Creativity Extravaganza at HMP Whitemoor


A true celebration of creative collaboration between HMP Whitemoor, prison charity Sing Inside and Cambridge University founded initiative ‘Learning Together’ took place at the prison last week.

The event showcased the artistic talents and achievements of the men at Whitemoor who found a way to express themselves through music, photography and film with encouragement from Learning Together and Sing Inside course teachers.

The event also marked the day of the opening of a new Learning Together study centre at the heart of the prison which will be used for future workshops.


Working Together

The Learning Together partnership between the University of Cambridge and HMP Whitemoor is now at the end of its third year. In 2019, 148 residents from Whitemoor have taken part in 11 workshops and courses, including the ones on display at last week’s event.

During the photography course, called ‘No Admission’ and led by PhD student Ellie Brown, 25 men explored the importance of photography in contemporary society along with themes of identity and what it means to be an artist in prison.

For Ellie, art allows us all to convey visceral ideas – to communicate our hopes, our dreams, our pain, vulnerability and the frailty of humanity.  The beauty of art is that it is accessible to everyone, in a way that few things truly are. It didn’t matter whether the men had ever held a camera before, or whether they had picked up a pen and attempted creative writing before.

written work


Sing Inside also ran a three-day singing course, bringing 11 volunteers into Whitemoor to work with a group of eight residents to learn the basics of music theory and perform a range of songs at the event.


‘The whole day was an uplifting experience for me, like a breath of fresh air.’

‘The group dynamic helped me to feel that I was part of a team and was contributing to it. I don’t think that I could have enjoyed it anymore.’


A day to remember

The exciting agenda featured the ‘No Admission’ photography exhibition, various choir performances and the showing of a self-made short film. The men played a big part in the day, performing poetry, conducting the choir and showing their achievements of the past weeks.

For many of them it was the first time doing creative work so it gave them a whole new way of expressing their emotions and hopes for the future. Prison staff and guests were very inspired by the event and the residents’ energy and passion.


This article is based on an article that was published on the HMPPS intranet on 1st August 2019.

If you’d like to work with Learning Together or Sing Inside at your prison, please find more information here:

Learning Together:

Sing Inside:


sng inside

2019 Learning Together Network Conference

conference blog 1On June 2019, the Learning Together Network convened in London for our annual conference— an opportunity for forging connections among colleagues, celebration, reflection, and above all, discussion that leads us forward in the sharing and exercise of good practice.

We gathered at HMP Brixton for the first day, surrounded by storyboards of the Learning Together journey and student work from the HMP Brixton and LSBU and LSHTM universities partnership. Consistent with the theme of the conference, “Values in Action,” colleagues held workshops that were informed by their own courses. These workshops on the values of potential, progression, participation, and praxis truly embraced the “in action” spirit of Learning Together by modelling the style of a Learning Together class— presentation, with more of the time devoted to a following discussion. We all became students as we discussed the potentials for realisation as well as discomfort, role-played as psychologists, police officers, and social workers approaching a case, and formed creative responses by drawing and sharing our Learning Together journeys.


In Brixton, we also celebrated the students who completed the education course. In his speech, one student powerfully placed his Learning Together experience and politics into conversation. He advocated for the value of inclusivity in action in both the educational and political spheres. We’d like to share a portion of his speech here:

“‘Twenty years ago I made a mistake. I deeply regret it and I hope you’ll give me a second chance.’ Those words may sound familiar to you. They are, as closely as I can recall without access to the internet or on-demand TV, the words used by Michael Gove recently, after admitting that he had used cocaine. He didn’t just want a second chance of course, he expected and even demanded it. In a way, I suppose, he was saying that he wanted the selection process for the next leader of the Conservative Party to be inclusive — or at least, more inclusive than it would have been without him in it.

One of the things that has transformed for me over the last four weeks of our Learning Together project here in Brixton is my appreciation of the value of real inclusivity. We learn better when we learn together, and the diversity that we brought to our classroom provided the richness of the experience. We learnt as much from each other as we learnt from our tutors [. . .]

