Prison-university partnerships in lockdown

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19 August 2020

The lockdown in prisons meant that all face to face education and visits from educators stopped in March 2020. In this blog post, we reflect on the ‘Prison-university partnerships in lockdown’ webinar, where we heard three different perspectives on the impact that COVID-19 has had on prison-university partnerships, and what the future may hold.

Drs Bill Davies and Alexandria Bradley of Leeds Beckett University run a Learning Together programme at HMP Full Sutton. Leeds Beckett students go into the prison to undertake a module with Full Sutton learners that is accredited at Level 6 for both. Topics have included introductions to the concepts of power, gender, masculinity and fatherhood. The experience helps Leeds Beckett students understand the importance of prison education, and Full Sutton learners gain positive insights to higher education, and benefit from the increased sense of wellbeing that came with interacting ‘normally’ with people from outside the prison.

I actually felt like a human being for the first time in a long time. Scott, Full Sutton student.

The lockdown left Full Sutton students who were in the middle of a module out of the loop. Dr Alexandria Bradley says she owes her ability to finally contact prisoner learners to the ‘Email a Prisoner’ (EMAP) scheme, which meant she and Bill could explain the situation and facilitate ongoing communication.

Looking forward, Alex and Bill will try and get back onsite as soon as possible, but in the meantime, EMAP has been a short term solution to the lack of communication. Whilst it enables Alex and Bill as course coordinators to stay in touch with Full Sutton students, they also encourage Leeds Beckett students to use EMAP to stay in touch with the Full Sutton learners they began the module with. Alex hopes  that by working with Coracle Inside, who provide education toolkits on security cleared laptops for prisoners, learners at Full Sutton will have access to Chromebooks loaded with their educational materials.

What do we do about those who are educationally disadvantaged but who are full of intellectual promise? Professor MM McCabe.

Professor MM McCabe of Kings College London is a trustee of Philosophy in Prisons, which aims to engage prisoners in ‘conversational philosophy’ on some of life’s big questions. She recognises a problem of accessibility and diversity of thought in academia, where capable thinkers are shut out of debate owing to their educational background.

Before the lockdown, Philosophy in Prison ran in person courses, some of which were over 10 weeks for prisons with stable populations, and short courses over three weeks, designed for prisons with high mobility.

As with Leeds Beckett’s Learning Together programme, no longer being able to physically visit prisons has entirely disrupted their teaching. Nevertheless, Philosophy in Prison has a number of initiatives to help prisoners as much as possible in the lockdown, with video and audio material, movie lists with accompanying philosophical questions, and work sheets available in the PLA In-Cell Activity Hub.

Although she acknowledges that there are difficulties in prisoners accessing these materials, Professor McCabe and the Philosophy in Prison team’s creative problem solving has meant that the opportunity to philosophise in prisons is not gone.

We have facilitated online tutorials with over 120 prison staff who have stepped in to cover for education staff that have been absent. Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski

Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski is a regional manager for students in secure environments (SiSE) and Associate Lecturer in Criminology at the Open University (OU). When the prison estate closed on the 24th of March, OU materials could no longer be printed, and hard copies of assessments sent to the OU could not be processed with staff being out of the office. This meant Stephen and his team also had to adapt their education delivery in prison.

Stephen outlines the OU’s response over the past two months, which has overcome some of these challenges. In June, the post room reopened and SiSE staff returned to site to scan assignments. Moreover, with Prison Education Framework providers out of prisons, HMPPS staff have helped print off materials uploaded onto the HMPPS intranet, with over 120 prison staff stepping in to cover for educational staff

The challenge is by no means over, and Stephen and the OU must look to facilitate postponed exams, possibly using digital technology, as well as providing more virtual resources for learners in the coming months.

Ultimately, prison-university partnerships have faced major difficulties in trying to provide some level of education for prisoners when face to face visits cannot happen and access to technology is extremely limited. Nonetheless, ingenious and creative ways of communicating and teaching are finding their way to learners in prison.

In the words of Chair Nick Hardwick as he closed the event:

To some extent, during the pandemic prisons have been more receptive to new projects. They have a lot of people who need something to keep them occupied. Learning and education can give purpose during a difficult time.

Listen to the full Webinar here.

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