occurred in prisons as a result of ‘Spice’, the psychoactive substance that has flooded the prison system. The above is merely the tip of the iceberg, but it does highlight how unauthorised technology has not only become a communication, security-void option for virtually the entire population of the prison system, it has also enabled criminals, criminal networks and even extremism to grow in strength as a result. And it all comes down to the simple fact that prisoners, not the state, now own the better forms of communication with the outside world.

There are also wider costs to consider. While prisons are full of unauthorised technology, the chaos and resulting distractions are such that programmes for rehabilitating prisoners have a diminished affect. The violence and drugs, as well as the mind-altering material that is available on the internet (whether political, ideological, religious, etc.), are either psychologically damaging or absorb headspace to such an extent that less room is available for treatment and personal development. Without a solution, while prisoners retain access to unauthorised technology, to the extent that they currently do, the battle against the revolving door of crime will never achieve the outcomes that society deserves.

3. What are the possible solutions?  

At present, current methods for detecting and blocking the signals of mobile phones are not working as intended. Phone signal-blocking equipment is unusable where houses circle the perimeter of a prison (a common layout) and contacting a network provider to disconnect the number of a mobile phone which ‘might’ belong to a prisoner can only be attempted if the number is known (which is pointless, in any case, given the available number of SIM cards in the prison system). Relying on intelligence from the general prison population is limited because, as explored, it is counterproductive towards their legitimate aims. New technologies for detection and prevention will certainly come along but the arms race will continue because equivalent advances in technology will be used to evade or defeat the latest detection and prevention methods. One manufacturer of mobile phones has even developed a tiny phone called ‘Beat the Boss,’ a clever reference to a chair that has been designed to detect phones hidden inside someone’s body when they sit on it. The phone is thought to render the chairs useless.

Therefore, rather than relying on an arms race that might never be won, in order to retake control of the situation and provide a safe and decent environment where prison service objectives can be met, HMPPS and the MoJ need to alter their approach to the application of technology. The only response with any prospect of improving outcomes is to provide a range of up-to-date and adequate technologies that satisfy the legitimate needs of mainstream prisoners across England & Wales. With the right technologies, the vast majority of prisoners with legitimate needs (and some of those with less legitimate objectives) could be drawn away from unauthorised tech. This is not about making life more comfortable for prisoners, it is about striking a more pragmatic balance between prisons and society so that the public can be protected against the less-friendly forces of the prison system while allowing prison authorities to regain an element of control so that prisoners can be rehabilitated and safely reintroduced to society at the end of their sentence.

Some of the areas in prison communications and internal/external interaction that need addressing are listed below, along with some ideas and implications. The suggested list, however, is not exhaustive, since the possibilities of technology and innovation are limitless and beyond the technical knowledge of the author. Besides, I propose that it is for government (in collaboration with prisoner focus groups) to work with industries (particularly around communications and internet access) to develop technological solutions, solutions that are safe, relevant and meet the needs of prisoners.

  • In-cell phones, with affordable rates. If rewiring is too costly, as has previously been suggested, create a wireless system and link it to its own monitoring and recording facility, or provide prisoners with their own secure hand-held sets (for use in-cell).
  • An Intranet System, into which the full content of a vetted website can be uploaded. This would provide access to a sites full content while restricting free access to the rest of the internet.
  • An App or Software that can be accessed via a desktop computer or laptop and which enables restricted access (by use of algorithms) to the internet. Programmed to enable access to ‘safe sites’, those that aid rehabilitation and personal development. For example, allowing full access to The Open University’s student homepage and forums. This would open up access to a far broader range of subjects, rather than restricting prisoners (even those in Category D prisons) to the meagre prospectus for closed environments.
  • A Two-way e-mail service, rather than the current one-way set-up. Outgoing emails could be verified prior to dispatch by censors. This would enable a swift but recordable message for legal or other official purposes. Just like with phone numbers, the recipients of the e-mail service would first need to consent to the link.
  • Multi-service, digital kiosks on every prison wing or fitted in every cell. These kiosks could enable prisoners to order their own item form catalogue suppliers, items on the canteen list, toiletries and prison issue clothing from the stores, or check their own finances without having to make thousands of pointless journeys to the staff office or waste paper in the process. All could be forwarded digitally to the business hub or the relevant department for processing and keeping records. The efficiency savings on staff time and finances would be immense.
  • Alternatively, or in addition, Secured laptops could be provided which enable some of the above procedures to be carried out. They could be connected to a wireless system that routinely channelled into security and monitoring systems.
  • Access to a Secure and commissioned website to upload personal photographs and view those of family and other approved persons. A facility like this would enable prisoners to share memorable moments with their loved ones and retain something tangible for the future. Currently for prisoners, it is either use a mobile phone or have a non-existent history to share with your children or grandchildren. Such a facility could be designed so that only those approved can gain access.

