My first ‘big idea’ – what is literature?


Last night I was one of a few lucky enough to be in a room with Dr Emma Gilby, who is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge. Dr Gilby invited us all to engage with the question ‘What is literature?’ as part of a new monthly ‘Big Ideas’ seminar series that has been launched as part of the Learning Together partnership between HMP Whitemoor and the Cambridge

The group was introduced to several examples of printed text, each written to inform or explore an idea or concept. Texts included Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, a Stephen King novel, an instruction booklet for a domestic washing machine, and an illustrated children’s book about a lost toy and a child’s adventure finding it.


Dr Gilby read from the first page of Dickens’ classic and instigated a discussion which allowed an insight into the depth of thought, and critical analysis, required of literature students when reading such texts. Next, we were asked to consider the cover of the large children’s book (‘Knuffle Bunny’) before Dr Gilby read from the first page – here the reader is made aware that the child around whom the story unfolds, is not yet capable of speech as we might recognise it. Thus, the child attempts to communicate to her Dad about the loss of her toy, and he must endeavour to arrange its retrieval. At the moment of reunification the large illustration, which is on the penultimate page, shows the young girl’s face alongside a very solid speech bubble emanating from her mouth exclaiming the name of the toy. Brilliant, I thought, how wonderfully cute and funny it was that the very first proper words spoken by the protagonist of the tale was the name of her toy. Then the last page was turned and the author explained to the reader that those words were indeed her first. My heart sank at the realisation that even the writers of illustrated stories had to explain the plot in the narrative for the benefit of those, children and parents, who could not fathom it by themselves. I quietly reassured myself that this book was written for an American audience!

Members of the group then began to critically analyse the content of the book and debate the intentions of the author; a few could not comprehend how the main point of the story was the oratory ability of the child. Those few believed the story to represent, as a foremost topic, a moral for parents to be more aware of the whereabouts of toys, and such things that are so easily lost, in order to save tears and time spent searching later. While I agree this may be a value in the story, I could not agree that the author had not intended to highlight the unpredictability of a child’s first words. I was fascinated that the group spent longer deliberating the intentions of the author of a child’s illustrated story than they did that of a literary classic. Discussion about it carried over to the following day too!

So what is literature? We discovered there is no right or wrong answer… any answer could be correct, so long as it can be justified, which leaves it as difficult to define. I used to think of the word as a singular entity wherein material was either literature or it was not, but now I recognise it to be plural. Literature is the whole set of written works, as a rope is made up on many individual strands – maybe even as a Venn diagram, with lots of interfacing circles of characteristics that come together at their interface to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Here’s to the next session of the series with more ‘big ideas’ to think about, and debate, together.

Dave – Learning Together mentor, HMP Whitemoor

Flourishing creative talent

Our Learning Together community is awash with creative talent. We wanted to share a few of the creative highlights from our community over the last few weeks:

Ellie and Moses’ poems exhibited at the Heong Gallery

M&EAt the end of this year’s ‘Introduction to Criminology’ course we were delighted to welcome Joelle Taylor back to Grendon to lead a session on voice and writing. Joelle never fails to inspire and energise and everyone wrote and performed some beautiful and powerful work. Moses and Ellie worked together that afternoon and wrote two poems, which were later submitted and accepted for exhibition as part of a pop-up called ‘Take me there’ with the theme of ‘Belonging’. The exhibition was held at the Heong Gallery at Downing College in Cambridge. An audio recording of Moses and Ellie reading out their poems was played alongside the texts of their work – a beautiful tribute to their creative collaboration.

Darren’s poem: ‘While you are alone’

Darren is one of our talented ‘Free Writers’ from Whitemoor. Earlier this year, he participated in a short creative writing course with us, led by Dr Preti Taneja. Since then, he’s been busy writing a book, and, when not busily typing up his book, Darren is still enjoying writing poetry. Darren shared one of his recent works with us (in his words) ‘to show you that I am putting the writing course to good use’.


Moses and Lewey:  ‘A practice of freedom’


We love hearing from our students, and a few weeks ago, were delighted to receive a copy of a new play that Moses and Lewey have written together called ‘A practice of freedom: a play of hope, loss, change and democracy’.

The play is set over nineteen scenes with a diverse cast list that includes rioters, a character called ‘Hope’, the Queen, Prime Minister and Justice Secretary. We’re busily thinking about possibilities for a collaborative performance. All ideas welcome, and to whet your appetites, a sneak peek at the first page of the script…


Learning Together – where to next?

There are many advantages to studying whilst in prison. Education can inspire you to engage in a fascinating subject; it can keep you in touch with loved ones; it can give you a new language in which to communicate how you experience the world; and, it can give your time focus.

There are, however, some obvious drawbacks and difficulties, some of which Amy and Ruth explored in their recent conference presentation at the ICPA in Prague. Being given hope that you can live your life in a different way can often be painful, even when the endeavour is an eventual success. These feelings can be compounded in the face of brick walls and hurdles. It can feel cruel to be shown a door for which you don’t have a key and there are many things that can keep the door to the ‘freedom’ of education locked.

