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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.
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.
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: https://www.learningtogethernetwork.co.uk/
Sing Inside: https://www.singinside.org/
On 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.
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:
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.