Many of these systems and facilitates could be interlinked. For example, an upgraded phone system, email service, restricted internet access and ordering/application systems could be part of the same apparatus. However, as previously mentioned, the possibilities with technology are unlimited and the above are merely suggested alternatives ideas that encapsulate aims and objectives in prisoners’ lives that can currently be accomplished to a far better degree by using unauthorised technology.

4. What might be the outcomes of fewer phones and other tech in the prison system?

Unfortunately, there will always be those who seek to engage in criminal activities in prisons (because the state, for example, cannot service the needs of someone seeking to earn a hundred thousand pounds through selling drugs), but, fortunately, these people are fewer in number than the vast majority of prisoners who, I believe, would move away from prohibited technology if the facilities were available for them to satisfy their existing, legitimate needs.

If this can be achieved, a revolution will gradually develop within our prisons. As people start to rely on the new technologies to meet their needs, they will naturally move away from unauthorised items. After all, there is a price to pay for getting caught with a mobile phone (The maximum penalty is two years in prison) or other technologies, so the costs will start to outweigh the benefits. Similarly, individuals who use phones for both illegitimate and legitimate purposes will reconsider their wider needs if more of their core, legitimate needs are being satisfactorily met. Dissonance will also start to increase in the minds of those who sit somewhere in the middle, and many will begin to choose the safer option. Besides, as well as the risks, it takes significant effort to smuggle unauthorised technologies into prisons, which includes reliable links to external resources.

A natural consequence would be an overall reduction in the number of phones within the prison system. Since a large number of individuals, who may have previously considered crossing the threshold (to smuggle in or purchase a phone), would no longer feel the need to partake in the tech-network, demand will drop. With fewer customers, or incentive for smugglers, the value of phones (currently around £500 to £1000 per Smart phone, depending on prison) will also decline, having a further effect on perceptions of risk-reward for individuals who play a role in smuggling phones into the system for cash, drugs or personal reasons.

With fewer people willing to use and hold phones, the individuals with enduring illegitimate motives will be exposed to more pressure from their communities, since they will feel isolated due to having less customers, associates or neighbours prepared to look after their phones. Similarly, with fewer phones in existence, those with illegitimate motives will also be more vulnerable to detection by security measures and intelligence from fellow prisoners, since security resources will go further and previous associates will no longer feel the need to be loyal. The lack of availability will also mean that if a phone gets discovered or runs out of credit, it will no longer be easy to just pop next door and, for example, use the neighbour’s phone to arrange for a new delivery or buy a top-up from a service provider. There will also be a natural drop in other technologies in the system, like dongles, USB sticks, SD cards, and whatever else may arrive in future, all technologies that enable the circumvention of prison rules and rehabilitative interventions.

With fewer phones, the amount of illegal substances entering prisons will also be reduced and should have a positive influence for the people fighting addiction. Although drug addiction is a complex issue that requires more than one solution, if the means by which drugs entering the system are adversely effected, it can only have a positive outcome. That said, drug users are not just customers for drug dealers; they are also their work horses. Their dependency due to their addiction cannot be understated and, whether through debt or threats of violence (linked to debt), their uses expand the full range when it comes to the influx, use and spread of unauthorised technology. Yet their ability to feed their addictions and assist drug smuggling networks will be affected. Not only will there be less phones for them to transfer money from, say, a friend’s or girlfriend’s bank account to a proxy account set up by a drug dealer, the increased contact they will receive with family (via authorised technologies) will improve family ties (positive influences, etc.) and discourage their addiction-related behaviours.

5. What might be the outcomes of new and improved technology?

As people shift to more appropriate methods of communication, anyone looking to return to more inappropriate means will find it harder to locate, forcing them to rely on the authorised forms of communication which are monitored and recorded by censors and security. This will be one of the most significant outcomes of providing more up-to-date and affordable means of communication. The standard security measures in place to protect the public will be put to full effect and assist in curtailing crime and risk-related behaviour.