One significant hurdle to learning is accessing funding. Finding funding for distance learning courses, taking steps to organise continued learning upon release and accessing the support and materials that you need to study well are some of the things that can seem like a minefield. In our search for some clarity, we found that even when you find the right organisation, there are often criteria, such as sentence length or type of course, which affect the eligibility of many prospective applicants.

HE pack

So, you have all of this energy to learn something new – to see something in a new and informed way – but what do you do with that?

We have tried to respond to reflections from some of our students who have come up against problems whilst trying to find help to continue education in prisons by compiling a funding resource pack, which we hope sets out, clearly, some of the options that are available to those who wish to pursue their learning.

Our HE Resources Pack sets out what sort of funding is available, the criteria for applying and the steps needed to apply. Where possible, we have collated application forms, application form guidance, terms and conditions for applicants and catalogues for those seeking reading materials so that our pack, hopefully, has everything you need to get started. Inside you’ll find:

  • a list of organisations, trusts and charities who provide support for people studying in prisons;
  • a summary of criteria and what is offered by each organisation;
  • directions for pursuing an application to each organisation;
  • relevant literature, such as application guidelines, where they are available;
  • application forms, again, where available.

The clear front cover sets out specific criteria for those seeking higher education support. Some organisations only consider applications for post-graduate education, for example. Others request that you be within a certain time-frame of your earliest date of release. This information is laid out as comprehensively as is possible, with the hope of supporting people to make informed decisions about relevant ‘next steps’ organisations. Taking ownership for realising our value and our future selves is a key aspect of Learning Together’s philosophy. This document, hopefully, allows people who are passionate about education to do that.

So, we aim to provide anyone who needs this resource with a copy of it FOR FREE. We are starting by sending copies of the resource to all Learning Together partner prisons in England and Wales. If, however, you are struggling to get funding and cannot access this document through your Education Department, feel free to write to us to request a copy at: Learning Together, Institute of Criminology, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 9DA.

One of the core principles at the heart of Learning Together is co-creation. With this in mind, we invite anyone who uses our guide to reflect and feed back on their experiences of using it and their interactions with any of the organisations which feature in it so that we can improve the quality of the information that we share. We understand that there are many more organisations that help people in education in different ways. So, we are keen to continue to develop its content and usefulness for all keen learners and education providers. We look forward to hearing from you!

Gareth Evans, Mentoring & Alumni Coordinator

‘It all happens in the interaction – so what?’ Sharing thoughts from Learning Together at the ICPA Conference in Prague

Yesterday we spoke at the International Correctional Practitioners’ Association (ICPA) conference in Prague. The event was the ICPA’s second international research symposium and brought together an international community of academics, practitioners and policy makers who work in criminal justice, with the aim of exploring what makes for ‘good’ prisons research. We were glad to be invited to speak at this event, and  build on our keynote contribution at last year’s inaugural research symposium, which raised questions about how social science methods capture complexity in prisons research. In this blog, we share the text and slides from our presentation. By sharing three ‘snapshot’ findings about students’ experiences of Learning Together so far, we hoped to raise some methodological, theoretical, practical and ethical questions about the significance, potential and impacts of prison-university partnership working, and how we might come together to do this work well.

Slide 1

Learning Together is an educational initiative that we established just over four years ago at the University of Cambridge. Through Learning Together, we are curating communities of learning involving students from higher education institutions and students who are currently under criminal justice supervision, whether in prison or in the community. Learning Together has become a national network of over 30 criminal justice organisations and 20 higher education organisations working in partnership. Our practices build on the long British history of partnership working in the UK, dating back at least to the 1950s with some of the founding fathers of criminology, like Max Grunhut’s ‘Crime-a-challenge’ society and Nigel Walker’s prison reading and dialogue groups.

Learning Together is grounded in the commonalities of the public missions of our criminal justice and higher education organisations – both organisations are seeking to capacitate individuals for broader social good. Learning Together is also grounded in research. It is an action research initiative that is built on theory and research evidence and, through evaluation, seeks to advance that theory and evidence, using this to advance practice.

In particular, the theoretical underpinnings of Learning Together include transformative learning (especially the work of Paolo Freire), inter-group contact (about how to bring people together in ways that are meaningful and are likely to reduce perceptions and experiences of stigma and prejudice) and desistance (the processes through which people move away from crime towards positive futures). From this theory, as a Network, we have formed common vision and mission statements as well as a set of values that guide practice. Our fundamental research interest is understanding what’s transformative – individually, institutionally, socially – about education.

Last year at this conference we talked about some of the methodological challenges of capturing complexity. This year we want to share three ‘snapshot’ findings and share some thoughts about what we see as some of their potential implications and some of the methodological, practical and theoretical questions they raise for us.

Slide 2Over the last 4 years, beyond focus groups and semi-structured interviews (of which we have conducted more than 100, mostly with students, but also with some prison staff), our methods have pulled us in increasingly participatory and creative directions. Two years ago, we partnered with Vox Liminis, a grass roots Scottish community music initiative. Over a three day workshop, together with our students, we wrote and performed songs about our experiences of Learning Together. ‘Comfortably dumb’ is one of those songs and you can read the song’s lyrics in the slide above.