I began by recalling the words of Michael Gove, but I too have a confession to make. Twenty years ago I also made a mistake that I deeply regret. Unlike Mr. Gove, however, my mistake caught up with me a couple of years ago and I’ve spent the last twenty months in prison. I’m due to be released in about three months and I don’t mind admitting that I’m as nervous about that prospect as I was about coming to prison in the first place. I too would like a second chance as I think I have something to offer that could enrich the lives of others. A more inclusive society could give me that chance — or is that kind of inclusivity just another perk for the privileged few?” – Chris



Our second day took place at London South Bank University, where presentations on the Network’s work over the past year, developments in access to technology as tools of education in our classrooms, and exciting research findings on student growth in a Learning Together course, were also followed by an afternoon of dynamic discussion. We broke off into small groups to discuss the Network and Course Convenor Toolkits that we have been developing, and possibilities for peer review that strengthen that sharing of good practice in our Network. The whole group came back together for a last discussion on “Hot Topics.” Building on reflections that had arisen throughout the conference, we explored topics such as the role of research and conscientious language, finding ways to productively examine ourselves before ending with action planning for the year to come.


The ethos of discussion that shaped the conference brings to mind bell hook’s vision on the power of conversation. She distinguishes between two modes of speech—monologue and dialogue. She writes that those who communicate through monologue are “the people who talk at us, who by refusing to converse, promote and maintain a hierarchy of domination wherein withholding gives one power over another person.” Conversation—conversation worthy of the name—is a dialogue. Because dialogue must involve an exchange, “conversation is always about giving. Genuine conversation is about the sharing of power and knowledge; it is fundamentally a cooperative enterprise.” In our conference, we participated in conversations. These conversations, whether formal group discussions or informal conversations during tea and coffee breaks, or even “presentations” in which a few people spoke to a larger group that listened, became conversation through that notion of giving. We gave each other our ideas and our willingness to listen, and in doing so, gave each other voice. Voice that emerges through conversation is voice that reshapes the paradigms of power and knowledge in ways that are more democratic and inclusive— its own “value in action” visible at the conference and in our classes and Network as a whole.

conference blog 5


Digital Innovation Roundtable at HMP Whitemoor

On Wednesday 12 June, the Learning Together team, together with our digital partner, Coracle Inside, held a Digital Innovation Roundtable at HMP Whitemoor. The roundtable brought together Learning Together students, leaders, and innovators in the design and use of digital technologies for learning, including in secure settings. Together, participants aimed to:

  • consider the current ‘state of the art’ in terms of policy and practice in the use of digital technologies to support learning in prisons and post-release;
  • share insight from research about the potential of digital technologies to contribute to the development of rehabilitative cultures through building community, trust and skills;
  • identify opportunities for collaboration and digital innovation between relevant stakeholders across research, policy, practice and business; and
  • chart a shared vision for collaboration and digital innovation and specific next steps towards realising that vision.

One of our Learning Together students and mentors at Whitemoor, Dave, took part in the roundtable and, in this blog post, shares some of his reflections about the event.

As I sit in my cell hunched over a tiny table, working on an assignment for the Level 3 Award in Education and Training, I am forced to pause as I recognise that the more writing I do in-cell, the more I will have to replicate once I am granted access to a computer terminal. In that pause, I reflect on what was said at the Digital Innovation Conference organised by the Learning Together team at the University of Cambridge. The conference, hosted in our Learning Together Study Centre at HMP Whitemoor where I am resident, consisted of roundtable discussion about the use of digital technologies to support learning in prisons, and the use of those same technologies to contribute towards rehabilitation by building trust, a sense of community and new relevant skills in preparation for release. The aim was to identify opportunities for collaboration and a shared vision with achievable, time-bound targets.

