Liveblog: Learning Together – prisoners education conference

Coverage from the roundtable on education in prisons

Prison education rehabilitation class Mark Harvey

A civilian tutor helping inmates in a class. Photograph: Mark Harvey

Learning Together is an educational initiative that brings together students in prison and at university to learn in partnership.

A roundtable on 10 November investigated best practices to help make prison the most valuable experience possible. The Prison Watch covered the event live throughout the day. Start at the bottom and scroll up to catch up on all the crucial points.


How do I put this into practice? Q&A session

Karen Graham, Ingrid Obsuth, Baz Dreisinger panel education in prisons

Audience members consult the experts on overcoming practical obstacles to teaching in prisons

  • Q. How do prison officers respond to the education programmes?
  • A. One of two ways: either with great enthusiasm and they start joining in, they clearly want an education too, or, with resentment that prisoners have committed a crime and then receive a free education – Baz Dreisinger


  • Q.  If prisoners who have such a negative idea of the classroom, how do you go about neutralising that in prison? – Jason Warr – Lincoln University lecturer
  • A. In prison it’s as simple as showing that you give a damn. I found that they didn’t have a negative view of education but a low expectation of themselves as a result of their experiences – Karen Graham
  • A. I have to counter – in the first semester particularly – that level of self doubt. It is deeply embedded. We do a lot in the recruitment effort to show that this is not High school. We are engaging in a very different discourse here – Baz Dresinger


  • Q. Some teachers say they enjoy taking on the parental role and others say that cannot cross that boundary. How do you demonstrate pastoral support but still emphasise education? – Helen Nichols, criminology course leader, Leeds Beckett University
  • A. I am very involved with my students but at the same time I am still their professor. There is a natural understanding where those lines are inside and when they come home. I think it would be impossible to be a just professional relationship – Baz Dreisinger


Prison to college pipeline

A moving video that brings to life the prison-to-college pipeline:

“Becoming a student again has really been quite a ride,” exclaims one participant.

Baz Dreisinger prison to college pipelineBaz Dreisinger, who set up the programme, says in the video: “The stakes are very high. They know that they are redefining themselves. They take it very seriously.

Now Dreisinger addresses the room. She said people always ask: “does it work?” How define it ‘working’ is critical. To most, that means reducing recidivism. To me, it’s about civil rights, equal access and giving people opportunities who were previously denied them.

“It is spectacular and I don’t think I could have envisioned that. It’s the most wonderful thing to watch students transform before your eyes. Their sense of achievement and possibility is radically different.”

“It can feel great to go in and teach some incredible students. But that also worries me – it can normalise prison. There is something distressing about being in a place that I don’t consider to be a viable response to crime.”


Pattern of ongoing isolation

Karen Graham

Next up in the seminar is Karen Graham, who taught in HMP Birmingham and then Stafford.

She conducted inductions for male prisoners every week, which included asking about their educational background.

Regardless of age or ethnicity, she heard the same story: being singled out from a young age as a child with problems.

“So I thought there must be something happening at school.”

She said they were frequently finding themselves excluded from the classroom, staring at a wall.

“I noticed how much this was mirrored in their experiences in prison.”

One prisoner who Graham often finds herself quoting said:

“Well I had been sitting staring at that wall, day after day for so long, when they put me in a cell, very little changed.” – Jason


Education as the practice of freedom

Ingrid Obsuth

We’re back from the break with a seminar, Education as the practice of freedom, about education an its wide-reaching implications, presented by different educators in prisons.

Firstly Ingrid Obsuth shares some points about types of exclusion from school and its impact:


  • Boys are three times more likely to be excluded than girls
  • By punishing young people who are already not bonded to the school we are giving them a school sanctioned holiday. They must return to school and do better
  • Excluded children are at a higher risk of failing GCSEs, self-harming and ending up in the criminal justice system

Introducing the Engage in Education programme: 12-week long group sessions, comprising:

  • an intervention programme
  • one to one sessions
  • training for teachers on managing young people better.


  1. Short term bolt on interventions that are not integrated into school are not likely to succeed.
  2. Complex needs require complex interventions. We need a more nuanced response.
  3. Focus on teacher’s and headteacher’s training and school ethos.

Core recommendations: make school somewhere children feel wanted and safe. Instead of excluding children, include them and make an effort to connect.


The prison-to-college pipeline program

Baz Dreisinger from the John Jay college of criminal justice explains the educational programme reaching out to prisoners in New York State.

It struck me that we had nothing going on with education within in prisons. That is ridiculous.

Students start programme on the inside and slowly accrue credits. When they come out they support them with every aspect of release and helps them to enroll in college.

They bring students from the outside into the prison to take classes alongside their incarcerated peers. It is “enormously powerful and effective”.