With new and better forms of technology rolled out across the prison system, outcomes in education (whether provided by the State or offered by Distance Learning providers) and interventions (Offending Behaviour Programmes, Therapy, PIPES, Progression Regimes, etc.) will be enhanced. With less chaos, drugs and distractions, people will be able to focus on their short-term and long-term goals more effectively. Another important outcome will be familiarisation. For the individuals serving long sentences, the current lack of interaction with modern forms of technology (particularly digitalised self-service facilities) means that under current conditions they are leaving prison and entering a world that is almost foreign. With the best intentions in the world, the transition from a prisoner to a citizen can be a difficult one to make, so up-to-date tech would enable prisoners to familiarised themselves with the IT and self-service systems, smoothing the eventual reintegration process and helping people to succeed on the first time round, rather than on the second or third attempt.


This paper has argued that the disparity between the growth of technology in society and its restricted use inside prisons has distorted progress, led to more crime and places society at continued risk. Moreover, successive governments have unwittingly allowed the situation to develop because of fears that something might go wrong if technologies were to rolled out across the system.

However, in order to win the battle over the imbalance in tech-ownership, governments of the day need to collaborate with industries to develop technological solutions that provide access to better and more affordable facilities that meet the legitimate needs of the prison population. If this could be achieved, those committing serious crime can be isolated, identified and curtailed. In addition, the individuals who are serious about changing their lives around and engaging fully in the rehabilitation process will be able to do so without distraction, and perhaps then the revolving door of crime can be slowed to a more manageable and inexpensive pace.

Finally, as technology continues to advance in society, no doubt more advanced forms of communication will appear on the market. Therefore, if there was to be an implementation of better technology in prisons, it would need constant revision to make sure current technologies are up-to-date and able to interact/communicate effectively with external forms, as well as meet the needs of prisoners. An initial outlay would be needed, but the returns would massively outweigh the investment. The current cost of crime to the British taxpayer is astronomical, so the savings would not only reduce the burden on public finances, it would, if people left prison as better human beings, be socially beneficial too.

Our first Learning Together alumni event

Our first Learning Together alumni event took place in Cambridge on 10 September 2018. It has been a long time in the making. My name is Jack and I am the Learning Together Cambridge course coordinator. My colleague, Gareth Evans, Learning Together alumni and mentoring coordinator, and I had the pleasure of organising the event. In this blog post, I wanted to share some of my reflections of the day, as well as explaining how we got to this point, what we are working on together, and where we are going next.

Both Gareth and I are proud Learning Together alumni from early Learning Together courses in HMP Grendon. From the first course in HMP Grendon, Learning Together Cambridge has now grown to 9 courses, delivered across our three partner sites – HMPs Grendon, Warren Hill and Whitemoor – as well as a larger national and increasingly international network. We are privileged to be able to continue our passion for the initiative into our working lives in our roles as part of the Learning Together team. With these experiences in mind, we aimed to make the day as inclusive as possible, ensuring that the programme reflected the  interests and contributions of as many members of our community as possible. The day was designed to celebrate the many talents and achievements within our community, as well as the process of Learning Together that built those connections between us.

Most important in our considerations of how to plan the day, was ensuring that all of the voices of our community could be heard and celebrated, beyond the limits of who could be present at the event in Cambridge in person. We received contributions and warm wishes from across our community, as well as a fantastic attendance of around 30 alumni on the day.


Our day together focused on the potential and challenges of technology in an ever changing world. We began with warm wishes from Gareth, Ruth, Amy, and I, followed by our first session – the ‘Big Debate’. We were fortunate to have technology expert and journalist Maria Farrell to talk to us about her perspective on technology in 2018, and where the revolution may head next. A panel of alumni provided responses to Maria’s presentation bringing their own concerns and excitement about the development of technology into the conversation, after which it was time for the break out sessions.

We held three break out sessions, each focused around responses to the topic of technology through a different medium. We were fortunate to be joined by our excellent colleague Rebecca Green, who leads the Drawing Connections project, who led us in an artistic exploration of technology. She inspired us to create collages and mixed media representations of man’s connection to technology through the ages, as well as considering the parallels and juxtapositions between technology, nature, maths, beauty, art and life.


