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Students and prisoners graduate together at HMP Full Sutton


Prisoners at HMP Full Sutton, who studied alongside Leeds Beckett University Criminology students, have graduated after completing a degree-level programme taught within the prison.

Dr Helen Nichols, Shaun Williamson and Dr Bill Davies

Twelve prisoners at the High Security prison, near Pocklington in East Yorkshire, enrolled as students at Leeds Beckett University, taking part in the Learning Together criminology module at the prison with 11 final-year Leeds Beckett University students.

The Learning Together course was developed in partnership with the University of Cambridge which delivers a similar programme; however, the notable difference is that prisoners on the Leeds Beckett course were registered students, with all 23 prisoner and student participants receiving 20 level six (final year undergraduate) university credits following their successful completion of the module.

Jennifer Willis, Governor at Full Sutton, opened the graduation ceremony and later outlined her thoughts on the programme “I am delighted by the success and impact that this initiative has had on our men, both in terms of their personal pride, drive, and educational attainment, and the ability to allow people to expand their thinking. I am equally pleased about the impact this has had on the perceptions that people outside of the walls have of people within custody –seeing integrated working has truly developed the concept of Learning (and understanding) Together.”

Dr Bill Davies and Dr Helen Nichols
Dr Bill Davies and Dr Helen Nichols

Dr Bill Davies, Co-leader of the Prison Research Network at Leeds Beckett and Senior Lecturer in Criminology, explained: “The Learning Together project gives prisoners the opportunity to learn at a higher level. They want to learn and they want the chance to keep occupied. Our aim was to offer them a chance to start on a different trajectory for their futures.”

Speaking about his experience, one of the prison learners commented: “I can’t stress enough how successful it’s been. Before, I felt hopeless. I did my O-Levels but didn’t continue with my education and have seen my kids go to university; my step son is currently doing a degree. Now I feel that I have joined them. It’s given me a strong belief in myself and a drive to do more. My life isn’t finished because I’m in prison and this course has made me feel like I matter: I haven’t felt like that in a long time. Now I would like to act as a mentor when the course runs again next year. I want to encourage people as I think this is a big step forward in prison reform.”

Another prison learner said: “I’ve been immensely proud: I never thought I would be wearing a university graduation gown like this. The course has kick-started learning for me and I’m now learning to play guitar and to speak French. I feel over the moon about how this course has changed people’s views on reform and that it’s had such an impact.

“The biggest highlight for me was when we all first met. Straight away when the Leeds Beckett students came in it was like we had known each other for ages. There were no reservations and everyone was so friendly. As a prisoner, I feel as though no one wants to talk to me anymore and that this will continue for the rest of my life. But this has really broken down barriers and has made me feel human again. I’m sad that it’s come to an end. I will be released next June and this has inspired me to want to study for a degree.”

Shaun Williamson, Head of Security at HMP Full Sutton, said: “I am a firm believer that prisoners who are serving long sentences should have access to a wide range of activities which assist in stimulating thought, and providing opportunity to grow and progress. Education is an extremely important conduit in which to assist with this, generating creativity, hope and inspiring a whole range of potential opportunities. It provides real potential for rehabilitation.”

HMP Full Sutton
HMP Full Sutton

Alex Worsman, Head of Reducing Reoffending at HMP Full Sutton, added: “The course has been a brilliant learning opportunity and it is a proper achievement for the prisoners. The challenge now is to develop a curriculum so that everyone can engage in projects like this, giving prisoners a chance to study beyond GCSE level.”

The module, which centred around prison itself from a criminology perspective, started in January and ran for twelve weeks, with one session taking place every two weeks at HMP Full Sutton. Every other week, the prison and student groups met on their own to discuss the previous week’s topic and look ahead to the coming week.