Baz Dreisinger prison to college pipeline programme

Reversing the flow: instead of heading from school to prison, the programme helps channel people from prison into school

It recreates normal learning environments for those inside and is transformative for students on the outside, challenging how they perceive those inside and in the criminal justice system.

The idea of the prison to college pipeline is to reverse the flow of school to prison that happens all too often across America.

Leaving prison is the perfect moment to plant the seed of educational possibilities. It’s the sense of meeting needs you have when you come home, needing potent recognition, sense of hope, possibility and a new beginning.

“The eve of return is a rich moment for opportunity.”

The US is on the brink of a game-changing moment. There have been positive movements from Obama, looking like he’ll increase financial aid for education for those in prison.

Time to stop for lunch – more after the break


Everything you need to know about effective mentoring – and why it matters

Peter Atherton and Matthew Kidd on community-led initiatives.

Matthew Kidd grew up in a middle-class family and attended a Manchester comprehensive. He was fascinated by humanities and learning but there was no outlet for him, no place for that interest in his family and peer group.

“There was no one to help me connect with learning, eventually I just gave up.”

Eventually he became bored of the subject – and turned to hard drugs.

“My life could have ended up very differently had I had peer mentoring, and someone introduce me to the benefits of learning.”


Lessons in learning from Scottish prisons

Nikki Cameron, manager of Cornton Vale of Scottish prison service, explains the New Generation Contract, which runs educational partnerships in drama, arts and philosophy across Scotland.


Learning from experience: the pains and gains of teaching philosophy in prison

All the trials and tribulations, as told by Kirstine Szifris, Phd student at the University of Cambridge.

“We create a community of philosophy inquiry. I introduce different ideas to get them talking and thinking.”

At HMP Full Sutton, she taught a mixed group, including athiests, Muslims and people from other schools of thought. At first they’d return to their cells afterwards on their own. After some time, they would walk back together, discussing the class.

Feedback from the students included:

“It’s not just looking at your interactions with other people it’s looking at why I am thinking the way I am” – Phil, 37, HMP Gendon

“Looking to and talking about things in the abstract can help you to actually look again at the person from a different point of view” – Colin, 60, HMP Full Sutton

Szifris finished with this:

“It’s important the prison is a space where people can develop the positive parts of themselves – and often that is missing in prisons.”


A view from the high security estate

Norman Griffin, HMP Frankland governor

Norman Griffin, the governing governor at HMP Frankland, describes the transformative power of education for those who some deem beyond help.

The population at high security prisons present the greatest need for intervention, and we need to find some more creative ways of intervening.
If we don’t address that we will have a bulging aging prison population and that can’t be healthy.

“We have students coming in to learn with some of the most supposedly dangerous people in our society.”


A view from Grendon

“I know from my own life story education can be significant and help people transform,” says Jamie Bennett, governor of HMP Grendon. He grew up with a single young mother and in some degree of poverty.

Grendon is the only prison that runs “entirely as a series of democratic therapeutic communities.” The experience is:

  • based on psychotherapy – enables the process of change by going back into childhood
  • democratic – meaning we invest people with trust and responsibility. They take responsibility for themselves and their community
  • whilst people are going through therapy we encourage creativity, we have the largest concentration of distance learning in the country

What does Learning Together mean to Grendon?

  • People feel that they are getting a high quality education
  • Students feel they are not getting “prison education,” but normal education
  • The association with Cambridge is important, people and their families are proud of that.
  • Helps people move beyond their identity of being an offender, to being a student.

“Social institutions not only reflect power and inequality, they entrench power and inequality”.
It’s no accident that prisons are full of poor people and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

This course seeks to resist some of those implications of social institutions.
Firstly by bringing people together in a learning environment from very different backgrounds. So it confronts those issues of power and inequality by putting them on the same platform.
It benefits students in Cambridge too. Generally they are from more privileged background. They are acquiring social capital. They will be in influential and powerful positions in the future. It is important to confront them with the subjects of their power.


No more ‘failing’

Amy Ludlow picks up from Ruth Armstrong’s introduction, explaining how Cambridge students work with students in prison.

  • Our starting point is that people connect through content. Content is critical, it has a journey.
  • Education is challenging – it should be challenging.
  • We don’t use the word ‘fail’ for essays. We write ‘not yet’. This is important.

We treat all our students as co-creators so we take feedback seriously. There is continued support, finishing the course doesn’t finish the connection.

Points we want to work on:

  • creating learning environments that are safe
  • bringing an alumni network together
  • educational mentoring.


Broadening horizons

Ruth Armstrong introduces the vision, values and practices of Learning Together:

“Education can be a practice of freedom, says Armstrong. Desistance is a process that needs to be supported, not imposed.”

Values are important and local practices that grow out of those are really important. These values are:

  • relational
  • connection
  • opportunity
  • potential
  • learning happens best in collaboration.

We aim through Learning Together to broaden horizons. Education is one means to connect people in a social transformative way.

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