Our second parallel breakout session, led by our researcher colleague Victoria Pereyra Iraola, focused on policy questions associated with technology, particularly the question of how technology might contribute to desistance. Through this session, and much debate, the group came to the conclusion that our question ought to be reassessed and replaced by a focus on considering the consequences of not giving people in prison access to technology, rather than the risks of providing it.

Our final breakout sessions was inspired by our many fantastic playwrights in the Learning Together community. Lewey and Moses, who are Grendon alumni, wrote a short play, ‘WWW not’, about a therapy session taking place in an apocalyptic world where there is ‘no more data’.


Over lunch, the group reflected on the morning’s work at Nanna Mexico, a restaurant in Cambridge and long-time supporter of Learning Together, often providing catering for our end of course conferences. Our lunch was accompanied by Jez and his guitar with a mixture of classic covers and his own work. Happily fed, we returned to St John’s to feed back from the morning breakouts, presenting our artwork, policy discussions and dramatic interpretations. Afterwards, we spent some time reaching back out to the Learning Together community, including a video booth so that guests could record messages to the rest of the community who could not be with us in person, and poems and a tape recorder so that students could collaborate using each others prose. There were also displays featuring art work from across the community and an opportunity to make banners to support the Learning Together team running the Great South Run.


Finally, Rebecca led the group in Shibashi, a series of postures inspired by Tai Chi. Ruth and Amy were almost impervious to Gareth and my attempts to take the session less seriously than we ought to have done. A few interesting, perhaps flamboyant, shapes thrown by everyone meant the day ended with a collective sense of both effort and relaxation.

A short account of a special day. Beyond and between walls, barriers, continents and communities, our first alumni event gave space for a wide range of voices, talents and experiences. It was a pleasure to share it with you all. This is only the beginning…

Jack Merritt – Course Coordinator 

Debating Differences

This blog post comes from a member of the Learning Together Network. Dr Laura Kelly-Corless who convenes the ‘Debating Differences’ course, a Learning Together partnership between the University of Central Lancashire and HMP Kirkham. Here, university-based student, Iram, reflects on the second session of the course.


Yesterday, on the 8 November 2018, six third-year criminology/law students travelled to HMP Kirkham, along with Laura Kelly, who is one of UCLan’s criminology lecturers, to meet with seven prisoners for the second session of ‘Debating Differences’. ‘Debating Differences’ is a course that is run in partnership between HMP Kirkham and UCLan, and it is now in its third year. The purpose of the scheme is to break down barriers and to allow  university and prison-based students to learn and think together, in a positive educational environment, where everyone feels confident enough to share their ideas and develop debating techniques, learning how to create persuasive arguments and improving social skills.

The topic up for debate in our second session was whether prostitution should be decriminalised in England and Wales – an incredibly thought-provoking and controversial issue. As with the first session, all students were given work to prepare in advance of meeting together. This week, our prep involved us undertaking general research into the topic and writing short personal reflections about our own views as well as what we saw as the most compelling arguments on either side of the debate. Personally, my opinion on this topic stayed the same after I had completed my preparatory research, however, whilst travelling to HMP Kirkham it became clear that several students, as well as Laura, were unsure of where they stood on the matter and so it was clear that this was going to be a very interesting debate!

Once we had arrived at the prison, Viv Ivins, who is the Head of UCLan’s Law School and one of the judges for this session, was waiting for us and we were also greeted by the prison librarian, Michelle, who was co-judging alongside Viv. After a quick introduction, we were split into two mixed teams on each side, with one team arguing that prostitution should be decriminalised and the other, opposing this view. Both teams were given time to prepare six key points supporting their side of the argument (Laura’s timekeeping was very good!). The structure of the debate meant that all team members were encouraged to feed their ideas into coming up with our key points, as well contributing to their delivery in the debate itself. This proved a great opportunity for everyone to develop their confidence and public speaking skills. We were all aware from the last debate that it was important for us to expand on our arguments when delivering our points, and so everyone worked hard to ‘up their game’ and speak up.

Some of the main arguments give from Team A, who spoke in favour of decriminalisation, included people being able to do as they please with their own bodies without feeling that what they are doing is ‘illegal’ and ‘wrong’, how people who engage in prostitution who have also been victims of crime might feel more confident in coming forward if prostitution were decriminalised, and how prostitution might make a positive economic contribution if it were not forced ‘underground’. Counter-arguments put forward by Team B included how decriminalisation might encourage an increase in other crimes such as human trafficking or violence towards prostitutes, and risks that legislation of prostitution might have negative influences on children or other vulnerable people. In general, the arguments advanced by both sides had clearly been well researched and were extremely thought-provoking.