Speaking about the experience, one of the Leeds Beckett students said: “The two guys in my group were so incredible and intelligent. I didn’t expect them to be so clever: one has just finished a Criminology degree and the other is doing a Law degree, both with the Open University. They challenged what we think academically and we did the same for them: their input has been amazing.  Before the module, I thought I would like to work in prisons; but the problem is that you don’t know if you would like it until you do it. Being in this environment, working closely with prisoners, I now definitely 100 per cent want to devote my life to this study.

“It’s not just 20 credits or a grade: it’s incredible. Any future students who are thinking of working in prisons should go for this opportunity. It is hard, being conflicted around how you feel about someone knowing what they’ve done. Once overcoming that, it is a brilliant experience.”

Another Leeds Beckett student added: “The course breaks down social barriers and encourages the importance of education: everybody has the right to it. For the guys in here, it’s important for them to use their time wisely and help prepare themselves for the future. This has been a very rare opportunity for us. It’s been a lot harder than I thought; not just academically but it has been an emotional rollercoaster.”

Topics covered included: justifications of imprisonment – why prison is used as punishment and why we punish; the legitimacy of punishment; the sociological and psychological impacts of long-term imprisonment; rehabilitation and desistance; convict criminology – a strand taught by Dr Bill Davies, a former prisoner himself, around the transition from prison life to academic life; and maintaining prison standards – a strand taught by Professor Nick Hardwick, Chair of the Parole Board and former Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Professor Nick Hardwick, who received an honorary doctorate from Leeds Beckett in 2016, said: “What has been really impressive about the course is the way people have worked together: it has been really collaborative. The students and prisoners have learnt so much from each other and perspectives have changed – it broadens the minds of the students and is very important for rehabilitation of the prisoners. Some of the prisoners on the course are already well educated; one has got an Open University degree and commented that it has made such a difference to be able to debate with others and ask questions. The chance for them to use this to make positive changes in their lives and create better futures after they are released is very powerful.”

Reflecting on the success of the course, Dr Helen Nichols, Co-leader of the Prison Research Network at Leeds Beckett University and Senior Lecturer in Criminology, said: “The highlight for me by far has been witnessing the genuine development of friendship amongst the cohort. They treat each other with care and respect and have overcome the barriers that the tabloid media put in place. This has had to work both ways as both Leeds-based students and Full Sutton-based students will have had preconceived ideas about the people they may meet, but they challenged them and what emerged was a supportive community of students who by the end of the module had developed genuine friendships that see past labels. Seeing this happen first-hand so organically was amazing. In terms of my expectations, they were exceeded beyond what I had imagined and I can’t quite describe the amazing developments I’ve witnessed.”

Dr Davies said: “The lasting memory that I will take from this module is that at graduation, all 23 students, 12 males currently serving prison sentences and 11 young females who had never set foot in a prison before this module, sat and chatted and celebrated with each other as a group; a community of learners. Twenty-three students started the journey, 23 students completed the journey - together. A number of students from the prison approached me during the day to tell me how much the course has had an impact on them; one told me he ‘was flying’ and felt like he was ‘floating and couldn’t stop smiling’. Phrases like ‘being human again’ were repeated often from a number of students.”

Others teaching as guest lecturers on the course included Dr Ben Crewe and Professor Alison Liebling from the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, and Dr Rod Earle from the Open University.

Dr Nichols added: “Going forward, we are running the same module with new cohorts for two more academic years. In the meantime, we are working towards bringing in other subject areas within Leeds Beckett to deliver new modules on the same basis. We are keen to involve others in the University who want to deliver their modules in this way and provide more opportunities for students to engage in this fantastic opportunity.

“There are currently around 85,000 criminals in prison, with 75,000 of those being released at some point in the future. With plans to release more prisoners in the future, education is going to be a very important element of prison that universities can support, opening up opportunities for those prisoners when they are released.”

A range of collaborative learning programmes currently exist, including the University of Durham’s Inside-Out programme, based on a project established in the US. The Learning Together project, adopted by Leeds Beckett, was originally set up by the University of Cambridge in collaboration with HMP Grendon, which is a Category B establishment and therapeutic community.

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