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Prison Learning Together: The Story So Far

Twelve prisoners at the High Security prison, near Pocklington in East Yorkshire, enrolled as students at Leeds Beckett University, taking part in the Learning Together criminology module at the prison with 11 final-year Leeds Beckett University students.

Following on from the feature, Prisoners at High Security Prison enrol at Leeds Beckett University, published in the June edition of The Custodial Review, the module leaders, Dr Helen Nichols and Dr Bill Davies, have reflected on the experience of the course from the perspective of both the Prison Research Network’s (PRisoN) Learning Together students and teaching staff.

Dr Helen Nichols is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Beckett University and has spent the past ten years researching prison education. Helen’s PhD thesis, An Enquiry into Adult Male Prisoners’ Experiences of Education, explored motivtions to engage with education in the prison environment (or indeed not) and considered the processes of change that occurred as a result of educational engagement, as well as thinking about the relationships between prisoners and different types of prison staff, including teachers and officers. At Leeds Beckett University, Helen leads the Punishment and Exploring Men’s Imprisonment module, alongside the PRisoN Learning Together module.

Dr Bill Davies, also a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Beckett University, leads the Prisons and Penology and Criminology of Tattooing modules alongside PRisoN Learning Together. Bill’s research interests draw on his own experience of imprisonment and his PhD focused in particular on the pains of short term imprisonment. Within this work, Bill considered the deprivation of opportunity experienced by those serving short term prison sentences, including opportunities for educational engagement.

Together, Helen and Bill co-lead the Prison Research Network (PRisoN), which brings together researchers, practitioners, prison staff and charities from across the country to provide opportunities for networking, research dissemination and the planning of collaborative work.



“Part of our own collaborative work has involved developing the PRisoN Learning Together module with the support of Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow at the University of Cambridge, who pioneered this approach to student-prisoner collaborative learning at HMP Grendon.

“Outside of the ‘Learning Together’ approach, other programmes exist both in the United States and the UK which involve prisoners and university students studying alongside each other. These include ‘Inside Out’ and the ‘Prison-to-College Pipeline’. Ultimately, despite the nuanced differences between the programmes, the goal remains the same – to bring together students from universities and prisons to break down social barriers, challenge preconceptions and learn from, and alongside one another, in a collaborative learning environment.

“PRisoN Learning Together is an accredited module delivered at HMP Full Sutton. The total cohort of students for 2016/17 was 23, each gaining 20 final year university credits, having successfully completed and passed the course assessments: a 2500-word reflective learning log and a group poster presentation. The results have shown a very high standard of academic skill and ability across the group with all students achieving a 2:1 standard grade or above.

“Leeds Beckett University is a modern, professional, university serving both the local and national community. Implementing the PRisoN Learning Together programme has been an opportunity to act on our commitment to the local community and to providing our students with unique learning experiences.

“The University as a whole is committed to providing support and opportunity through the powerful tool of education; and this programme has provided a way to channel and realise this. On a more personal level, through our own research and partnership work, we are dedicated to having impact in our teaching and learning. In the same way that researchers have been told in the past to get stuck into the field and ‘get the seat of their pants dirty’, this is perhaps the same way that we envision the delivery of this kind of educational experience. Developing an accredited final year degree module to run at a High Security prison for students from the prison and from the community was our way of getting stuck in.

“There is perhaps no better way to report back on an experience other than to speak to those involved. During the process of the module, students and guest lecturers were invited to write blogs (see prisonlearningtogetherblog.wordpress.com) to record their experiences and share them with a wider audience. The following excerpts have been taken from the blog to provide some insight into the experience at ‘ground level’:

Having now been a life sentenced prisoner for almost 11 years I can confidently say that the prison and criminal justice system is not fit for purpose. It has been a great achievement for HMP Full Sutton, being part of the High Secure estate, to have been able to set up the first accredited Learning Together module that is being delivered to 12 Leeds-based students and 11 students within HMP Full Sutton. I am lucky enough to have been selected to be a student on the course and I can say that to date the course has made me feel like a human again.

(HMP Full Sutton-based PRisoN Learning Together Student)

I was struck by the commitment with which the Full Sutton based students seemed to engage with my talk: a willingness and ability to keep their experiences ‘in the picture’, without allowing the conversation to be dominated by personal stories alone. It is testament to the Learning Together course, and its participants, that a group of men for whom our research is more than just a scholarly exercise were still able to adopt a scholarly disposition, noting some of the limitations of the research design and speculating smartly on some of the key findings. It also takes courage to be willing to dwell on these matters, which must sometimes bring home the deep tribulations of serving a long sentence, but also – I hope – provide some sense that such sentences are survivable.

(PRisoN Learning Together Guest Lecturer)


While we were in awe of our students as they confidently stood in the somewhat daunting presence of their peers and a host of prison governors, there was something specific about the presentations that caught our attention (not to mention our emotions). Seeing our students visibly supporting each other, congratulating each other in their good work and coming together in a way that only a connected group of peers can, was formidable. Yesterday we saw the result of broken barriers, the power of collaborative learning and the genuine trust, respect and friendship that exists within our cohort.

(PRisoN Learning Together Module Leader)

What I found within this module were intelligent, funny and caring people and it saddens me to think that some view prisoners wholly by their crime without consideration as to who they are.  No matter what a person has done, they are still a person.  The Full Sutton students have taught me more than they realise so from the bottom of my heart, thank you

(Leeds-based PRisoN Learning Together student)

“The blogs provided by staff and students have given us a view of the module in practice in real time while at the same time experiencing it ourselves. With the module having recently finished, we now look to the future and have already eastablished a plan going forward to continue to deliver PRisoN Learning Together. At the same time, we are working to introduce colleagues in other subject areas within Leeds Beckett University to this approach to teaching and learning with the intenition of broadening the range of subject provision at HMP Full Sutton to enhance opportunities for engagement with higher education. Our vision for this project is long term and we hope to begin working with other universities and prisons across the high security estate to work collaboraboratively, share good practice and continue what has so far been an overwhelmingly incredible experience.” 

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