When it was time to decide on a winning team, it was apparent that this would be a difficult task. Viv and Michelle, as judges, praised both teams for presenting well-rounded arguments and strong closing remarks. Our judges briefly considered calling it a draw, but in the end, Team A who had made the case for decriminalisation were chosen as the winning team of the session.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this session as well as the previous one and know that the others who are participating in the course with me feel the same. I have gained so much from this experience so far and I must say that my own expectations of what the course and the prison based students would be like were rather inaccurate and I have definitely had my opinions changed on prisoners and prisons themselves.  I was rather anxious before starting the scheme and was wary about how some of the prisoners might behave. However, I could not have been more wrong, every single participant was well-mannered and civilised, if I didn’t know they were prisoners then I honestly could never have guessed, they just seem like normal guys.

This is a unique opportunity where preconceptions are challenged and schemes like ‘Debating Differences’ allow stereotypes to be eradicated. One of the main things I have taken away from the past two sessions is how intelligent and educated on issues of the world the people in prison were, I will be the first to admit that I did not generally expect this, it was clear that they had all put a large amount of effort into preparing for the debate and were thoroughly enthusiastic about it, which was good to see. I am incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to participate in this course and am looking forward to the next two sessions. I would strongly encourage anyone to apply who is considering participating in Learning Together courses like Debating Differences, as it is a thoroughly enjoyable and yet rare opportunity where you will find your opinions and conceptions challenged in a way they might never have been before



With thanks to Iram Ali – Third-year Law (LLB) student, UCLan.

Learning from evaluation: moving forward together

hel picWriting this blog comes at an ideal time. In moving to a post at a different university and having stepped away from the running of a Learning Together module (for now at least), I have had the opportunity to reflect on my experiences of developing and running a Learning Together course while at the same time being involved in the development of the Learning Together Network. More recently, my reflections have been instigated by the published Evaluation of Leeds Beckett University Prison: Learning Together Programme 2017 by Dr Suzanne Young (University of Leeds). This evaluation has not only enabled me to relive some of the experiences of Learning Together through the voices of the students in the report, but I have also been able to consider the work ahead in developing how we ‘do’ Learning Together while still ascribing significant value to the fluidity and flexibility with which various partnerships deliver their courses.

I am writing this blog on the train on the way home from giving a talk for a Manchester University seminar on prison/university partnerships. My talk was ‘Learning Together in High Security’ and very much focused on the implications of delivering such a course in that particular kind of institution. Within the talk I made reference to the evaluation and began to discuss how we respond to the outcomes and what we can learn from them.

Being the last speaker of the session in which others spoke about their Learning Together experiences, there was some repetition in what I had planned to say, however this became important because it highlighted clearly what many of us already know about the outcomes of Learning Together courses as a whole. We know that as a result of studying on a Learning Together course, many students experience an increase in self-confidence. We know that through the breaking down of social barriers, all students can experience a sense of humanisation through their temporary situation within an environment characterised by care and civility, and learning that is free from some of the less positive characteristics of ‘traditional’ higher education. And finally, we know that students improve their academic skills as well as their skills in social interaction. Moving on from ‘what we already know’, the publication of Dr Young’s evaluation creates an opportunity to start thinking about the longer term and how we respond to some of the challenges we face.

One element of the evaluation that is worth mentioning is the clarification of how both sets of students benefit from the module. At times, focus can be placed too substantially on the prison based learners. Perhaps this is because we are more aware and sensitive to the deficiencies in some of the previous educational experiences of our prison based students, and the deficiencies in the opportunities that are afforded in their current circumstances and this creates a perception that they are more ‘in need’ of the opportunity of Learning Together. However, in trying to create an environment of equality and parity, we must come back to our original purpose of running the course. For the Leeds Beckett programme, it was, and remains to be, about replicating (as far as possible) the university learning experience on a prison site. As such, we must not be drawn to focus more attention on prison-based students than those from the outside community despite our positive intentions. Of course, this is not always the case and I am not suggesting so – however we must not become apologetic about university-based students acquiring important academic and employability skills through this programme (as well as the important aforementioned social skills). Doing so does not mean that prisoners are being ‘used’ to gain these benefits, it simply means that the two sets of students are benefiting from the module, and their membership of our learning community, but sometimes in very different ways – both of which should be celebrated. It is also noteworthy that educators too are benefiting from the experience. Teaching and learning strategies have to be developed with the absence of technology which is, in itself, an important exercise which reminds us of the fundamental ‘nuts and bolts’ of what makes a good, engaging higher education learning experience.