To this end, the conference was attended by representatives of corporate organisations and institutions including; Google, Coracle Inside, the Prison Reform Trust, the Department for Work and Pensions, G4S, Milton Keynes College, Prison Governors, HMPPS Education and Employment managers, the Head of Education for Long Term High-Security Estate, a selection of Heads of Learning and Skills from different prisons, Education Managers, the HMPPS Cyber Security Team representative, Whitemoor students and a Learning Together student who was previously a resident at HMP Whitemoor, who is now actively seeking employment.

It was great to meet all of these influential people and to hear of their shared aspirations in relation to ‘in-cell tech’. All agreed that prisons must remain relatively up to date with technological advances, and that prisons should be geared towards paperless administration. There is now an opportunity to bring learning, via digital platforms, into cells by way of portable technology that would not incur the costs associated with institutional infrastructure – screens hardwired into cells and bolted to walls – and which would not replace the essential practice of face-to-face learning.


Everyone agreed that we all want safe access to non-networked hardware, in the shape of chromebooks, which have been trialled successfully by the Learning Together team, with software that will enable the enhancement of basic skills and the development of skills necessary for future employment and career development.

Chromebooks used in-cell would allow resident learners to develop word processing and data handling skills; to listen to podcasts and watch education video clips; and to remain up to date with the types of technology enjoyed by our families (imagine not being able to relate to anything your children are engaging with).

It is safer and cheaper to have technology which can be issued into possession for a period of time, but occasionally that tech will require updates, synchronisation and downloading of date for printing or submission; activities which will have to be facilitated at a hub on the wing and supervised or conducted by staff. This may be seen as a burden where staff need to be trained and allocated to such duties, however it would not be necessary for individual prisons to maintain frequent and impractical security reviews of usage, since every keystroke and action can be monitored remotely by cyber security experts at HMPPS headquarters following each connection to the aforementioned hub.

Soon, people in prison could have the opportunity for the data they generate to be saved digitally, whereby CVs, assignments and evidence of achievements can move with as they progress through the prison system to release. There may even be an option to connect with other learners by watching video messages, receiving emails and responding electronically.

But, all of these positive outcomes will soon be measured against public perception. Is it right that inmates have access to technology that will enable inclusion in society upon release? Yes, but to validate such claims, and so to allow for in-cell digital technology to become normal, more is required than a commitment to learning from government agencies and education institutions. More is required than the active development and production of prison safe hardware and software: inmates too will have to commit to appropriate behaviour in order that trust can be built and maintained.

An essay on identity work and desistance


This guest post comes from Paul Growcoot.

Paul studied Philosophy at the University of North London and graduated in 1996. He then moved to northern Italy where he worked for 14 years as a teacher of English for foreign language students. Returning to the UK in 2009 he continued to teach academic English to oversees students at Bradford University and the University of Huddersfield until 2013 when he decided to work freelance.

Then in May 2017, after a period of mental illness and where he had struggled with addiction, he was given a 10-year prison sentence. Although he wanted to appeal the conviction, his barrister believed there were no grounds, so he wrote his own application and was granted leave to appeal in December 2017. Then in September 2018 and represented by a new barrister, his conviction was quashed, and he was subsequently released.

From January to May 2018 he studied a Desistance from Crime module under Adam Calverley at HMP Hull with the Learning Together Program. He believes that this was the single best opportunity given to him during his period of incarceration. And that it has helped him to desist from the behaviours and associations leading to the situation that got him convicted in the first place.

The following is the final essay from the module:

“In the end, for us all, the way we behave is determined by the story we find ourselves in. A person becomes what they believe.” (Steve Chalke, 2015: 46)[1]

This essay will attempt to provide an overview of the “phenomenology of desistance” (Maruna, 2001: 8). After a cursory look at the philosophical heritage of the ‘self’ we shall examine Maruna’s redemption script theory to see how desisters “develop a coherent, pro-social identity […] to account for […] their criminal pasts” (Ibid: 7). Also, by blending cognitive transition theory (Giordano et al, 2002) with Vaughan’s (2006) internal narrative theory we will begin to psychologically unpack the incremental phases in the transition from offender to desister. Simultaneously, we will look at Farrall & Calverley’s (2006) emotional trajectory of desistance to scrutinize the feelings underpinning this transition, concluding that ‘hope’ is a recurring theme throughout the process and is perhaps the single most important psychological construct for success (Martin & Stermac, 2010). Rather than treat the theories separately a synthesis is offered.

