Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow: What’s so good about participation? Discomforts, harms and potential.

Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow from Cambridge University, Wednesday 23rd August 2017, The Old Hall, Girton College Cambridge, with a response from Dr Geraldine Brown, Coventry University.

Abstract: Drawing on our experiences over the last four years of building learning communities of students within higher education and criminal justice organisations, this presentation will tell the story of our movement towards using participatory approaches to understanding the experiences and impacts of belonging to learning communities that span prison and university walls. By sharing some of our attempts to provide creative opportunities for participation and voice within research, we will highlight some of the benefits that we have seen through adopting these approaches, as well as some of the discomforts that we, and our students, have experienced. Together, we hope to question what we mean by participation, for whom we think participation ‘works’, and whether participation is always good, or whether it can, rather, sometimes cause harm.

Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow_Presentation

Response from Geraldine: For the past four years I have been part of a team at Coventry University commissioned to evaluate prison based programmes. A common aspect of these programmes is that they are often viewed as mechanism to support rehabilitation. The methods underpinning the programmes vary in relation to how they engage with prisoners in prison and on release; our studies have examined the use of land based intervention (see Brown, 2015), faith (see Brown 2016) and support and befriending (Brady, ongoing). However, a reoccurring theme from this work is that regardless of the fact that each programme has its own unique DNA, their effectiveness, in part, rests on key stakeholders (prison management and staff, third sector organisations, practitioners and more importantly, prisoners working collaboratively. Hence the design, delivery of programmes necessitate ‘buy in’ by all involved at each stage of the process, the capacity to establish positive supportive relationships and a shared vision in terms of the aims, objectives and outcomes.

It was against this backdrop that I located the work carried out on the Learning Together Programme (LTP). Indeed, I was excited to get the opportunity to hear directly from the team involved. I was struck by similarities in our work and the work of Amy and Ruth in regards to how LTP represented a collaborative endeavor in both design and delivery. The Learning Together programme is an educational programme led by academics form the University of Cambridge. Whilst the model has been replicated, the initial programme was delivered in HMP Grendon. The core aim of the LT is to offers a degree level course to a cohort of students comprising; prisoners, academics and university students. A core value of LTP is to build a learning community and encourage collaborative learning. The programme evaluation has identified how LTP contributed to establishing a sense of community amongst students and academics, created a sense of trust between those involved, led to growing confidence amongst students, a more nuanced understanding of the topic being studied, sense of achievement and pride stemming from being involved. Hence, students, academics and prison staff reported how the programme was instrumental in initiating some form of change and this was evidence in how students and staff spoke about their involvement and perception of each other.

This is not to suggest that LTP was without its challenges. Working in prisons can be impacted by having to ensure your programme fits in with what is a very structured regime, meeting security measures, working with prisoners who may have complex needs alongside a range of other practical issues. Amy and Ruth spoke of the importance of the context in relation to replicating the LTP model in other prisons. Nonetheless, irrespective of potential challenges, for me, a key message was the potential of programmes to create a more supportive prison environment. I was mindful that alongside a need for some fundamental action to issues effecting prisons, moving forward with prison reform requires new ways of working. For me LTP was an example of ‘good practice’ in terms of offering a programme with the capacity to build positive self-perception, alongside confidence, whilst creating opportunities for men and women in prison to be open, empathetic and supportive of each other. Moreover, it equips men and women in prison with an opportunity to do something that has potential currency on release in the labour market. The LTP makes an important contribution to the evidence base that shows when we treat prisoners ‘humanely’ and offer ‘humanising’ spaces this can only help in supporting a process of reflection in which prisoners reflect on their past and envisage a future. In line with our research, LTP shows how the sense of solidarity and community found in being part of a team has the potential of opening up a world beyond bars.


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