Learning criminology inside

The University of Manchester Law School is developing prison-based education in criminology in which undergraduates and students in prison learn together.

The University of Manchester Law School is developing a pilot project called ‘Learning Criminology Inside’ in collaboration with HMP Risley. This collaboration will allow ten of HMP Risley’s male prisoners to sit a ten-week University of Manchester module, ‘From Imprisonment to Rehabilitation’, inside the Prison’s education setting, alongside ten third-year BA Criminology students. 

They will debate the readings and lectures in the context of real-world examples, learning from each other. Prison-based students will also have access to the lectures as podcasts which they will listen to as a group. The two principle theories covered, risk management and rehabilitation will be critiqued with the advantage of including prisoner voices.

Professor Shadd Maruna

Professor Shadd Maruna

Professor in Criminology.

Students will also consider issues involving different types of prisoners (e.g. women, young people, domestic violence perpetrators and those with mental health issues), how they are currently managed, and how they might be better approached from newer perspectives. 

Dame Sally Coates in her 2016 review of education in prison, called for more higher education opportunities, more informal learning, and for more connections between prisons and universities. Access to higher education in prison is scarce and has increasingly become more difficult to access. A major issue for prisons is that prison education is primarily for the provision of basic skills and education for employability, not higher education.

Prison-based university education gives prisons the opportunity to provide some of that missing education without prisons having to fund all the costs. Providing otherwise difficult-to-access educational opportunities like this, is one of the aims of The University of Manchester. 

Prison-based learning also provides opportunities for informal and dialogical learning. Most higher education provided in prisons takes the form of distance learning courses. While some have tutor visits, the provision of higher education in most prisons does not involve opportunities for discussion and debates, especially with fellow students (Armstrong and Ludlow, 2016). 

There have been a growing number of courses across the UK since 2014, offering students inside prison and from universities the opportunity to learn together. The first such course was the Inside-Out programme run by Durham University, which uses a model from the United States that has been running since 1997.

University of Manchester students at HMP Risley

University of Manchester students at HMP Risley

The University of Cambridge started Learning Together in 2015 with HMP Grendon and similar courses are now run out of a number of other UK universities. Both the Inside-Out and Learning Together models of prison-based learning see university and prison-based students as equals. These courses offer a variety of subjects, for example, Criminology, History and English Literature. 

The University of Manchester has a commitment to the public good and transformational scholarship, and involvement in prison-based learning helps the University to meet this commitment. The project will allow the prison-based students the opportunity to access higher education in a setting not otherwise available, while University students will experience learning in a prison environment, which will benefit their understanding of key criminological concepts and also provide them with insight which may inform their future career choices.

As a pilot project, one of the aims is to use the learnings from the delivery of this unit as a template for offering other units from across University faculties to the prison, in an effort to widen the availability and opportunities for prison and university-based students. The project also provides a rare opportunity to undertake research on these programmes through funding from the Centre for Higher Education Research, Innovation and Learning (CHERIL). Researching what the impacts and outcomes of the course are, and what factors led to these, means that as prison-based learning courses are developed, they are better able to meet the goal of reducing re-offending.

There are potential rehabilitation-related or transformational benefits for prison-based students. Most theorists agree that the process of change is multifaceted and encompasses elements of human agency, subjective change and structural change. Taking part in prison-based education can potentially impact on all of these.

“This is a mutual process where both groups are helping each other, learning from each other.”

Structurally, social control theories suggest that education can provide access to new networks of people and new routines. Subjectively, education can give people a new script and identity away from their offending or prisoner identity. The agentic decision to want to change may be particularly relevant for the prison-based students in HMP Risley. As a resettlement prison, the prison-based students will be working towards identifying their goals on release and beyond where continued education may play a pivotal role. 

Professor Shadd Maruna, who is leading the development of ‘Learning Criminology Inside’ at The University of Manchester with Dr Rose Broad, says: “The idea of learning criminology inside a prison is based on the School of Law’s social responsibility remit. We are broadening the way we think about education beyond our traditional students to a wider concept of education, where we think about non-traditional student groups and how we reach those groups.”

Shadd explains that learning criminology inside prison benefits all students. He says: “It gives University students an opportunity to gain from visiting a prison, meeting prisoners and getting to know them as individuals and fellow students. It has major benefits to those prisoners involved, giving them the sense that this is something they can do; they recognise their own strengths and abilities, as well as the prison itself benefiting from this initiative. Prisons are working to create a rehabilitation culture with more educational opportunities and research based connections with universities. 

“People often question, why should prisoners be given this opportunity to study this course? This is a mutual process where both groups are helping each other, learning from each other. These prisoners are helping us educate our student groups. We’d rather the prisoners are released with a better sense of the world around them, with an interest in contributing to the world, a desire to get involved in education and employment, instead of them feeling angry or potentially isolated. The hope is that that this process is part of their resettlement and desistance from crime, where individuals are able to see themselves as more than just offenders and are able to see some hope in their future. We all benefit from this type of outcome.”