At the beginnings of Modernity John Locke (1690) explained the ‘self’ in terms of continuities of memory and consciousness.[2] However, David Hume maintained that the self was an illusion; when we search inside we find no object that we can call the ‘self’, just a rapid succession of bundled perceptions from which the fiction of identity arises (Hume, 1739-40).[3]  To save us from this potential solipsism, thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Brentano developed existentialism. They were inspired by Fichte,[4]  perhaps the first to recognise that the self only has meaning through its intentions and actions, “Not for idle contemplation of yourself are you here, not for brooding over devout sensations[5]– no, for action are you here: action, and action alone determines your worth” (Fichte, 1800; cited in Wilson, 1966: 60).

Then Nietzsche (1882) pronounced God dead [6] and mankind was condemned to freedom (Sartre, 1943); a Dasein [7]defined solely by its actions and “being-with-others”, but it is a fallen or inauthentic self (Heidegger, 1927: 225). Similarly, the self of the offender is inauthentic or in mauvaise foi [8]since they deceive themselves when they deny the consequences of their actions on others (Sartre, 1946: 33). The only way to redeem the authentic self is through ‘angst’ (Heidegger, 1927: 227). For the offender this could be through shock; being wounded through crime or given a long sentence (Cusson & Pinsonneault, 1986). It is through these flashes of authenticity that an openness to a better future begins to dawn. Hence there are two possible selves; the inauthentic or offending self, and the authentic or desisting self. There are, of course, further subtleties and nuances to this simplistic generalisation, such as the inauthentic desister, but the distinction serves our purpose here.

Similar to an addict who has hit rock bottom (Laub & Sampson, 2001; Giordano et al, 2002) the first cognitive transformation a would-be desister undergoes is “a shift in the actor’s basic openness to change” (Giordano et al, 2002:  1000). It may have been forced upon the individual by external factors but the “‘up front’ work [is] accomplished by [the] actors themselves” (Ibid: 992). This rational choice to change (Clarke & Cornish, 1985) is the initial driver in identity transition, inspired by both the dread of what one might become and the hope of a pro-social identity. Paternoster & Bushway (2009) argue that the ‘feared self’ needs to be ‘knifed off’ (Sampson & Laub, 1993; 1995) and substituted with a more positive ‘possible self’. Therefore the ‘possible self’ acts as a motivation and the ‘feared self’ a deterrent (Paternoster & Bushway, 2009: 1107-8).

This openness to change is the dawning realisation that another future self is possible. Farrall & Calverley (2006) found that hope was necessary in sustaining motivation to achieve a successful pro-social identity. Rather than doom and despair (Maruna, 2001: 7), hope has been consistently recognised as a fundamental factor for successful desistance (e.g. Burnett & Maruna, 2004; Maguire & Raynar, 2006; Martin & Stermac, 2010). This is consonant with the first phase of Vaughan’s (2006) internal narrative theory: discernment. Drawing on Archer’s (2003) notion of internal conversation, Vaughan tells us that “our emotions provide the first signals about […] that to which we are drawn or shy away from” (Vaughan, 2006: 4). Thus, the possible feared self of the ‘sad, lonely old lag’ is shunned in favour of the possible ‘respectable self’ of the good partner/parent/colleague.

