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Author: Dan Weinbren

Prisoner students - learning to escape?

Updated Tuesday, 27th January 2015
As the government gears up to making universities and prisons responsible for deterring radicalisation can The Open University (OU) look to its history and get ahead of the game?

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As the government gears up to making universities and prisons responsible for deterring radicalisation can The Open University (OU) look to its history and get ahead of the game?

When The Open University first opened to students in 1971 it immediately facilitated the learning of a range of people who would not otherwise have been able to study, including prisoners. Previously universities were seen as institutions which promote social mobility and prisons as places where it was denied and which indeed contributed to further lawbreaking. The OU brought these institutions together and, since 1989, has been the main provider of university-level study to prisoners.

Prisoner graduates with degree Isolation

In common with many OU students, students in prison often begin their OU studies with a sense of trepidation and alienation from formal education. Many have few or no prior formal qualifications, and have to cope with ridicule, opposition from workmates and family members and their own lack of confidence. For prisoners there are also logistical difficulties, as prisons are not geared towards support for university students. As one tutor noted ‘it is difficult for a Category A prisoner to set up an outdoor rain gauge and check the water level each day when he has to be handcuffed to a prison officer’. Most write their assignments by hand and then type them up during the brief periods of access to a computer. The transfer of prisoners between prisons disrupts education. When they succeed they often mention empowerment. Not unlike that of other students. In 2011, after serving nine years of a sentence that the judge recommended should be a minimum of 20 years, Daniel Whyte wrote:

'I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that the OU has saved my life. The change in me has come from a change in my mindset, not just my actions. The more I learned, the more I realised there was more to life.'

He mentioned the skills he had acquired in order to study with the OU ‘self-motivation, discipline, determination and steadfastness’. Tales of the redemptive powers of the OU reflect a dominant narrative about the institution which frames the experience of studying in terms which adult learners often adopt, of individual improvement and opportunities to gain in self-confidence and self-belief.

Collaborative learning

However, individual prisoners are not all isolated. Many prisoners have shared teaching materials or been supported by family members who provide books or downloads. During a period when some prisoners in the Maze, Northern Ireland, were protesting about ‘political’ status they were not permitted to sit together or hold classes. One result was that they shared information by shouting. The effect was to level distinctions between teachers and taught. Even after the protests were concluded debates and classes were arranged so as to encourage discussion and active learning. Students gave talks on what they were studying to other prisoners and over a two-year period more than 200 men took part in a classes based on the OU’s women’s studies module.

Many of the OU graduates went on to hold positions of authority in a variety of community organisations. In 2012 five Sinn Féin Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, a Member of the European Parliament and others in a number of civic roles were OU graduates. Martin Snoddon, who called himself a Unionist ‘hardliner’, met a member of the IRA in the Maze when they were both studying through the OU. They became friends and after one was released he returned to visit the other. Snoddon, when released, took on reconciliation work and helped to form a group which aimed to reintegrate former political prisoners from both sides into the wider society. The Times Higher has referred to ‘the extraordinary role of Open University degrees in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland’.

Many student prisoners have found that the processes of acquiring new knowledge and learning resulted in personal growth and development. Moreover, by learning to think differently prisoners have also been able to shape their wider communities and make positive contributions.  Learning, being a social as well as a cognitive process, can support the development of citizenship. However, it needs teachers. Although the Prison Service has conceptualised OU study as ‘a vital part of resettlement and a route to reducing re-offending’, a report by the relevant trade union indicates that prison education is no longer a viable career. If we as a society want to help prisoners construct new identities for themselves, and reap the benefits along the lines that the Home Secretary has indicated, we need to accept that there will be costs.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
Want to know more about studying social sciences at The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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