‘Comfortably dumb’ describes experiences of learning and growth as bringing about change across at least five key domains. These are:

  • self-esteem – a realisation that we are more than we might have thought we were – ‘greater than what you see, capable of more’;
  • perspective taking – ‘I begin to notice, things I missed before’, realising ‘the pieces we all bring, no matter where we start’;
  • social self-efficacy and connectedness – developing the capabilities to feel and be part of something – ‘the part you played, the change you made in me… the thrill of taking part’;
  • self-efficacy – ‘be all that you can be’, ‘let me prove my worth and flourish’, ‘now it’s up to me’; and
  • identity development and a sense of future orientation – ‘now a blur comes into focus, my aperture sees more’.

These five themes also emerged across our interview and focus group data. So, led by this data, and working with Dr Ingrid Obsuth (now at the University of Edinburgh), last year we identified and adapted some scales of change.

Slide 3These scales are an attempt to capture some of the most significant changes our students have told us happen through Learning Together. Last year we used these four main dimensions to our scale of change – self-efficacy, social self efficacy, perspective taking and self-esteem We ask students to answer questions about these things on a scale of 1-10 before the course and again at the end. (N.B. This year we have also added measures of general connectedness and belonging and future oriented identity development, but this data is not included in these findings).

Slide 4What this slide shows is those scales ‘in action’. It shows that that our students from HMPs Grendon and Whitemoor and the University of Cambridge in 2016-17 are reporting statistically significant improvements across all four dimensions between time 1, at the start of the course (in orange), and time 2, at the end of the course (in green).

But so what? Why might this matter? What questions does this finding raise?

What excites us about this first finding is that these constructs intersect with Learning Together’s theoretical underpinnings. For example, more positive future trajectories in terms of learning and movements away from crime involve what desistance research might call ‘agency’ (a sense of self and an ability to live this out) and what transformative learning research might call ‘grit’ (sticking with something you want to do and achieving it). These concepts map onto the concepts in our measures of self-esteem and self-efficacy. We are currently working on a paper with Ingrid Obsuth that develops this work about the relationship between our measures and Learning Together’s theoretical underpinnings. We’ll be presenting a first draft of our paper with Ingrid in Edinburgh in June.

But in a conference about ‘good research in prisons’, it is worth pointing out that we needed help from our students to come up with these measures. Our journey towards them began with a methodological critique from some of our students.

Slide 5When we began our evaluation we had set out to ‘measure’ quite narrow criminological concepts very directly. In this 5 page critique paper, our students told us that we were measuring the wrong things in the wrong ways. This brings us to a few other ‘so what?’ questions, which continue to exercise us…

How much are we led by the field in how we think about, and practice, prison-university partnership working? How open are we to hearing our students’ experiences and thinking carefully about those experiences, with our students, and in light of literature? To what extent are we led explicitly by those experiences and by the existing research evidence? Are there risks that we are in places, taking the status quo for granted and unthinkingly embedding policies and practices from higher education institutions as well as criminal justice institutions which do not necessarily follow evidence or a vision of best practice?

How sensitive are we, and can we be in our evaluation, to understanding learning experiences within their particular institutional and national socio-political contexts? How do ambitions for being data-led sit within institutional realities that can sometimes drive towards quicker, narrower, more instrumental forms of evaluation? If, for institutional reasons, it is not possible to live out our evidence based values, and make space to honour and respond to students experiences, is there space to voice this or might we need to exit partnership working? Are there red lines in this work, ways in which it should not be done, and if so,  what are they?

How do our ways of asking questions about experiences of learning together shape what we can and can’t see about people’s experiences? As Ben Crewe said in his talk earlier, ‘the view is different from the dance floor rather than the balcony’. What messages do our research questions and methods communicate about the nature of our learning communities and their ambitions? Research can be a tool of community building, but without care, it can also result in the entrenchment of existing power dynamics and penal and educational policies and practices that do not follow the evidence.

Our second snapshot finding builds on our first. We’ve shown already how students’ self-assessment indicates increases across all four measures of self-esteem, self-efficacy, social self-efficacy and perspective taking. But we wanted to go further and understand the relationship between these four measures and their increases – we wanted to get a sense of what might be doing the work. We know from existing research that there is a link between self-esteem and self-efficacy; there are plenty of programmes that focus on building up self-esteem in order to achieve behavioural change. And when we looked at this in our own data, we found that there was a statistically significant directional relationship between self-esteem and self-efficacy, which is reflected in this model on the slide.

Slide 6This relationship in the quantitative data rang true to us – we could see from interview data that self-esteem was a factor in people describing increases in their self-efficacy. But it didn’t seem to be the full picture…

In interviews, our students had been saying that it’s connections that really mattered and so we wondered what role social self-efficacy might be playing. And when we modelled that statistically, we found that, in addition to changes in self-esteem being related to changes in general self-efficacy, changes in social self-efficacy were also significantly related to general self-efficacy. In other words, it wasn’t just self-esteem that was doing the work.

Slide 7Even more excitingly, it wasn’t just that self-esteem and social self-efficacy were linked to general self-efficacy. When we added social self-efficacy into the model, the link between self-esteem and general self-efficacy became non-significant.