This emotional debate acts as a vehicle to the second cognitive shift; a propensity to recognise and embrace “a particular hook or set of hooks for change” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000). These hooks are usually structural in nature; e.g. the job interview, meeting the benevolent partner/mentor. In the future they are often regarded retrospectively as ‘turning points’ (Sampson & Laub, 1993; 1995), but are indicative of a rapprochement between the actor and their desire to engage with hooks as well as what those hooks mean to them. As Uggen (2000) noted in his research into an offenders’ work program, it is both the availability of the hook and the offender’s readiness to ‘bite’ that are required for a change in criminal identity to initiate. Advocates of social control theory argue that informal controls, such as the good job or partner, naturally generate pro-social behaviour (Hirschi, 1969). And although it may be true that hooks for change foster transformations, eventually the actor must make a cognitive connection, through reflection, that the hook represents a change for the better (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000).

This is the second phase of Vaughan’s narrative theory: deliberation; a “review of the pros and cons of potential courses of action” (2006: 5). This process is both rational and emotional, including considering one’s position in relation to others. Hence the construction of a pro-social identity is dependant upon how one feels about one’s current identity and how one believes others feel about it (Ibid). As Farrall & Calverley note, “the ’emotional’ aspects of desistance are part of the feelings experienced by a wider social network of people other than the desister” (2006: 129).

The true enormity of the task begins to dawn on the would-be desister. Setbacks have probably occurred, perhaps even ‘relapses’; hopes are flagging as negative emotions such as regret begin to surface. Furthermore, the obstacles to achieving the social capital necessary for a ‘normal’ life become apparent, it is too early in the process for a sense of pride or achievement and they have little or no trust in the surrounding social controls or even themselves as a desister (Ibid). This intermediate part of the process, then, is an emotional ‘no-man’s land’, where the individual is at their most fragile and vulnerable. It is when the informal control or “scaffolding that makes possible the construction of significant life changes” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000) is most vital.

With perseverance the would-be desister arrives at the third cognitive shift; the forging of “an appealing and conventional ‘replacement self’ that can supplant the marginal one that must be left behind [… so that] it becomes inappropriate for ‘someone like me’ to do ‘something like that’” (Ibid:  1001). Maruna tells us this is a “process of freeing one’s ‘real me’ […] of ‘finding the diamond in the rough’ [which is] frequently described in terms of empowerment from some outside source”[9](2001: 95). Significant others, such as a mentor or a partner, can enable the desister with ‘positive stroking’ [10]and encouragement so they can take on a ‘liminal’ identity.[11]It is often only when someone believes in them that they can begin to believe in themselves (Ibid: 96).

These informal controls provide the would-be desister with the tools to fashion a “skeleton script” (Rumgay, 2004: 409) or “cognitive blueprint” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1055) for a replacement self. According to Farrall & Calverley (2006) this liminal phase of primary desistance[12]is accompanied by the onset of shame and guilt as they begin to acquire the necessary psychological distance to confront their old, offending self. These negative emotions are negotiated and neutralized with a ‘necessary prelude’ plot device, i.e. something they had to go through to get to where they are now and “although the […] ‘knifing off’ concept remains, ‘making good’ involves more self-reconstruction than amputation” (Maruna, 2001: 87).

Also, in this phase the proto-desister is offered, and accepts, opportunities (e.g. jobs) and they begin to feel trusted. Guilt gives way to pride as they start to achieve their objectives via conventional means. This emotive process reinforces desistance and helps them avoid further criminal behaviour (Farrall & Calverley 2006). Through re-biographing, and the construction of a cognitive blueprint for the future self, the final phase of Vaughan’s personal narrative emerges: dedication. “At this stage, one decides to re-order the panoply of concerns and interests one has in order to allow a novel commitment [13] to emerge (2006: 5, my emphasis). Hence agents begin to see offending activities as incompatible with their new identity. This dedication, then, is a complementing of the social restraints provided by the mentor or partner above with “enhanced internalized control from adherence to newly found commitments” (Ibid).

