This blog post comes from a member of the Learning Together Network. Dr Laura Kelly-Corless who convenes the ‘Debating Differences’ course, a Learning Together partnership between the University of Central Lancashire and HMP Kirkham. Here, university-based student, Iram, reflects on the second session of the course.
Yesterday, on the 8 November 2018, six third-year criminology/law students travelled to HMP Kirkham, along with Laura Kelly, who is one of UCLan’s criminology lecturers, to meet with seven prisoners for the second session of ‘Debating Differences’. ‘Debating Differences’ is a course that is run in partnership between HMP Kirkham and UCLan, and it is now in its third year. The purpose of the scheme is to break down barriers and to allow university and prison-based students to learn and think together, in a positive educational environment, where everyone feels confident enough to share their ideas and develop debating techniques, learning how to create persuasive arguments and improving social skills.
The topic up for debate in our second session was whether prostitution should be decriminalised in England and Wales – an incredibly thought-provoking and controversial issue. As with the first session, all students were given work to prepare in advance of meeting together. This week, our prep involved us undertaking general research into the topic and writing short personal reflections about our own views as well as what we saw as the most compelling arguments on either side of the debate. Personally, my opinion on this topic stayed the same after I had completed my preparatory research, however, whilst travelling to HMP Kirkham it became clear that several students, as well as Laura, were unsure of where they stood on the matter and so it was clear that this was going to be a very interesting debate!
Once we had arrived at the prison, Viv Ivins, who is the Head of UCLan’s Law School and one of the judges for this session, was waiting for us and we were also greeted by the prison librarian, Michelle, who was co-judging alongside Viv. After a quick introduction, we were split into two mixed teams on each side, with one team arguing that prostitution should be decriminalised and the other, opposing this view. Both teams were given time to prepare six key points supporting their side of the argument (Laura’s timekeeping was very good!). The structure of the debate meant that all team members were encouraged to feed their ideas into coming up with our key points, as well contributing to their delivery in the debate itself. This proved a great opportunity for everyone to develop their confidence and public speaking skills. We were all aware from the last debate that it was important for us to expand on our arguments when delivering our points, and so everyone worked hard to ‘up their game’ and speak up.
Some of the main arguments give from Team A, who spoke in favour of decriminalisation, included people being able to do as they please with their own bodies without feeling that what they are doing is ‘illegal’ and ‘wrong’, how people who engage in prostitution who have also been victims of crime might feel more confident in coming forward if prostitution were decriminalised, and how prostitution might make a positive economic contribution if it were not forced ‘underground’. Counter-arguments put forward by Team B included how decriminalisation might encourage an increase in other crimes such as human trafficking or violence towards prostitutes, and risks that legislation of prostitution might have negative influences on children or other vulnerable people. In general, the arguments advanced by both sides had clearly been well researched and were extremely thought-provoking.
When it was time to decide on a winning team, it was apparent that this would be a difficult task. Viv and Michelle, as judges, praised both teams for presenting well-rounded arguments and strong closing remarks. Our judges briefly considered calling it a draw, but in the end, Team A who had made the case for decriminalisation were chosen as the winning team of the session.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this session as well as the previous one and know that the others who are participating in the course with me feel the same. I have gained so much from this experience so far and I must say that my own expectations of what the course and the prison based students would be like were rather inaccurate and I have definitely had my opinions changed on prisoners and prisons themselves. I was rather anxious before starting the scheme and was wary about how some of the prisoners might behave. However, I could not have been more wrong, every single participant was well-mannered and civilised, if I didn’t know they were prisoners then I honestly could never have guessed, they just seem like normal guys.
This is a unique opportunity where preconceptions are challenged and schemes like ‘Debating Differences’ allow stereotypes to be eradicated. One of the main things I have taken away from the past two sessions is how intelligent and educated on issues of the world the people in prison were, I will be the first to admit that I did not generally expect this, it was clear that they had all put a large amount of effort into preparing for the debate and were thoroughly enthusiastic about it, which was good to see. I am incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to participate in this course and am looking forward to the next two sessions. I would strongly encourage anyone to apply who is considering participating in Learning Together courses like Debating Differences, as it is a thoroughly enjoyable and yet rare opportunity where you will find your opinions and conceptions challenged in a way they might never have been before.
With thanks to Iram Ali – Third-year Law (LLB) student, UCLan.