12 April 2019
I am a mature criminology undergraduate and had no hesitation in taking the Learning Together module. This was based at HMP Lancaster Farms, a category C resettlement male prison, and held on Wednesday mornings. Lancaster University students and Lancaster Farms based students worked collaboratively and we all got on brilliantly right from the start. Importantly there was no ‘us and them’ dichotomy- we were simply classmates, learning together.

It was a vibrant learning environment and we were given reading packs to accompany our weekly lectures. We explored a variety of topics in the module including; resettlement, education in prison, and desistance. Lectures were delivered by Lancaster University lecturers as well as guest speakers from other universities. My personal favourite was on convict criminology, with guest speaker Dr Bill Davies from Leeds Beckett University. A former offender, he has turned his life around, now holds a PhD in criminology, and is a senior lecturer in criminology. Dr Davies engaged the Lancaster Farms students when he spoke, and watching their faces I could see the impact his words were having on them.

In one session we were divided into two groups, and debated for and against the question ‘is prison the best way to deal with offenders?’ This generated interesting responses because we all had our own perspectives.

The Learning Together module is assessed by a group portfolio and group presentations. We were given time after each lecture to prepare our presentations as a group, and then had a full hour to practice them in our final week. The challenge of pulling together our group presentations with the Lancaster Farms students who did not have access to the internet, and whom we were unable to contact during the week, developed critical thinking skills in all of us. We were all very reliant upon each other in quite unusual circumstances.

Our group presentation was about drugs in prison. We each chose a drug-related topic and my own part was to talk about the methods by which drugs get into prisons. Beforehand I was apprehensive because I have limited public speaking experience, but it was a very supportive and encouraging atmosphere. Presenting in front of others has increased my self-confidence, so I can now look back on my presentation performance and it will certainly be beneficial for the future. Following the presentations, we were shown a very personal and powerful short video composed by a serving prisoner, highlighting self-harm in prisons.

Importantly, we didn’t just learn together, we learnt from each other. Listening to the Lancaster Farms students’ perspectives brought our readings to life. Each week we were listening to their lived realities and I begin to relate our experience within the prison to my readings. Learning Together helped us to join the pieces and to reflect, thinking widely and critically.

Learning Together mattered significantly to the Lancaster Farms students. As well as gaining university credits, it is a journey for them. They gain invaluable knowledge but also develop self-worth, self-esteem and self-realisation. We were all a part of their journey and their achievements. They looked forward to Learning Together each week, just as we all did. It is very important to recognise that most prisoners will at some point return to the community, and anything that prepares and supports them to do this can only be a good thing. Learning Together is a unique and very powerful part of this process, helping prisoners to realise their potential. As one Lancaster Farms student explained, “This course has changed me. I’ve really come out of my shell. It’s teaching me about my own offending and making me see how things could be different for me in the future. I would recommend this course to others. On reflection, we shared a common enjoyment of learning. This has been empowering for all of us.

In our final week we had a graduation ceremony held in the chaplaincy, wearing caps and gowns, and had our photographs taken with our fellow students and guests. It was great to meet family members of the Lancaster farms students, some of whom had travelled long distances for a 9am arrival. This was a very important day, to recognise everything we had achieved as a group, and to celebrate how far each of us had come since our first day, when none of us were quite sure what to expect. Speeches were delivered, and a particular one stood out for me when a Lancaster Farms student said, “I would urge the Governor to keep Learning Together. I hope we’ve all made you proud”. Group photographs were taken, including photographs with our guests and family members, followed by a buffet.

Now that the module has ended we have been provided with the opportunity to maintain contact with the Lancaster Farms students via university correspondence, which again is extremely valuable to the Lancaster Farms students. I know that each one of us is going to miss Learning Together and will look back on this module with great fondness.

On behalf of all the Lancaster University students, I wish to thank Dr Charlotte Barlow for her tireless organising and for giving us all this unique opportunity, and of course HMP Lancaster Farms for having us.