This leads us to what Giordano et alcall “the capstone” of identity transition (2002: 1002). The fourth and final cognitive shift involves a change in the way the agent identifies with deviant behaviour; it becomes incongruent with their new, desisting self. In the vernacular; after ‘talking the talk’ they now begin to ‘walk the walk’ of a fully-fledged desister. They make the transition from liminal, primary desistance to concrete, secondary desistance, “assuming the role of a non-offender” (Maruna & Farrall, 2004: 175). Finally, the agent dons the vestments of a desister, acquires their ‘airs and graces’ and ‘graduates’ to the normal, moral, conventional world.

Lofland tells us that “transformed deviants tend to become not merely moral but hyper moral” (1969: 283). Once the offending identity has been discarded the struggle then becomes one of finding meaning and purpose as well as legitimacy in the eyes of others. The only way to “find ‘inner peace’ and a sense of accomplishment was [by] helping other ex-convicts change their lives” (Maruna, 2001: 102). By exchanging the role of mentee for that of mentor and emulating an individual who had been their ‘hook for change’, they take on the generative role of a ‘professional ex-‘ or ‘wounded healer’ (Ibid). This is the final piece of the redemption puzzle; they have developed “a coherent, pro-social identity for themselves” (Ibid: 7). In fact, this kind of neutralization is crucial “for the negotiation of stigma and rejection of the […] ‘offender’ label” (Hulley, 2016: 1776).

In this final stage feelings of hope begin to re-emerge but rather than the vague aspiration of a ‘better future’ their hopes become more specific (e.g. promotion, marriage, children). Regrets about the past become more pronounced but agents start to talk about their criminal identity in the past tense (Farrall & Calverley, 2006). However, this shame about their chequered past is also worn as a badge of honour as they embark on “fighting the good fight” (Maruna, 2001: 99) of the zealous proselytizer, ensuring the next generation does not follow in their deviant footsteps. Maruna asserts that the “moral hedonism of the redemption script” (2001: 105) allows desisters to brazenly dignify their crimes instead of hiding them away like a guilty secret. By finding a “silver lining” and fabricating “positive illusions” the individual is less prone to depression and better able to adjust to their new identity and maintain their motivation to desist (Ibid: 106). Acting as a ‘wounded healer’ also helps them heal themselves, positively reinforcing their desisting identity through feelings of reward and improved self-esteem.

In conclusion, rather than a sudden and schizophrenic denial of the offending identity to simply ‘become’ a new person the would-be desister undergoes a gradual metamorphosis (Maruna, 2001: 87). First there is an openness to change and a discernment between a feared and a pro-social self. This is followed by the recognition of hooks for change and a deliberation between the choices. Next a blueprint for a desisting self is identified to which the agent then commits. Finally, in a ‘transvaluation of values’ (Nietzsche, 1886) their attitude to offending shifts diametrically and they take on the generative role of a professional ex-offender.

Hence the journey is far more protracted and complex than social control theorists have postulated. However, they point out that narrative theory tends to be retrospective “which may present a distorted account of the nature of human agency in the desistance process” (King, 2014: 59). The individual tends to become the ‘star of the show’ when re-biographing occurs. Granted, the importance of structural relationships cannot be denied, and when the agent is prone to relapses during the intermediate phases of the process they can be vital in maintaining motivation.

But the desistance journey is primordially bound up with how the individual feels. The beginning is characterised by hope at a brighter future while the middle is an affective wasteland when external bonds are needed the most. In the penultimate phase shame and guilt are felt which in the final phase give way to pride, achievement and, eventually, the re-emergence of hope as the agent is reintegrated into society. It is how would-be desisters cope with this emotional trajectory that determines their success in attaining desistance (Farrall & Calverley, 2006). Hope is the single most influential feeling running through the process and the more that society fosters it in the desister the more chance they have of success.[14] In a final irony, perhaps the hardest task for the desister is not convincing society they have reformed but convincing themselves that they can.

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Archer, M.S. (2003) Structure, Agency, and the Internal Conversation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Burnett, R. & Maruna, S. (2004) ‘So “Prison Works” — Does It? The Criminal Careers of 130 Men Released from Prison under Home Secretary Michael Howard’, in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 43 (4): 390-404.

