Reflecting on Learning Together: Roehampton & HMP Belmarsh

By | 2019-03-29T13:57:53+00:00 March 14th, 2019|0 Comments

The first prison I ever visited was HMP Belmarsh, a Cat A estate on the outskirts of London. I was taken there by my Head of Department, Finola Farrant, whose work and research with people who have been through the prison sector meant that she was reassuringly comfortable with the process of fingerprinting, photographing, airport style security and pat downs that preceded our meeting with the then-Head of Learning and Skills in HMP Belmarsh, Sharon Rowley. This was 2016 and marked the beginning of my convenorship of the Learning Together initiative between the University of Roehampton and HMP Belmarsh, delivering an accredited module to 20 students, 10 based at the University of Roehampton, and 10 based in HMP Belmarsh. The module is part of our third year Criminology programme and entitled, “Understanding Justice” and explores both the philosophical reasons for punishment and real-world examples of how punishment can, and cannot, be justified.

On that first visit, I was struck by how mundane and intimidating Belmarsh managed to be, simultaneously combining the blandness of the total institution with the tension of high levels of security and architecture of risk. Yet after the third, fourth or fifth time of visiting for the teaching of the Learning Together module, the first impression faded under the weight of preparing and delivering class, getting there on time, remembering to search out prohibited items from my work bag before setting off – the thousand small items from USB sticks to spoons, chewing gum that could trigger a warning from security at the front gate. The small details overwhelmed the larger environment.

For the module itself, I was keen to involve as many of the teaching staff in the Department of Social Sciences that I could rope in. We were joined by Dr Finola Farrant to discuss narratives of justice; Dr Amanda Holt came to talk about how young people experience the criminal justice system; and Dr Jen Melvin brought her work on the local gacaca courts that were established after the genocide in Rwanda and the possibility of justice after genocide. The four of us, myself and the three guest lecturers, met at the end of the module to discuss the experience and reflect on what we could draw from it for teaching and learning both in prisons but also in the University.  This blog is a synthesis of our discussion, reworked by my reflection on that discussion and so may not quite be what my colleagues remember. However, I hope in sharing it I can share some sense of what makes lecturing in prisons different, and why environment makes such a difference to the act of teaching.

It was by coincidence rather than design that all the lecturers who participated on the module are women, and that the prison itself is a male estate. All four of us reflected on their position as women in positions of relative power in a male estate, and the rareness of teaching a male-majority classroom. Most students enrolled in Criminology and Sociology at Roehampton are female, so the experience of a male dominated classroom is, for us, unusual, and more so within the notably more ‘masculine’ environment of the prison estate. The University emphasis on collaboration, sharing and the day-to-day acceptance of the value of education and pastoral care, forms a taken-for-granted backdrop in our workplace in a powerful, invisible set of normative structures. I wonder if these University norms don’t map onto some of those gendered ideas of ‘femininity’ that we live with daily. Certainly, the feminisation of higher education has been noted often enough both by the academy itself and the press.

By contrast, working within the prison brought into play an environment that feels markedly masculine, for all that many of the NOMS staff and officers I met were women. The prison presented stark power differentials between staff and those incarcerated, routinised segregation and separation, and the visible humdrum backdrop of security-over-all-else establishes a different dynamic within which to work. The thin veneer of “University” that we brought in with us through the gates, flimsily embodied in print outs, pens and notepads, jarred gently and provocatively at the jangling keys and barred windows.  Our teaching space in HMP Belmarsh is the prison chapel, giving an additional, unsettled layer of institutional set of norms to Prison and University as we sat and discussed injustice under a suspended figure of Christ. Within this three-way share of the environment between University, Prison and Church, to speak of justification of punishment became at times cautious, careful not to transgress the Prison’s rules; at times poignant in speaking of lex talonis and the ‘eye for an eye’ examples of retribution common to the Old Testament and Kantian philosophy; and at times arcane, saturated in generations of scholarship which question the foundations of what we understand to be common sensical. The institutional array was tangential but influential on the discussions we had, rarely spoken but always felt.

Learning is sometimes described as a window, or an escape. It is my hope that providing accredited HE level opportunities within prisons we do offer an escape route of a sort. But it is my deeper hope that those whom we left behind each week inside will be able to return us the favour, in time, and join us on campus. If they bring a thin veneer of “Prison”, embodied in the individual themselves and in their files and records, then so be it. What Learning Together can do, uniquely, is blend and layer, and so enrich both institutions beyond measure.

By Dr Alison Lamont, University of Roehampton

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