Slide 8This suggests that increases in social self-efficacy may increase a sense of self-esteem, which in turn helps increase general self-efficacy. In other words, it is through developed social self-efficacy that self-esteem is related to empowerment. Social self-efficacy seems to be ‘in the driving seat’.

So why might that matter and what bigger questions might it ask?

First, this emerging data helps us to push beyond merely focusing on individuals. This data emphasises the importance of understanding learners in relation with each other, and broader within networks of other learners and kinship. This has methodological and theoretical consequences. Theoretically, it has pushed us down a more ‘social’ path, picking up on some of the more social strands within literatures that have inspired the design of Learning Together (such as Beth Weaver’s work in desistance on co-production), as well as encouraging us to learn about new literatures beyond criminology and education, like Richard Sennett’s work on the public realm and the ‘craft of cooperation’. Methodologically, we’ve become exercised about how we go beyond narrow individual focuses in our questions and methods to capture the interpersonal and contextual.

From a practical perspective, this finding asks questions of our higher education and criminal justice institutions. It asks pedagogical questions of our universities – how do we avoid merely replicating often pedagogically impoverished (highly individualised) versions of higher education, in favour of a more ambitious engagement with research evidence of how people learn well and the role of interactions within this? If social relationships and networks really are core to learning, how seriously are we taking the educational (and, we would argue, ethical) imperative to build learning communities rather than one off courses? Continued contract and collaboration between students asks questions of penal policy and practice in terms of risk management and the right approach to working through and across walls.

Finally, what we think this funding speaks to is that the texture and contours of our learning communities really matters because they shape the nature and quality of interactions within and beyond them. And so who’s included, and who’s excluded are important questions, as is thinking about the location and nature of our communal and institutional edges. How do we simultaneously practice, evaluate and theorise community building, and what role is there for thinking about harms, pains and discomforts in that community building?

On that, we want to come to a third and final snapshot finding – one which we are continuing to think and write about – which is something about the characteristics of transformative learning communities and the costs of getting it wrong. Our students are helping us to understand what they see as some of the important characteristics of interactions in transformative learning communities. In 2015, one of our students, Gareth, shared the following:

Slide 9bWe’ve highlighted, in red, what we think are some of the most significant aspects of what Gareth says. His reflections emphasise a sense of parity and equality between the students – a sense of not being judged. Gareth also takes about care and humanity and a sense of his potential being nurtured with a future oriented sense of progression and development.Slide 10Neil, another of our students from 2015, echoed Gareth’s comments about care and welcome, and a sense of future oriented ‘building’ towards something in which he felt invested. Neil’s reflections also emphasise the important of content, and common tasks that all students could work on together and contribute to equally (in terms of questions and topics).

But our students have also talked to us about some of the costs of getting interaction wrong. Not all interactions are good – some can be experienced as objectifying, as Neil went on to say in his interview with us:

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 13.00.31These sorts of interaction risk entrenching and compounding prejudice, stigma and binary or divisive thinking. On this, we’ve found the work of human geographer, Jill Valentine, especially helpful because of the distinction she draws between ‘mere encounter’ and ‘meaningful encounter’. We think this distinction intersects in interesting ways with inter-group contact theory, which talks about the contours of contact that are helpful to reduce stigma and prejudice – and we know that reducing stigma and prejudice is important to movements away from crime. We are continuing to think about our data in this light.

Even where we are giving careful thought to the contours within which interactions take place within our learning communities, our students have made us alive to the realities that learning together still doesn’t feel straightforwardly positive. It is hard, painful and potentially harmful.

Slide 12Here, Shaun speaks to some of the intrinsic challenges of social interaction and learning with new people. Hayden speaks to some of the pains of making new connections and discovering new hopes and passions but being reminded of boundaries and the realisation that he ‘can’t go home with these people’.

Similarly, in 2017, Patrick talked to us about the pains he felt leaving Grendon and going back to university, and realising that love and friendship can grow in unexpected ways and places and that the imprisonment of people we love, and might count as friends, constrains us all.

Slide 13And, in 2016, John shared some painful realisations that emerged for him through the course when he began to acknowledge his own potential, which made him recognise wasted opportunities and feel the frustrations of glimpsing a different future from within the constraints of his current circumstances in prison.

Slide 14John’s thoughts speak to a ‘cliff-edge’ that can happen at the end of courses, and leaves us uncomfortably pondering the harms of taking people to a cliff edge, with a beautiful view, and leaving them there. We wanted to leave you and finish this presentation on that cliff edge with us and John, wondering about how we best, together, move forward to find the methods to evaluate this work in ways that can shed light on the ‘unknown unknowns’ (to quote Ben Crewe, quoting Donald Rumsfeld). How might we generate new knowledge and use it to develop our theoretical and practice frameworks so they can acknowledge and hold pain, understand and minimise harm and work together towards the good?


Learning Together – reflections from students on the Butler Law Course

At our end of course conference for the Butler Law Course in HMP Warren Hill two of our students, Hayden and Aaron, shared some of their reflections on taking part in Learning Together. Both spoke thoughtfully and passionately and so, with thanks to them both for sharing the text of their words with us, we are delighted to publish their speeches here, so that they can be enjoyed more broadly within our learning community. On the day, Hayden and Aaron set their reflections to music, which can be found here.