Chalke, S. (2015) Being Human: How to Become the Person You Were Meant to Be, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Clarke, R.V. & Cornish, D.B. (1985) ‘Modelling Offenders’ Decisions: A Framework for Research and Policy’, in M. Tonry & N. Morris (eds.) Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Uggen, C. (2000) ‘Work as a Turning Point in the Life Course of Criminals: A Duration Model of Age, Employment and Recidivism’, in American Sociological Review, Volume 65 (4): 529-546.

Vaughan, B. (2006) ‘The Internal Narrative of Desistance’, in British Journal of Criminology Advance Access, published October 13, 2006:  1-15.


[1]Steve Chalke was a Baptist minister before founding the Oasis Trust in 1985 which has pioneered community initiatives in the UK and around the world. The author of over 40 books, Steve was awarded an MBE for his services to social inclusion in 2004.

[2]Try telling that to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis (Kafka, 2005). After waking in his Prague apartment to find himself newly endowed with an undulating carapace and an array of thin, spindly legs that look barely capable of supporting him he exclaims “What has happened to me?” (Ibid: 89). Also, compare this notion of the self with a trans-gender person’s process of gender reassignment, although the consciousness is the same their identity has definitely changed.

[3]David Hume is credited as the prototype Occidental Buddhist for bringing an Oriental slant to Western philosophy (Cottingham, 2008: 285).

[4]Immanuel Kant’s disciple. Interestingly, Kant’s (1785) Categorical Imperative (Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law) foreshadowed Sartre’s moral anguish; evident when Sartre writes “one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing” (1946: 33). Through the self-deceit of saying ‘but everyone will not do it’ the criminal implies the universal truth that he denies. “By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called ‘the Anguish of Abraham”‘ (Ibid: 34).

[5]A reference to Descartes’ ‘armchair’ philosophy and also, perhaps, the fact that his mentor Kant never left his home town despite admitting that the influence of David Hume had “roused him from his ‘dogmatic slumber”‘ (Cottingham, 2008: 40).

[6]One can almost imagine Nietzsche with his white coat and stethoscope gravely looking up from his patient after failing to find a pulse.

[7]‘Being-in-the-world’ — Heidegger’s (1927) Dasien also encompasses many other forms of being and is related to how the self defines itself in its struggle for meaning; in the world, in and of itself, and in relation to others.

[8]Mauvaise foi is usually translated as ‘bad faith’ though Mairet renders it as ‘self-deception’ in his 1948 translation of Sartre’s ‘Existentialism and Humanism’.

[9] “The offender’s epiphany [comes when] a wiser and more caring person than themselves does or says something that leads them to believe that they could be better men than they have hitherto been. They may be overcome by a deep sense of personal unworthiness, but they acquire a new sense of responsibility” (Nellis, 2009: 142).

[10]C.f.Transactional Analysis theory (Berne, 1961).

[11]A ‘liminal’ identity is neither offending nor non-offending; it is seen as an interim identity. This is “the ethereal imagining of a new self and the aspirational commitment to pro-social goals but [before] the corporeal realization of this new self through the active commitment to pro-social roles” (McAlinden et al., 2017: 278, my emphasis).

[12]Flynn (2012: 15) tells us that “desistance writers are interested in why most offenders vacillate and lapse in and out of criminality (primary desistance) but eventually abandon crime for good (secondary desistance)” so that practitioners can extrapolate the psychological mechanisms at work in order to employ them in social controls. Whether this is possible in practice is a separate debate.

[13]Another important Sartrean concept is that of engagement (translated by Mairet as ‘commitment’). “When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind — in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility” (Sartre, 1946: 33). This causes the state of anguish alluded to above.

[14]Particularly HMPPS which needs a root and branch overhaul of its culture if it hopes to break away from its current mendacious and misanthropic insouciance.

A ticket to the Learning Together Conference in Hull.

