On Tuesday 31st January, we entered the prison for the first time to teach a class of students from Leeds and HMP Full Sutton. Given that all students on the module are registered with Leeds Beckett University, it’s been difficult to talk about the two groups separately as we can’t say ‘Leeds Beckett’ and ‘Full Sutton’, because they’re all Leeds Beckett! However, the group alleviated this problem during the first taught session when deciding as a collective, they would like to be referred to as “students” – so that’s the answer! Some are Leeds-based and some are Full Sutton-based.
This blog is about the first session and in particular first impressions from the students who came to the prison from Leeds. We (the module leaders) have spent years lecturing students about how we view those convicted of criminal offences and in many lectures have preached “remember, they’re still people!”. The scale of the security in a prison however can make it difficult to maintain an open mind about the people who reside in the prison environment and the students coming in to the prison from Leeds were honest about their nervousness and understandable apprehension at times.
The most striking and unexpected experience of the session was when we entered the classroom. The students from Full Sutton were sitting at their desks waiting for us to arrive and almost like a stampede the students from Leeds marched in and made themselves comfortable next to their new class mates. Hands were being shaken all over the classroom and we heard lots of students saying “nice to meet you” to each other in a very excited way. We gave a number of students learning materials to hand out to the class while introductions were being made and everyone was ready and willing to help. It also made us feel that our painfully predictable ice-breaker was a little redundant, but that was fine with us! The module introduction went well and all was not lost with the ice-breaker activity as students spent a little time getting to know each other, particularly why they had wanted to study the course, and then introduced each other to the rest of the class. Surprisingly this wasn’t the cringe-worthy experience that ice-breaking activities can sometimes be and everyone was happy to contribute.
Following this, and the overview of the module content and assessment, our academic librarian briefed the group on the study skills needed for the module and how to develop them using relevant materials. Students were already helping each other navigate the stack of materials that they had been given (module handbooks, reading packs, study guides etc) and this reciprocal support became one of the key features that students were keen to include in the Student Conduct Agreement they later wrote together. Amongst other points in the agreement, the students agreed that the core values of the learning environment had to be respect and trust; and it was clear that these values were present within the group from the very beginning, including during a discussion about the meaning and significance of keys in the prison environment during which students gave each other time to talk and respected different points of view.
After almost two years of planning and development, there was an overwhelming sense of achievement as the first session came to a close. The students were all engaged and genuinely pleased to finally be able to interact with one another given that the application process for the module began a year ago. Unsurprisingly, the journey back to Leeds was filled with conversation about first impressions of the first session and some of the Leeds-based students provided comments for this blog:
“One of the main surprises to me was the negative connotations keys have. That was my own ignorance as someone who has never been an inmate, I didn’t even think about the module leaders carrying keys as an issue. Although I am fully aware we all have differing opinions it did make me realise there will be some interesting viewpoints I wouldn’t have thought of myself! So I’m personally looking forward to finding out others!”
“I’m just overwhelmed by it all to be honest. It wasn’t how I expected it to be, although I’m not sure what I expected (if that makes sense). I’m finding it such a personal journey already. I really want to challenge some of my most ingrained perspectives and this is clearly the place to do it. Can’t wait to get back there.”
“Mind blowing and overwhelming. Actually starting, it is just indescribable, it actually is going to change my life, both personally and academically. Then there’s the next layer of their lives inside, how a student was telling me his hopes for the future. It’s all so complex but I really cannot wait to explore it all more! I am very much enjoying the state of confusion I am in right now, it can only mean that I’m learning and my ideas are changing! It’s brilliant! Confusing, but brilliant.”
“I agree, the keys conversation was an eye opener, I expect uniforms to have that effect but not necessarily keys. The only other thing that surprised me was how safe the environment felt, although we were sat in a room with 12 high security prisoners and no officers, I personally didn’t feel unsafe.”
Our next class at the prison is next week and I think it’s fair to say that as a full group (lecturers, facilitators and students), we’re all ready to get back and continue this amazing experience. Future blogs will cover different thoughts and reflections and will be from the viewpoint of different people involved in the module. We hope that by doing so, we will be able to share the story of our progress in a way that represents everyone’s voice.