Hayden on Learning Together

Enrolling in Learning Together has been, without a doubt, one of the best decisions I’ve made in my time at Cambridge. I’ll leave here and tell everyone I know: if you have time, do it. And if you don’t have time, make time to do it.

Many things have reminded me of the programme over the last few months. I want to tell you a few things that have spoken to me throughout this process. Obviously, the message of our course of ‘access to Justice’ resonates often in the media and in pop culture. However, interestingly, the first thing that happened was when I was listening to a science podcast about the galaxy. I should probably preface this by saying that I understood very little of it, so I may be completely misinterpreting it, but it suits my overall message. Basically, our galaxy is expanding. But it isn’t expanding INTO anything, as if it wasn’t already full. Rather, the borders of the galaxy are stretching, like if you are blowing more air into a full balloon. That’s how I feel about my mindset after the first session in Learning Together. I thought I was open-minded, and I’m sure I was open-minded. But like the galaxy stretching its boundaries, I immediately felt my boundaries expand past limits I didn’t know they had.

The second thing came from a talk I was at last night about forensic psychotherapy. The talk was … interesting, but I did gain fruitful insight from a few comments. She talked about how prejudice, particularly regarding criminality and anti-social behaviour, is lazy intellect. She said that our society is obsessed with victim-hood and fails to recognise the victim-hood in perpetrators. Our society wants to control or correct someone, rather than understand someone. As someone who has studied victims throughout her PhD but has also grown to deeply respect the people in this program with me, her messages seemed particularly pertinent and urgent. And they directly relate to my last point.

The last comment that really touched me throughout this experience was a comment that Aaron made about the Norwegian criminal justice system. We all semi-joke about how the Scandinavian countries do life better than everyone else, and I saw no reason to assume differently about their justice system, but I’d never heard of their prison system before. The Norwegian system is one of the nicest and most comfortable prison systems in the world, accompanied by a recidivism rate of only about 20%. Norway views a crime as not only a loss for the perpetrator, but a loss to society. Reading up on it last night, the junior minister for justice remarked ‘It is in the public interest, when it comes to security, that you receive rehabilitation when you are inside the prison system so that you can go out and lead the life that everybody else takes for granted.” I agree with Norway, and my belief has only been strengthened by my involvement in Learning Together. Crime not only punishes the perpetrator and the victim, but it is a loss to society. Society loses the incredible potential, the intelligence, the passion and curiosity that would contribute to its development. As well, it’s a failure on the part of society. Because every person is valuable and capable, we should continue to strive for a society that gives everyone a fair chance to find that potential, intelligence, passion or curiosity.

I’m sorry for rambling on! I just want to reiterate how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to get to know you all, both Cambridge and Warren Hill students. Thank you for stretching my mind past its boundaries, and for sharing with me all of your passion, your brilliance, and your thoughtfulness. Learning Together has certainly been an experience I’ll never forget.

Aaron on Learning Together

It may be true that today… we live in an age of greatness.

An age in which our intellectual capacity out-muscles all previous historical era’s… where people, in many cases, are living for longer… where poverty lines are lifting across the globe and where the machinery we use to fulfil our needs is becoming ever more efficient and effective.

But even while we are in such a great era of human progress… our society is currently going through some of its deepest problems in recent history. Many injustices have come to light in a concentrated period of time that have served to deepen the distrust and disrespect that many people hold towards the authorities that govern our lands and institutions.

Events and subjects such as; Brexit, austerity, police corruption, institutional racism, child abuse, political dishonesty and disunity, sexism, terrorism, hate crime, gun crime, gang crime… to name just a handful… have all served to turn people away from the type of citizenship a great nation needs in order to utilise and justify its greatness…

And it could be argued, that society as a whole, has become more divided and self-serving as a result.

This wider context of our world today is important to hold in our minds, especially the disparity between our progress and our problems. Because it’s this disparity that paints the most intricate picture… and tells the most beautiful story… about what this Learning Together team is achieving within our society. As an initiative it’s bringing together two very different environments… two very different sets of people… with two very different types of history – in the name of building a common future together. It’s a way of allowing our progress to inform our problems and for our problems to inform our progress… whilst at the same time, reducing the disparity between the two. In an age where the unifying of perspectives is such a critical part of the solution – this initiative is very important for the future shape of this nation.

Throughout my time growing up on the landings of this prison institution, I have learned some fundamental lessons about humanity… about justice – and about perspective, which for me acts as the binding agent between the two. The more I learned and understood, the more my perspective changed… and so did my judgements about people. I began to see the truth behind choice… and the reason enshrined within circumstance…. and since then, I’ve been trying to make a positive difference.

