PUPiL in Action: De Montfort & HMP Leicester

In the autumn term of 2016 students from De Montfort University and HMP Leicester joined together for an intensive short criminology module.

Led by Ross Little, a criminology lecturer at De Montfort, and supported by Phil Novis, Governor at HMP Leicester, 17 students were brought together to discuss criminological controversies over a week-long Learning Together course.

As a local prison with an average stay of only 30 days, there are challenges in creating opportunities for the prisoners held within HMP Leicester. With university modules running for three months, this pushed the Learning Together partners to think creatively about what could be developed that could meet the aspirations of this group within the constraints of the local prison structure. The final course became an intensive 5-day module which explored a range of criminological topics.

The course took place on the Substance Misuse Unit (SMU) within the prison and prisoner students were recruited from those seeking help for addiction and drug misuse. The project therefore moved the learning space away from the prison education department and into an area of the prison where education can sometimes be harder to access. This can enhance the impact on wellbeing that education opportunities in prison can provide.

Challenging perspectives

The course embodied values of self-directed learning, and sought to promote student autonomy. The students were therefore presented with a choice of three topics that could form the basis of debate, of which they picked three.

The final choices included capital punishment. For Kenny, a student from HMP Leicester, this was the most enlightening session. He was surprised by the diversity of opinion within the group, particularly at the beginning where an initial vote saw 12 members of the course voting for capital punishment, with five against. As Kenny said debating this topic with other prisoners and university students created "a big transformation in how I thought". This transformation was shared by other students as a vote at the end of the session saw only five voting for capital punishment and 12 voting against. "People’s attitudes and opinions can change very quickly via debate, discussion and individual conversation," noted a De Montfort student. 

Another session was co-delivered by Suzanne from the SMU team alongside an HMP Leicester student which explored substance misuse. Gary, a DMU student, found this topic to be the most powerful. He was surprised by how quickly the group had become comfortable enough to share experiences in this way. Callum, an HMP Leicester student, was surprised how little outside students knew about ‘Mamba’ and other New Psychoactive Substances. He said: "A lot of people in society have a view of prison as being easy. People don’t know how dangerous prisons can be." Through Learning Together with university students, Callum felt able to challenge these ideas and shape a different understanding.

An expanding partnership

This course is now one of many wide-reaching opportunities that have arisen through this partnership between the two institutions. The university has welcomed senior members of staff from the prison to deliver lectures to their criminology students and will host them again in an upcoming TedX event. The prison is also an active member of De Montfort’s Square Mile’, a community engagement initiative which connects students to the wider community across Leicester. This has led to a number of activities and events, including the DMU Gospel Choir taking centre stage at the HMP Leicester Christmas staff event. This partnership is supporting opportunities to develop a positive working environment and culture across the prison. As Governor Phil Novis said: "If only I could bottle that emotion. This has given me faith that we can do more."

This strengthening relationship between De Montfort University and HMP Leicester is pushing the boundaries of both institutions, with the benefits being felt by students, prisoners and staff across both the prison and the university.

Reflecting after the experience, one HMP Leicester student said the week had been the best thing that had happened during his time in prison. "I have learned a lot. I’ve been able to take on board other people’s opinions and also that university students are not such a massive social leap away from us prisoners as I expected them to be. I would love to continue this type of discussion work and am grateful to all who listened today. Thank you."