This week’s blog is written by Learning Together community member John Hogan. John shared his experiences of education in prison at the Learning Together conference in July 2018. Day one of the conference took place in HMP Hull. Ahead of this year’s conference in HMP Brixton we asked John to share his experiences of taking part last year. 

In July 2018, I attended the Learning Together Conference in HMP Hull. At the time, I wrote about my experience of the day, and wanted to share my reflections with you ahead of this year’s conference in HMP Brixton.

What was my experience of the learning together conference held in Hull prison? For me it was an adventure and I was delighted to be invited to the conference. I had only recently heard about the Learning Together programme, through a chance meeting with Amy and Ruth at a conference held in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, Ireland. I arrived there that day mistakenly thinking that I was meeting a group of long-term prisoners, so I was surprised to learn about the conference. While sitting in the audience that day I heard a number of speakers discussing various aspects of education in prisons. To be honest, I hadn’t found it particularly interesting until I heard Amy and Ruth give their presentation. I was amazed and thought good God; these people actually know what they’re talking about.


Maybe I should pause here and rewind a bit to explain what my connection is with education and prisons. My name is John, I was sentenced to life in prison in 2000 and served almost 18 years before being released on the 13th of June 2017. Before I went to prison, I had no educational qualifications of any kind. While in custody, I began my educational journey studying with the Open University and I am now the proud holder of a BSC in Social Policy & Criminology (Hon). Since my release just over a year ago, I have used my OU qualification to gain advanced entry into the final year of the social care course and have achieved a BSC in social care. Over that same period I have also been invited back to visit various prisons in Ireland to speak to prisoners about education. It was on one such visit that I was fortunate enough to have met Amy and Ruth, after which I became a firm believer in the Learning Together programme.

Some months later I was delighted to have been invited to attend the Learning Together conference in Hull prison. The last time I was on a plane must have been over 30 years ago, so for me travelling to England was an exciting adventure and one that was totally worthwhile.


Arriving at Hull prison the following morning and being escorted into the prison, it was a pleasure to be in a room filled with likeminded forward thinking individuals attending that day to help progress the Learning Together programme into the future. With all the positive discussions going on at the conference, I could actually feel a kind of electrical buzz in the air. It is safe to say I was excited. Having been invited to speak on a panel, I had prepared a talk with the intention of outlining a number of points during the conference but it became apparent as the day progressed that a lot of the points I was hoping to make had already been discussed by previous speakers. This filled me with joy because again I knew I was in the company of people who really knew what they were talking about.  There was an authentic ring to their words that cannot be obtained from books, but only lived experience. Without detracting from the contributions of all those present on the day, I found David Honeywell’s talk provided a comprehensive account of the transformative power of education in prison and the ways in which it can lead individuals to desist from crime and become valued members of their society.This particularly resonates with my own experiences.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to address those present but decided to abandon my prepared talk; I just went off the cuff. I had a number of points I thought would be pertinent to the day’s discussions and began by outlining how it was my belief that every interaction or connection made with those in custody counts if we are to facilitate them desisting from crime. In this regard, I view desistence as a process, something akin to sowing seeds in a garden and watching the flower grow. To achieve this growth, prisoners have to be supported and encouraged to adopt pro-social ways at every stage of their sentence. In my experience throughout my time in custody it was the people that I came in contact with and their belief in me that had the most profound effect.

Using the analogy of the person sitting in a car that had broken down, but without knowledge of what was wrong, the car couldn’t be fixed. I was once like that person sitting in the car, I was searching for fulfilment and it could only come through education. Books I read helped me to see aspects of my own life being described, as if they were actually talking about me. I began to understand the negative influences that had impacted on my life. I could see how my environment, life style, peers and lack of education had shaped my outlook and my life.

On the plane journey back to Ireland, I was happy to have contributed to the conference, a sense of confident optimism regarding the Learning Together programme and its potential to make a real difference in the criminal justice system came over me. I suppose if we sow the seeds, they will grow and a beautiful flower will blossom.

Thanks so much for inviting me.

John Hogan