But such a task is by no means easy in environments such as these – and I have seen many good people become disbelieving and dejected about what they saw to be their failed efforts to make a difference. I’ve seen people become embittered and harsh in their judgements about the people and problems within this environment… and I have seen a great many people give up on the humanity here, at least in their hearts anyway. This learning together team – Amy, Ruth and Jack… and the governor here at HMP Warren Hill have demonstrated a strong commitment and a belief to make a lasting difference on this institution which I hope only gets stronger the further in they travel. Because I believe, that these environments hold the key to the next evolutionary stage of our society…

There’s a story within me that keeps playing when times get tough… I’m unsure where this story comes from, it could have come from a book, a film, or it could be a manifestation of my personal experiences about the people and environments within our world…

But the story is about an old man from an old village… and every day he would make the same trip. He would travel down to the local swamp with a big bucket of fresh water – and he would throw this water into the swamp…

Now the rest of the villagers were unsure about this man’s intentions… some people were wary of him and said that he was mad – insane. Others would laugh at him and say that his efforts to change the environment were futile… as a result the old man became isolated and distant – the kids would throw stones at him and mock him – and at times they would ask him why he wasted fresh water on a dirty toxic swamp. The old man found it difficult to answer these questions because he didn’t possess the correct language to explain his purpose. He would struggle, not just with the outside world – but even within himself at times – and he would try to make sense of his purpose.

What the villagers didn’t know about this man – was that he understood something about his place in this world and the duty enshrined within his wisdom. He understood that he was a part of a large system and he felt the connectivity within all things – even though his place small, and his time short – he understood that his actions today would have a great effect on tomorrow’s world… and so this feeling is what motivated him to keep sharing his water supplies with the local swamp – and even though he may never see the results of his actions in this lifetime – he was assured that they would one day assist both the swamp – and the villagers in more ways than one.

This story sings a song to me about this universe and our place within it. It tells me that no matter how hard the task may seem and no matter how many people block the way – it’s important that we keep assisting our environments and the social worlds they are. We are a part of this whole – and in turn, (especially for those who can feel it) this whole is a part of us.

People have said to me in the past -and someone said it to me very recently – that I am too positive and optimistic about the world around me… they call me an idealist – and say that I am naïve about the big bad people out here. But these judgements have not understood my perspective – and at times fail to see who and what I have been through. So today – I want to tell them something about this subject whilst finishing my point about this initiative and its relevance within today’s society.

I’ve met corruption and I’ve been harmed by it.

I’ve met ignorance and I’ve been harmed by it.

I’ve met hate, and trust me I’ve been harmed by it.

I’ve met loss, I’ve met pain, I’ve met anger, I’ve met distrust, befrayal and misfortune – and I’ve met people that aligned themselves against me for believing in and promoting goodness… within environments that were built for the bad – and I’ve been harmed by it, hardened by it. Scarred by it… so if you think you know me – think again…and realise that it’s not naivety that channels my perspective or utopianism that directs my aim, but it’s an understanding about what’s wrong with our judgments in today’s world and their self-fulfilling capacity.

The fabric of my love and compassion is in fact, built in defence of all people and what I believe humanity to be…which is a family. A family that must learn together… for its learning together that keeps us in balance, in sync and instead.

This prison institution is a dark and hard place at times and some of its environments mask great human tragedies. I believe that it’s here, within this troubled place that our society will find itself. For if its true that a structure is only as strong as its weakest part and if these environments represents our greatest weaknesses – then it is the study and evolution of this place that matters most.

It is within the art of rehabilitation that humanity will both; learn and exercise some of its greatest lessons.

My name is Aaron and I thank you all for listening.

The Butler Law Course End of Course Conference – an inspiring day at HMP Warren Hill

On Thursday 26 April, HMP Warren Hill hosted the end of course conference for The Butler Law Course, a Learning Together partnership between Warren Hill and the University of Cambridge, which has been running since November 2017.

Throughout the course, a group of 15 students have learnt about the legal system, developed their legal research skills, heard from inspiring guest speakers from the legal profession and researched and produced their own legal advice materials on topics about which there is currently little clear, accessible and predictable information.

The students produced a wide range of legal materials including: an advice guide for category A prisoners; a guide to licence conditions for men and women serving indeterminate sentences; three guides for litigants in person; and a guide for men serving sentences at Her Majesty’s Pleasure about the process of mid-tariff reviews. The quality of this work took centre stage on the day with large display boards featuring the students’ work and posters depicting their motivations and research processes. Guests were quick to begin exploring the legal materials, alongside a brief introduction to the prison’s Raptor (birds of prey) and art projects and a warm welcome by the Warren Hill barista team, who are working towards qualifications in hospitality and catering.

Our conference began with introductions and welcomes from the prison’s Govenor, Sonia Walsh, and the Directors of Learning Together, Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong. Sonia spoke about the power of learning and transformation within both a prison and university context, and how Learning Together had empowered all of the students in novel and exciting ways that will equip them all to lead positive futures. Amy and Ruth shared some of the history of Learning Together, and their motivations for founding the initiative, which is grounded in Paolo Freire’s work and vision of  ‘education as the practice of freedom’.

Next, Shaun, a student on the course, performed two original poems about his experiences of justice, ‘Letter to My Mother’ and ‘State of Affairs’. His performance was met with rapturous applause. I took the stage next to talk about my experiences as Course Convener. My speech focused on my own route into law, the structure of the course, how we designed it, inspired by Tom Bingham’s ‘Rule of Law’ book to focus on strengthening access to justice, and most importantly,  the students’ achievements throughout the last few months. I highlighted three qualities that I felt our students have embodied in their learning journeys together. These were:

  1. a belief in the fundamental principles of our legal system and a commitment to the rule of law, justice and fairness;
  2. a commitment to social change through a common belief that the system must ‘be better’ to deliver justice to more people, more sections of society, more often and more humanely; and
  3. dedication of time, physical and emotional energy in striving for these ideals and principles. As Tom Bingham argued, ‘aspiration without action is sterile. It is deeds that matter. We are enjoined by the doers of the world, and not hearers only.’

