PUPiL Blog: Learning Forever by PhD student and lawyer Menaal Munshey

 

Menaal Munshey, a PhD student in criminology at the University of Cambridge, reflects on her experiences taking part in the Learning Together partnership between Cambridge and HMP Grendon, as both a student and later as a facilitator.
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"Learning with a group of people perceived to be completely different to you was a transformative and powerful experience. It broke down barriers, fear of the ‘other’ and built understanding on a personal level. This would not have been possible in a standard educational setting."

Learning Together taught me the human side of our criminal justice system, and the impact it has on our lives and our society. Behind the law, procedure, and the sentencing principles, there are real people. Real people on the bench, in the gowns, in court and in the dock. And all of us are on the same side of justice, equality and human rights. Without my fellow learners and students who so generously shared their experiences with me, I may never have learnt these vital lessons.

Learning Together made criminological theories and concepts real to its participants by identifying them with real life experiences. Learning with a group of people perceived to be completely different to you was a transformative and powerful experience. It broke down barriers, fear of the ‘other’ and built understanding on a personal level. This would not have been possible in a standard educational setting.

"A key feature felt in discussions was the feeling of helplessness – there was a feeling that the system is stacked against you."

As a student, my first impression of HMP Grendon was of stuffed animals, colourful books, and child sized furniture. The illusion of an Alice in Wonderland style space was shattered by the pamphlets and books in the vicinity with titles such as ‘My Special Book: I’m going to visit my Dad in Prison’, a colouring booklet to fill in for young children visiting their father's in prison, and ‘What Shall I Tell the Children?’, a pamphlet produced for guardians to speak to their children about their fathers imprisonment. Although camouflaged in colour, this was no ordinary play area.

The classroom was no ordinary classroom either. Although veiled in bright colours and paintings, the pain of its residents pierced through. This first look at Grendon showed me that pain, suffering and injustice were hidden behind a cloak of legitimacy. The colours couldn’t hide the severe pains of imprisonment.

A key feature felt in discussions was the feeling of helplessness – there was a feeling that the system is stacked against you in the form of lack of money, debt, fines, a criminal record, unemployment, housing, inadequate state support etc. This helplessness leads to a lack of self belief and bad decision making at crucial junctures. The criminal justice system could do a lot more to alleviate this lack of resources, and therefore aid the desistance process. According to the views of the Grendon students, the opposite is occurring. Given that Grendon is at the top of the food chain in terms of quality of life within the prison system, this does not bode well for the criminal justice system as a whole. Despite these concerns, there was a feeling of hope that there was a way out of a life of crime. One participant said, ‘society is not completely fair, but there is some fairness in it’. It’s that hope for fairness that is important to the desistance process

When I became a facilitator, it was a privilege to teach, and learn from my students. I found them to be lateral thinker with ideas about the criminal justice system which were innovative and visionary. I found students whose subtle self-belief and social conscience guides their academic achievements and aspirations. They have the potential and determination to excel and achieve in the field of their choice. Their strength is inspirational, and their voice is powerful. It is people like them who will make this world a more humane place.

There are certain moments I’ll never forget: swaying to “where is the love” with Jamie at Grendon’s graduation, meeting Zak’s family, seeing Eddie dressed up smarter than ever before, or, on the other side: sharing a burger with Gareth for the first time as a free man. It is the seemingly innocuous which becomes unforgettable. Here’s to friendships like these outlasting prison sentences, life changes, and everything in between.

Many thanks to Menaal and Gareth Evans, Alumni and Mentoring Coordinator for Learning Together.

You can contact Menaal here or Gareth here.

If you would like to respond to the points and issues raised in this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Morwenna.