Culture in Prisons: Nothingness, masculinity and fragile hopes

26 Apr 2017

A panel including the former Chief Inspector of Prisons said education can be a tool to combat the more negative elements of prison culture, but we must be mindful of the significant obstacles to engagement with learning during custody and after release.

“Part of prison culture is about nothingness,” said Nick Hardwick, former Chief Inspector of Prisons who now heads the parole board. He referenced a recent visit to Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute, in which he had to pass through 18 gates to reach the library. “If you think that’s frustrating, imagine that every day - every hour of every day - for years,” he said. As Chief Inspector he would often challenge Ofsted’s comments about prisoners “slouching on their way to classes”. “We’d say - why hurry? Because you can’t get through no matter how much you want to. And what does that do to your motivation over time?”

Education is not a way to solve all of these problems, said Hardwick, but we can be optimistic about its power to make some changes. He referenced a prisoner at Feltham who had been taking part in a prison/university partnership, through which he was able to secure release on temporary licence to visit Royal Holloway university.

“When I met him he was talking about a ‘new him’,” said Hardwick. “What you get from education is not merely developing a new understanding of a subject, but developing a ‘new me’, through interactions with the people you are learning with. And if you start to see yourself as a potential student who might go on to a degree, rather than a prisoner who is stuck there because of an offence, then changes are possible.”

“Education settings can be a third space, providing a respite from some of the more pernicious elements of prison culture and opening up legitimate avenues to other versions of masculinity."

For the men Dave Maguire focuses on in his research, he said there was a “long way to go” and “vast challenges” in terms of engaging them with education. Maguire, whose work examines the relationship between masculine cultures, education and imprisonment, said a “machismo culture” in prison meant learning was considered feminine, and therefore often rejected. Indeed, many men left prison more deeply invested in the “troubling masculine performances” that had led them there in the first place.

But Maguire, said education could be a way of combatting negative prison culture. “Education settings can be a third space, providing a respite from some of the more pernicious elements of prison culture and opening up legitimate avenues to other versions of masculinity,” he said.

To harness its full potential, much more research needed to be done introducing ‘gender-savvy’ approaches to education in prison, he said. The sector should also better utilise the expertise of male ex-prisoners who have broken the cycle of re-offending, showing “physical evidence of alternative masculinity”. More research should also be done into post-prison transitions to identify how, for those who do embrace education, learning is sustained after release.

“From local prisons to high-security prisons, it’s a determination to be open to learning with, and from, each other that gives this work life.”

Provision for prisoners after they had completed a course was also one of the concerns of the duo behind the Learning Together prison/university partnership programme - Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr Ruth Armstrong from Cambridge University. Theirs is one of the partnerships being supported by PET’s new PUPiL network.

Despite the meaningful, transformative impact of collaborative prison-university work, there is potential that taking part in this sort of learning could cause harm to participants by putting them into “difficult and complex spaces” both within their institutions and within themselves, said Ludlow, raising aspirations which might not be met.

“It seems unethical to us to raise hopes of a more connected future but then do nothing to enable that future and do nothing collectively to challenge the structural impediments of policy,” she said.

Universities particularly need to consider how they welcome ex-prisoners into their institutions and how to make their teaching more creative and accessible to truly widen access, added Armstrong. “Fragile hopes need to be nurtured in tangible ways that make them more than pipe dreams,” she said.

The pair said they have adopted an “unapologetically collaborative, connected and ambitious” approach as they encourage other prisons and universities to start partnerships; sharing resources, policies and a set of values to create “best practice that is forged by the many rather than owned by the few”.

But this approach was often at odds with the competitive and target-driven nature of universities and prisons. All too often, individual context was presented as a barrier to establishing a partnership, said Armstrong. “We’ve heard so many times - ‘Well that might be possible in [therapeutic prison] Grendon but it won’t be possible elsewhere’,” she said. Referring to the wide range of partnerships being developed across the country Armstrong said “From local prisons to high-security prisons, it’s a determination to be open to learning with, and from, each other that gives this work life,” said Armstrong.  In particular she reflected that they themselves had benefited from working closely with prison staff “to understand their realities so we can learn from their expertise”.

Read the rest of the panels from PET's 2017 Academic Symposium here.