After I spoke, we welcomed guest speaker, Professor Phil Scraton, who spoke about his passionate work in the fight for justice, including through the Hillsborough inquiry and his life-long fight to hold those responsible for the tragedy to account.

After much food for thought from Phil’s talk, everyone was put to work! A skillful catering team from the prison used the event to put their training into practice and prepared an excellent buffet lunch for everyone. Plates were quickly filled and everyone returned to small groups to start familiarising themselves with the legal resources that the students had produced, ready to present short summaries of that work to everyone after lunch. Thirty minutes of animated conversation and note-taking later, everyone came back together, with small groups taking it in turn to present what had been discussed and feedback given by an expert panel of three fantastic lawyers: Clair Dobbin, Lorna Hackett and John Samuels QC. The responses from the panel, and the discussions initiated by the presentations were excellent, highlighting the high levels of skill that had been developed by all students, as well as the urgent gaps in existing information and support, which the resources they had created can go some way to addressing.

After more poetry from another Warren Hill resident, which explored themes of freedom, anxiety and equality, two students shared their experiences of taking part in the law course. Hayden spoke of how the course had expanded her mind:

‘Basically, our universe is expanding. But it isn’t expanding into anything, as if it wasn’t already full. Rather, the borders of the galaxy are stretching, like if you are blowing more air into a full balloon. That’s how I feel about my mindset after the first session of Learning Together. I thought I was open-minded, and I’m sure I was open-minded. But like the galaxy stretching its boundaries, I immediately felt my boundaries expand past limits I didn’t know they had.’

Aaron spoke of how projects like Learning Together can be responsible for wider changes in society and live up to the values of justice and fairness:

‘This wider context of our world today is important to hold in our minds, especially the disparity between our progress and our problems. Because it’s the disparity that paints the most intricate picture, and which tells the most beautiful story, about what this Learning Together team is achieving within our society. As an initiative it’s bringing together two very different environments, two very different sets of people, with two very different types of history, in the name of building a common future together. It’s a way of allowing our progress to inform our problems and our problems to inform our progress, while at the same time, reducing the disparity between the two. In an age where the unifying of perspectives is such a critical part of the solution, this initiative is very important for the future shape of this nation.’

Both speeches moved many people to tears. A standing ovation followed.

Next, we heard from Matt, Head of Learning and Skills at Warren Hill. Matt spoke of how his experience of being part of the Butler Law Course spoke to some of his aspirations for joining the Prison Service and his experience of seeing the difference it made to the students, as well as the importance and transformative potential of education in the prison setting.

Music followed next. First, Ben, another of our excellent Learning Together students, performed a rap that he had written in which he shared some of the pains of transformation and his plans and hope for a brighter future. And then, Snape Music, who shared three of the original songs that had been co-created with residents from Warren Hill. All of the music was uplifting and inspirational, and showcased some of the brilliant creative talent within the room – the perfect precursor to the presentation of certificates of achievement, with a short account provided of each group’s work and growth.

The day finished somewhat as it started, with another poem, this time about experiences of the course, called ‘Two Worlds Collide’, which was written and performed by Shaun. We have published this poem in a previous blog post and you can read it here. After that, Amy and Ruth drew proceedings to a close, sharing some of their reflections on the day and thanking the many people who have worked hard to support and enable our partnership working, including small gifts for some of our Warren Hill colleagues made by Grace Chocolates, a company which produces beautiful chocolates and provides second chances for women with criminal convictions in Scotland. Some of Amy and Ruth’s words included the following:

‘One of the most poignant questions that has emerged for us from today is the question of how we further social change and progress in ways that take everyone with us – in ways that are not naive to the realities of where we are now, and the shortcomings of both of our institutions, but which grow the best of what is and can be, and thereby move us towards our potential. How do we further change in ways that recognise that we can’t stand apart from the system – that we are the system and that we have agency and a responsibility to change it, for the better. What’s exciting about what we are doing here is that our learning community is venturing to speak truth to power by speaking truth to each other and by recognising that we each have power and responsibility. We are positioning our community as standing with and among everyone. We are pooling our talents, experiences and passions to go further together, seeking to build upon the best of ‘what is’ towards an unashamedly optimistic and ambitious vision of what could be. We can’t change the world – but, together, we can the change the bits of our worlds that we are standing in together right now.’

By Jack Merritt, Butler Law Course convener

This post is dedicated to all the students of the Butler Law Course in recognition of their outstanding achievements throughout the course. 


‘Does imprisonment cause crime?’ – Ryan’s reflections

One of our fantastic Learning Together alumni, Megan Sharp, is now teaching at the University of Leeds and, in preparation for one of her modules, she has been reaching out across our Network to ask people’s views about whether imprisonment causes crime. In this blog post we share a submission from Ryan, one of our Butler Law Course students.