Another issue that I would like to address is around the “what next?” question. Perhaps more relevant to the high security estate, we must acknowledge that the lives of our students in prison will not move on in the same way as our students in the free community following the course delivery; at least not in the immediate future. A Learning Together module can last anywhere between 3 and 12 weeks. In prison, as time is experienced acutely painfully, this time frame may be seen as significantly short and the absence of peers and educators will come around very quickly. In developing a partnership with a prison, we have come to a point where more consistent presence in the prison would be beneficial both to the partnership and to prisoners. Some partnerships are already running multiple Learning Together courses and wrap around community building activities, such as writing and reading groups and mentor development programmes. Through these initiatives, a more consistent presence is slowly being built within partner prisons. However, this is not always possible due to time and resource constraints and thus, we can think about how to achieve this consistency by developing projects without the same resource implications. One such example is the Beckett+ project which involves monthly guest lectures in the prison which can be accessed by prisoners on an optional basis; another example is similar the ‘Big Ideas’ seminar series at HMP Whitemoor facilitated by the University of Cambridge.

I established the Beckett+ project shortly before leaving Leeds Beckett University because I wanted to normalise the presence of the university within the prison. This also created an opportunity to involve colleagues from disciplines across the university which sat well with prisoners’ enthusiasm for more varied learning experiences/subject areas. This project runs alongside the annual Learning Together module as a teaching and learning initiative. Each of the monthly lectures covers a different subject area and each adopts a different teaching and learning strategy.

This has benefits both to the university and the prison as per the agreement of the partnership that all activity should be reciprocally beneficial. For the university, staff from across the university can engage with the prison/university partnership and take the opportunity to develop their teaching and learning practice in a different kind of environment. This may have developmental implications for both prison-based and campus-based teaching and learning techniques; and therefore have positive implications for students studying on university campus. For the prison, a programme that is optional and requires no formal assessment may be more appealing to the ‘hardest’ to reach; those for whom education is a daunting prospect and thus would not be attracted to a more formal accredited Learning Together programme. In addition, data on prisoner uptake and engagement can be fed back into the prison education department to inform curriculum design and teaching strategies to encourage more to attend lower level education classes (particularly those who would not have considered doing so previously).

While Learning Together partnerships are receiving high praise, we must also be conscious not to ignore the challenging culture within which these programmes are situated. Prisons are the domain of prisoners but also staff who keep them safe. As we know, prisons, as ‘microcosms of wider society’, have their own norms, folkways and cultures and as such we must now think more about how higher education (delivered in a variety of ways) can begin to become ‘the norm’. It is unsurprising that some prison staff are very supportive of Learning Together programmes whereas others are not. While we would like all in the prison to be supportive of what we are trying to achieve, we must not be naïve as to the reasons why this may not always be the case. I imagine what it must look like to prison officers (for example) to see academics with prison keys marching in and out with a group of happy, excited students every one or two weeks. This, for many, will be a potentially unnerving sight that induces concerns around security and safety and understandably there may be some prison staff who, at least initially, do not feel happy nor comfortable with the situation. Going forward, therein lies another challenge; to embed these higher education practices within the fabric of the prison in a way that sees all prison staff being better informed about our programmes, their aims and evidenced outcomes. Doing so would not only help to give prison staff more understanding but also develop, more widely, a culture of learning whereby officers on wings will have conversations with prisoners about the educational activities they are involved in. We already know this does happen, but we also know that some prison staff may not feel supportive due to a lack of information/understanding of our programmes. It is the responsibility of our partnerships to consider how we engage with the whole prison institution within our partnerships to create a more unified environment of support.

I promised a short blog and therefore I’ll stop there, although there are further considerations to discuss another time. I hope that there is some food for thought in my reflections and recommendations – all of which I’m sure you’ve already considered. But hopefully this will enable us to start thinking more specifically about how we take things forward and strive for continuous improvements in our partnership work. I would like to sincerely thank Dr Suzanne Young again for her evaluation and the accuracy with which it represents the 2017 Prison: Learning Together course. I hope others take as much from it as I have.

