On November 2018, I had the opportunity to visit the Learning Together project. As a jurist of the Spanish Penitentiary System and a treatment professional I have 10 years experience working in prisons. I am also a professor at the University Loyola Andalucía (Doctor in Criminology), therefore, I was really interested to learn how this project worked, and understand its impact on the prison based students’ progression, such as: changes in their way of thinking, behaviour, and social skills. I was also interested to understand the effect on the university-based students, for example their skills, knowledge about the prison system, prejudices and so on.
From 26th to 30th November 2018 I visited the Learning Together project, participating in round tables and meetings, and visiting prison-university partnerships. Especially interesting for me was a visit to HMP Warren Hill to participate in The Butler Law Course, and a round-table event which took place at the Institute of Criminology the last day of my visit in Cambridge.
During my visit to HMP Warren Hill, I attended the fantastic law course taught by Jack Merritt. Above all else, I experienced people serving long-sentences being able to express themselves in an academic way, to participate in a law course as ‘just another student’, to develop their critical thinking, to cultivate their abilities, and discuss their ideas with a huge respect for the ideas of others. It felt like rehabilitation in action. The university-based students handled the situation very well: engaging in discussion groups, supporting everybody’s ideas, and helping others to express themselves. The group was built upon respect for one another, empathy and a shared commitment to openness.
The Spanish Penitentiary System
The main goal of Spanish prisons is to re-educate and reintegrate offenders back into society. The Spanish Penitentiary System is based on a ‘scientific individualization principle’, which means that we focus on an individualized treatment program for each inmate. The system is divided into three ‘degrees’ or regimes: first degree (dedicated to most dangerous offenders), second degree (open to the vast majority of prisoners, characterized by more freedom of movement inside the prison and the availability of many activities) and the third degree or ‘open regime’ (in which the offender has a great room of freedom and can work outside and just sleep some nights in a social reintegration center, a kind of ‘open prison’). Education plays an important role in the Spanish system; for example, basic skills education is a priority for the people without those qualifications. The inmates have access to school, professional training and to the Open University.
In addition, it is a central feature of our system that offenders remain part of society while completing their sentence. To be deprived of liberty doesn’t mean that the people in prison are ‘out’ of the community. Therefore, collaboration with external organisations is highly valued in the Spanish system. NGOs and voluntary work play a very important role, as does collaboration with universities. In this sense, the Learning Together model fits very well in the Spanish penitentiary environment.
My previous thinking: a critical vision
The Learning Together project is based on three theoretical perspectives: an educational perspective (focused on how education can help people reach their potential), a sociological perspective (focused on reducing stigma and prejudice through inter-group contact) and a criminological perspective (focused on the reconstruction of a positive identity to desist from crime).
Taking into account this starting point, I envisaged three kinds of risks at the beginning of my trip. First, relating to learning theories and the differential association theory (in brief: “we learn from conduct patterns and we learn from others”), what happens if the university students take bad habits from the prison students?
From the point of view of anomic and subculture theories, specifically, the ‘frustration status of Cohen’: what happens if the prison students compare their own situation, their reality, with the privileged situation of the university students? Might they experience some kind of jealousy, envy or frustration?
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the results I observed were just the opposite. The prison students admitted feeling comfortable with the university students, in fact, their interactions seemed to have improved their self-perception, they had learnt new patterns of behaviour and they were proud of their achievements. The university students already had significant skills in critical analysis, but far from having acquired any bad habits, they helped others to develop pro-social attitudes as well as improving their own attitudes. Consequently, their view about people in prison changed significantly and they spoke about their fellow students with a great humanity. Both sets of students had developed their skills, capacities and critical thinking, and reduced their prejudices.
My response: a positive evaluation
On Friday 30th November I had the opportunity to discuss my ideas and experiences at a round-table event at the Institute of Criminology. The session was titled “Learning Together – Towards an International Community of Theory, Practice and Evidence”. Reflecting on the event, I believe that all of the results of the Learning Together Project are positive. In my opinion, the opportunity for students in prison to spend time with students from university gives them an opportunity to reduce their prejudices, to adopt positive behaviour patterns, to learn new abilities, to feel significant and to be taken into consideration and listened to. To spend time with students from the prison is positive for university students, giving them the opportunity to interact with the human being behind the label of “offender” and to develop their own skills. The experience also allows them to open their minds and to develop their personal perspectives on empathy and the humanity.
Conclusion: look to the future
I can only conclude with enthusiasm. Having seen the results, my objective is to implement the Learning Together model in my country. The Learning Together Network has grown considerably already and I am excited to see how it works in another cultural environment… will we have the same results in the south of Spain?
If all goes to plan, we will have the opportunity to discuss this topic again next November, when we finish our first criminology course in prison!