Does imprisonment cause crime?

This essay will assess the claim that imprisonment causes crime, drawing on the work of Gibbs (1986) to consider whether or not prison acts as a deterrent, and drawing also on the work of Hobbs and Dunningham to assess whether imprisonment seeks to further entrench criminals in more serious organised crime. Labelling and self-fulling prophecy theories will be explored to try and understand the relationship between social exclusion and further crime.

Crime, according to Clinard, refers to those activities that break the law of the land and are subject to official punishment.

According to the criminal justice system, ‘imprisonment is there to act as a deterrent’. Individuals found guilty of committing a crime can expect to be sentenced by the courts. The sentence is often considered to serve a primary expressive function; it conveys to the offender the public’s reaction to their conduct in the criminal offence. An intention that drives the sentencing process, in the case of custodial sentences, is that it should alter criminal behaviour by attaching negative consequences to it. This is the typical example of what is entitled utilitarian, on consequentialist, rationale for punishment as a result of crime (Walker 1991). It is founded on the idea that legal sanctions will have an impact on individuals made subject to them. These sets of expectations are often referred to as  deterrence theory, Gibbs (1986) (cited in Davis and Beech 2012).

Furthermore, deterrent effects can be subdivided with respect to different sections of intended outcomes. One basic conventional distinction is that between specific and general deterrence. The latter refers to the wider effect this is expected to have on the others, and on the community as a whole if committing crime is known to be punished; the public should be less likely to do it, as they have observed that it will result in unpleasantness for them (Davis and Beech 2012).

I would argue that deterrence theory can have the adverse effect when individuals are leaving prison. For example, in working-class areas, individuals often have no means or opportunities to express themselves in relation to others; release from prison gives some individuals a chance to receive an element of notoriety or stardom amongst their like-minded peers. Because of this, individuals experiencing social exclusion, and those who cannot find ways to express themselves, can use prison as a platform to achieve recognition which they otherwise wouldn’t achieve.

Another way in which imprisonment may cause crime is explained by labelling theory. Once an individual has received a custodial sentence, they will acquire the label ‘criminal’. This label defines an individual as a particular kind of person. A label is not neutral: it contains an evaluation of the person to whom it is applied. If individuals are labelled as criminals, others see them and respond to them in terms of the label, and tend to assume they have the negative characteristics normally associated with such labels. Since individuals’ self-concepts are largely derived from the responses of others, they will tend to see themselves in terms of the label. This could produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moreover, once an individual has received this label they are less likely to achieve success via conventional channels, and so there is greater pressure on them to deviate. Their educational qualifications are usually low and if they do receive a job, the job itself provides little opportunity for advancement. Merton expressed the problem as “they [ex-offenders] have little access to conventional and legitimate means for becoming successful. Since their way is blocked, they innovate, turning to crime which promises greater rewards than legitimate means” (Merton as cited in Haralambos and Holborn 2013).

The above concept rings true amongst individuals caught up in the system. Those who have received a custodial sentence will often dwell on the hardship they will experience, on release, of persuading an employer to give them a chance. This falls in line with the self-fulfilling prophecy; now an individual feels that they will not be given a chance they do not feel the need to work hard whilst in prison to receive qualifications. This of course decreases their chances of securing a job upon release. Once an individual is experiencing the hardship of not getting employment they could ultimately go back to what they know best, crime.

Hobbs and Dunningham (1990) examined how criminal careers are related to wider economic changes. They argue that organised crime increasingly involves individuals together in loose knit networks, who treat their criminal career rather like they would a business career. They are constantly on the look-out for new business opportunities. Prison gives individuals ample opportunity to encourage and reward criminal activity. When individuals are submersed into the custodial setting one could argue that they form a subculture, and may be subject to the subculture theory: this argues that certain groups, in this scenario the prisoners develop norms and values which are to some extent different to those held by other members of society. Subculture theories claim that crime is the result of individuals conforming to the values and norms of the social group to which they belong (Hobbs and Dunningham 1990, as cited in Haralambos and Holborn 2013).

Prison detains people from different walks of life. Experiences are shared, tips, tricks and networking occur. Individuals who are in involved in organised crime are regularly on the lookout for candidates who will be suitable for their empire. Sometimes these candidates are unaware that they are being targeted which, in turn, can lead to manipulation. Those serving shorter sentences can sometimes be encouraged to involve themselves in the criminal acts, whilst the leader is still serving time. Drugs are a classic example of this. For instance, some people are recruited whilst in prison to smuggle contraband back into prisons following their release. Had the conditions in prison not been present to enable the relationship to develop, the criminal act would not have been possible. Therefore, if an alternate form of punishment had been administered, the criminal act may not have occurred.

In conclusion, drawing upon a number of theories, including labelling theory, deterrence theory and subculture theory, this essay has argued that imprisonment can lead to crime. A testament from an individual serving time has also been used. The three theories used can ring true to many individuals caught up in the justice system; however, it should be noted that not all individuals fall victim of the above models.

My name is Ryan. Since I was sentenced, I have experienced 11 different prisons. I am now in a cat C prison and although I have argued that imprisonment causes crime, the prison where I am now is a brilliant testimony of how imprisonment might reduce crime.