Students and prisoners shared classes in two jails in a bold new pilot project by De Montfort University Leicester. Criminologist Ross Little explains how it worked and what both groups gained from taking part.
It's a Monday morning in Leicester prison, and a huddle of inmates has gathered in the chapel, writes Jeremy Clay.
The entrance to HMP Leicester
They're not here to worship, though, but to learn. And they're not alone. Dotted among the old hands is a sprinkling of first-timers getting a taste of life behind bars: Not prisoners, but students, undergraduates mixing with men who've committed offences straight out of their criminology text books.
In the same-old, same-old world of porridge, this will be a week like no other in HMP Leicester. And this chapel, for the next few days at least, will be De Montfort University's newest seminar room.
This scene played out in the jail last month when eight third-year criminology students went inside during the university's enhancement week.
It was part of a pilot project called Learning Together, which sees students and prisoners studying side by side, swapping insights and hearing each other's views.
It's led in the East Midlands by Ross Little, senior criminology lecturer at DMU, and the Leicester prison sessions followed earlier classes at Gartree jail in south Leicestershire, when a group of first-year criminology students met and studied alongside some lifers.
Both visits produced criminology seminars that fizzed with energy, says Ross.
"There was a real buzz in the room each time," he says. "People came out afterwards and said they had learned something you can't get from a lecture."
The Leicester classes began with an introductory talk, and a session led by Ross on the subject of civil disorder. Then the students and the prisoners - volunteers from the substance misuse unit at the jail - selected the topics to tackle for the rest of the week, choosing the issues of capital punishment and drugs in prison.
DMU criminologist Ross Little
"I didn't go in to this with too many preconceptions of what would come of it," says Ross, who is the newly-appointed chair of the national charity The National Association for Youth Justice. "But both times I have done this I have been amazed by the transformative nature of the experience for both the prisoners and our students.
"One of the prisoners at Leicester had previously given a talk to a staff meeting at the prison. He volunteered to do a session on drug misuse in jail - and I'm slightly jealous to report that was the best one of the week."
Students and prisoners alike were enthused by the link up.
"It was fantastic," said Maria, one of the students who spent the week at HMP Leicester. "One of the prisoners said he was determined to pursue education and a degree once he left prison based purely on what we had discussed over the week - how amazing is that?"
"I have learned a lot," says Steve, a prisoner in Leicester jail. "I've been able to take on board other people's opinions and found that university students are not such a massive social leap away from us prisoners that I expected them to be. I would love to continue this type of discussion work and am grateful to all who listened."
"Mixing with those in the criminal justice system has helped me learn a lot more than just mixing with individuals similar to myself," says Rebecca, one of the students who visited Gartree. "I have learned what these prisoners go through daily, the state of prison affairs through their eyes and what resources are really available to them."
"I believe this experience has changed my perception on the majority of prisoners," says Chloe, who joined Rebecca in Gartree. "It has also made me a lot more confident - something that I have struggled with whilst being at university. I would recommend this project to other DMU students as I believe it was a fantastic opportunity and I am still very grateful I was a part of it."
Ross says the visits gave the students genuine insight into their subject, and was valuable for the prisoners too. "At Gartree, for instance, some of the prisoners submitted assignments for the course," he says. "They didn't need to, but they took it upon themselves to do it.
"It's a rare occasion that they feel like that their views are treated as just as valid as anyone else's, and they responded to that.
"For both groups, this was about learning through dialogue."
Phil Novis, the governor of HMP Leicester, was previously in charge at Gartree and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Learning Together project.
"My drive is for the prison to be seen as part of the community and not just a forgotten place where bad people go," he says. "Those 'bad' people are from Leicester and at some stage will be getting out and therefore bringing the community 'in' to interact is vital.
"In regards to this, I am always looking at different ways of engaging the men as the 'regime' is sometimes, just that, a regime which becomes monotonous.
"The most important thing during this event was giving the men a voice and a chance to be listened to.
"Will it stop the men reoffending? Probably not but for one week it allowed the men to act as equals with the community."
Ross hopes these sessions were just the start of the project, which was supported by the #DMUlocal programme and run in partnership with the prisons.
"I'm excited about the future of Learning Together," he says. "I think there are some real opportunities in this, for students in our university and in our prisons.
"I am particularly grateful to Phil Novis for allowing, indeed encouraging, this initiative in the prison he is responsible for."
Find out more about studying criminology at De Montfort University here.
Posted on Thursday 29th December 2016