Stories of success through higher education in prison have long been assessed for their potential to help people to develop positive lives beyond prison. Success, however, is normally measured narrowly, in terms of reduced risks of re-offending. Meanwhile, success for universities is often measured in terms of employment and graduate salaries. In this blog, I explore some of the early findings from our longitudinal study of the Learning Together initiative, focusing on the role of hope in narratives of success among some of the students who have taken part in the initiative during its first three years. In particular, in this blog I want to highlight the importance of hope as a catalyst towards more positive futures, but also want to reflect critically on some of the ways in which individualised notions of success can blind us to deep-rooted, persistent structural and inter-sectional inequalities.
Throughout many of my interviews with students who have taken part in Learning Together throughout 2015, 2016 and 2017, students emphasised the important role that courses had played in boosting their confidence. In their reflections, students typically linked feelings of increased confidence with the production of hope for the future. In the words of some prison-based students:
The first positive thing I would say about the whole course is for me […] it brought out a lot of confidence in myself, it brought out a lot of who I am as a person and what I can achieve if I put my heart into it (John, 2016 student).
Carry on working, carry on staying in contact with you guys as I usually do, carry on trying to achieve everything I want, intend to achieve. That’s my plan, to just carry on being positive and carry on fighting, don’t give up […] [Learning Together played a role in my] confidence […] In just making me believe in myself more (Rosca, 2017 student).
There is nothing stopping me. I’ve definitely started to see now visions of what I would like to do (focus group held in prison 2018, with a mixed cohort of students).
Similarly, Cambridge-based students, talked at length about the role that Learning Together had played in increasing confidence. This confidence was often linked to hope through the acquisition of new skills and perspectives to face challenges:
It gives me a continuous stream of confidence in myself that I can really do it even though the situation may be very difficult (Carol, 2016 student).
When we had [LT] sessions, it would boost my confidence. It is kind of knowing that, they saw me as skilled in a way that is true (Jack, 2017 student).
The conception of hope presented across all students’ the narratives is closely related to feelings of individual and personal success. Hope is associated with the capacity to achieve, and to achieve is linked to the importance of effort and hard work – of ‘putting my heart into it’, of ‘carry(ing) on’, of ‘do'(ing). In many of these stories, hope is related to obtaining a higher education degree, a job outside prison and a new life. In other similar stories, hope is described instrumentally, as a way to overcome previous social and education experiences that had previously limited individual transformations. As two students who had progressed to Category D prisons put it:
[Learning Together] definitely shaped the way I see the future. So, if you take me, for example. I feel empowered enough to apply for jobs, to go on to do a Master’s [Degree], to be all that I can be. Like I said before, people in my council state, they think the bar is going to work on a building site. There is nothing wrong with that […] I don’t look down upon jobs like that but what I fear that it does, it’s that glass ceiling. Society has set that bar for you (Marc, 2015 student).
With Learning Together, it looks at some of the potential within someone and finds that hidden skill or a skill that kind of went unnoticed by people. For example, there’s so many guys who live their life with teachers telling them they won’t amount to anything or their behaviour has become more noticed than the skill and rather than focusing on actual skill and helping it to grow, people have just […] focused on punishment (Ahmed, 2016 student).
Another student who was doing the criminology masters course in Cambridge also noted:
The hierarchy is much more visible in the Cambridge academic environment than it is in Learning Together. That’s why I felt I fitted in so well in Learning Together environment […]. At times in Cambridge, because I hadn’t gone to private school, because I hadn’t been an Oxbridge undergrad, certain people would assume they were above me. That’s always been something that I’ve struggled with and get really frustrated by. That there are these hierarchies for no apparent reason. Learning Together kind of completely abolished all of that (Claudia, 2017 student).
Together, these comments shed light on how participating in Learning Together can play a role in promoting social justice. They show how Learning Together enables access to education opportunities within and beyond prisons, allowing people to discover, see and appreciate their talents. In this way, it can work to counteract histories of social and educational exclusion. Within a conception of hope based on individual effort, however, the role of broader social, economic and cultural inequalities can slip out of the picture. This invites us to reflect on the limitations that ‘hope as individual success’ may play in processes of social and collective transformation. Gareth, a student released from prison a year ago, and often quoted by other students as ‘the one who made it’, noted the complexities within the idea of ‘hope’ as merely personal success:
And so, you sort of learn to manage expectations, so then to be told that actually, you do not have to settle for this, that if you put effort in, there are opportunities that sort of […] while I am now sitting in this little pretty café in Cambridge, that feels a million miles away from wherever I expected was possible. So if I had been told that this was possible, and then sort of suddenly not be it would have felt worse than not knowing this was possible. I would have been OK with the status quo. And I think there are a lot of people in prison that would agree with me (Gareth, 2015 student).
While hope can make us mobile and push us to advance into new realities, an emerging wondering, as we begin to make sense of students’ experiences from their interviews, is whether hope can also generate an individual pressure, which can blind us from the structural inequalities that frame processes of desistance and academic success. We have begun to wonder whether a conception of hope, which is linked to individual narratives of success, has the potential to resist, silence and consequently ignore, the intersectional inequalities (of class, gender, migration status, sexual orientation, etc) that people face in their everyday lives.
In interviews, several students noted how Learning Together is playing a role in addressing some of these more structural inequalities, particularly through its focus on community building within and beyond the walls of criminal justice and higher education institutions. While students shared stories of disappointment during the first months after their release, for example, not getting the jobs they hoped for after finishing their studies, many noted how being part of the Learning Together community had enabled them to overcome some of these obstacles. Students described, for example, how the Learning Together team had connected them with job opportunities, supported them to be able to continue their degrees in the face of new institutional constraints, and written references in support of their progression or for new jobs within and beyond the prison and the University of Cambridge.
Yet, while it was clear that this work had made some positive difference, it also seems clear that it is not on its own enough to overcome the structural issues that many Learning Together students have described facing in their daily lives, which transcend the individual to encompass the social, political, economic and geographical. Within narratives of individual hope, a person’s sense of not being able to achieve what he or she had dreamed of – not being able to overcome our own ‘troubles’ – can, perhaps, all too quickly become understood as individual failure. In this light, increasing our understanding of the intricate relationship between the shape of our lives and the structures that frame them, seems as important as promoting processes of individual confidence and hope building.
Our findings, though preliminary, initial and on-going, open-up some interesting research questions about the importance of generating critical hope within learning environments, with conscious, responsible and empathetic attention to context, structures and social realities. Our findings are also a critical reminder of the need to promote inter-institutional and broader connections, within and beyond the Learning Together community, to contribute to collective and social transformation efforts towards the inclusive re-imagining and enactment of positive futures.
Victoria Pereyra-Iraola – Researcher, Learning Together team