 Dr Helen Nichols, Senior Lecturer, University of Lincolnhelen n

Running together for Learning Together

group photo

The Great South Run

Julie and SusieOn Sunday 21 October, the Learning Together team, colleagues, family, friends and supporters, took part in the Great South Run in Portsmouth, to raise money for Learning Together.  At the same time, we held sister (5km and 10km) runs in HMPs Whitemoor and Grendon. 40 of our brilliant students ran in Grendon (alongside the High Sheriffs of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire!) and 25 students and members of staff ran in Whitemoor. We have been astounded and inspired by all the support we Lorna and Ruthhave received, through donations and by people willing to get involved, and run or cheer us on.

We all ran together to raise money to support students who take part in Learning Together, including by accessing educational opportunities as part of the Learning Together Network and in Cambridge, including through our new bursary support for Level 4 qualifications at the Institute of Continuing Education, with the support of the Longford Trust (see https://www.varsity.co.uk/news/16082).

AmySo far we have raised £3,805. A huge thanks for your support and donations. We are all enormously grateful!

If you would still like to donate you can do here:

Desistance and the prison: three things we’ve learnt from our evaluation of a prison-based diversion programme

It’s a joy to keep in touch with all of our Learning Together students and hear about what everyone is up to. Charlotte, one of our students from the 2015 ‘Introduction to Criminology’ course at Grendon, wrote to us recently with news of research in which she has been involved, evaluating the impact of a programme called ‘KeepOut’. Charlotte and her colleagues at the University of Surrey are hosting an event to share their research findings and she wanted to extend a warm welcome to all members of the Learning Together community. Read on, to learn more…


Picture credit: WIRE’s Authors (2017) ‘Mimicry in butterflies: The muse and the artist‘. Available at: https://www.advancedsciencenews.com/mimicry-butterflies-muse-palette-artist/ [Accessed: 17 August 2018].

For the last three years,  researchers at the University of Surrey have been exploring the impact of a prison-based crime diversion programme, ‘KeepOut’. Founded twenty years ago, KeepOut aimed to divert young people away from crime and support prisoners in their rehabilitation and journeys towards desistance.  KeepOut trained serving prisoners to deliver educational interventions to young people, aged 13-17, and identified as at risk of committing crime. The interventions comprised of a series of workshops incorporating drama, roleplay and games, and drew upon peer education, mentoring and cognitive-behavioural techniques. The aim was to engender victim awareness amongst the young people, to help them see the potential consequences of their actions, and to facilitate taking responsibility for them. We have come to the end of a three-year evaluation of KeepOut which has incorporated qualitative interviews with prisoners, practitioners and users groups who brought young people into the prison. It also included an outcome evaluation of reoffending rates of prisoners post-release, which was conducted by the Ministry of Justice Data Lab. The research has produced a great deal of rich data about desistance, facilitating the rehabilitation of prisoners, the delivery of interventions in the prison, and working with young people. Here are just three things we’ve learnt about supporting the desistance process of prisoners:

  1. Some prisoners are committed to desistance and wish to make amends. Despite the unpromising conditions within the prison, and the often-held belief that prisons can undermines rather that support reform, we found strong commitment to change and a desire to make amends amongst the cohort of prisoners who participated in the programme. This desire was usually situated within factors inherent to the individual, notably within the processes of maturation, in the context that many of those that had participated on KeepOut were serving long sentences.
  2. Commitment to reform was supported and facilitated through participation in KeepOut. Prisoners had very positive experiences of working on KeepOut. They got involved for multiple and various reasons, but the most dominant motivations were a desire to give something back to the community, personal commitment to reform, and to gain skills and experience to prepare them for release. Participants reported that participating was rewarding and empowering. Telling their personal testimonies allowed prisoners to reflect on their past behaviour, come to identify their past mistakes, and think about how to behave differently in the future. Providing prisoners with a chance to give something back and to help them make amends, enabled them to see themselves differently and to believe that a more positive life was possible. Strong and positive interpersonal and professional relationships with programme staff meant prisoners felt cared for, supported and believed in. This was motivating and it increased their self-understanding and sense of control, increased their self-esteem, and gave prisoners higher hopes for the future. In all, participation helped them feel that a crime free future was achievable post release.
  3. The longevity of these benefits is questionable. Certainly, our analysis reveals the need to be realistic regarding the long-term benefits of participation in programmes. Prisoners face daunting challenges on release, and KeepOut, or programmes like it, are only one part of a prisoner’s rehabilitation. No matter how committed to change they purport to be, nor how positive their experience of programmes has been, it is essential that prisoners are fully supported in preparing for release and in their transition back to the community. Any programme committed to rehabilitating prisoners needs to include components to prepare prisoners for release and ensure they are supported through-the-gate.


