This blog comes from a guest lecturer who delivered a session on the module. Although it is mentioned that they are unable to assess certain elements of their own session, we were given a good idea of this by a student in the Feeling Like A Human Again blog.
For the last few years, my main research focus has been a study of prisoners serving very long sentences from an early age, undertaken with colleagues. As part of that study, we conducted fieldwork in 25 prisons, ranging from high-security to open prisons, and including both male and female prisoners. Once we had developed our thinking to a reasonably advanced place, the three of us went back into some of our main fieldwork sites to present our findings to prisoners who had taken part in the original research. The aim was partly to feed back to those people who had given us their time, and who had often expressed an interest in the research; it was also to discuss our interpretations with people who would be able to tell us if we seemed wildly off the mark.
The other context in which we had presented our findings was in a Learning Together session at HMP Grendon in 2016, with a group of students from the prison alongside students from the Cambridge Institute of Criminology. In some senses, this session – like our other feedback activities – had been very gratifying: many of the Grendon-based students had commented that the patterns I had identified corresponded with their experiences. But one piece of guidance that I had received from the Learning Together conveners was that this had been quite a tricky topic both for these men and for the contingent from Cambridge. The latter had felt that it was difficult for them to offer meaningful contributions to the discussion, while the former had felt that, in the discussion groups following my presentation, they had become objects of research rather than equal partners in serious debate.
Preparing for my talk in Full Sutton, on the experience of long-term imprisonment, I therefore felt a small degree of trepidation. For a group of men serving in a high-security prison, the topic might be quite close to the bone. No doubt, most long-term prisoners have spent a good deal of time reflecting on their predicament, but to have an outsider come in and talk, in academic terms, about the main problems encountered during a long life sentence, and about the transitions that long-term prisoners seem to undergo, might feel rather cold; it might open some cognitive doors that have been deliberately closed; or it might give the impression that there is a ‘right’ way of adapting to the situation.
I’m not the right person to assess whether any of these things occurred. But – as in other feedback sessions – 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.