To hear the full story of this three-year evaluation we warmly invite you to attend our FREE upcoming conference, on 19 September. Drawing on our findings, the conference considers the promise for the promotion of desistance in the prison and the challenges that will be faced in realising that promise. The conference will focus on (1) the circumstances through which identity change occurs within prisoners and how identity change might be promoted and assisted in the prison; (2) the conditions which support or undermine the delivery of rehabilitative practices in the prison; (3) prisoner perceptions of rehabilitative practice within the prison; (4) the prospects for peer to peer education in prison; (5) prisoners motivations to participate in prison based rehabilitation and how this can be facilitated and undermined.

Tickets are available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/desistance-and-the-prison-tickets-47847252420. All welcome!

Karen Bullock, Charlotte Dodds and Annie Bunce, University of Surrey

Karen Bullock is Professor of Criminology, Charlotte Dodds and Annie Bunce are Postgraduate Researchers, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey.  

Learning Together – the challenges and possibilities of learning differences

Over the years of running Learning Together courses we have found that many of our students have questions around possible learning difficulties and note that sometimes differences in learning styles mean they have trouble accessing some of the materials, or writing the essay at the end of the course.

At the heart of Learning Together, is the idea that bringing all of our differences together makes our learning more transformative. We that realising this ambition requires careful thought, which includes careful thought about specific learning differences (SLDs). We understand that learning can be difficult and even frustrating, where insufficient thought is given to the diverse ways in which we all learn, and the different forms of support we may all need to realise our learning goals. We also acknowledge that each learner may not know exactly why they find some things harder than other people seem to, and that this can lead to low self-esteem and negative feelings towards learning. This may be for a number of reasons, including a lack of funding for assessment and diagnoses, which can have the knock on effect that the necessary support isn’t put in place.

SLD blog graphic 1

So what are ‘Specific Learning Differences’?

On behalf of the Learning Together Team, I attended a briefing put on by the University of Cambridge to learn about SLDs and see what help might be available to support the LT community, and enrich our practices.

What we have learnt so far, is that the term SLD is an umbrella to describe a range of learning differences, which include dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorder. There is often an overlap in symptoms between these specific diagnoses, and all share difficulties in information processing. The Venn diagram below, about neuro-diversity, and the SLD overview handout below, provide further information about individual diagnoses.

SLD venn diagram

A resource from the briefing, originally sourced from DANDA

Importantly, an SLD diagnosis does not demonstrate a lack of capability; just that the individual may process and learn differently from others. No two people with SLDs present their symptoms or learning differences in the same way; many develop strategies throughout their life that allow them to complete tasks and excel in their learning.

We acknowledge that it is early days in our thinking, but we want to use what we have learned about SLDs to make the whole learning Learning Together environment and experience as accessible and inclusive as possible – helping us to fulfil a key value of Learning Together – nurturing talent wherever it is found.. We also want to promote understanding of SLDs within the Learning Together community.

What might this mean for Learning Together?

As a result of the briefing, I created some LT and SLD-friendly resources which we intend to share with course conveners next year to help them think about how to build a more inclusive learning environment.

Our use of technology to support learning has huge potential for increasing the accessibility of the learning experience. We are actively exploring ways in which we can strengthen our existing practices in this area and hope to implement innovations in time for the start of this academic year. This will include developing further audio-visual resources to complement written content and hopefully upgrading our Digital Learning Platform to include text to speech or speech to text software. We also hope to include an SLD resource page on the Platform, which we hope may be helpful for students who might be encountering challenges in their learning and are looking for good strategies that may help. Into the future, we plan to deepen our understanding of SLDs and will continue to work hard as a team and with our students to think about ways to develop our content and delivery so that everyone’s learning can be transformed by the skills of each and every student. Watch this space!

Izzie Rowbotham