This first appeared on Prisoners’ Education Trust
Despite the suspension of face-to-face education during lockdown, HMP Pentonville has found ways of keeping educational partnerships running and creating learning opportunities for people in prison.
The first session of the Criminology module ‘Prisons and Desistance’ was delivered on Zoom to HMP Pentonville students.
The Making Links project is a partnership between the University of Westminster and HMP Pentonville. Making Links was an idea developed in January 2016 by Dr Andreas Aresti and Dr Sacha Darke, Senior Lecturers in Criminology, with Jose Aguiar, prison educator at HMP Pentonville. The project creates a direct connection between prisons and universities through higher education.
The course runs twice a year. For 10 weeks 20 students (10 from the University, and 10 from HMP Pentonville) have a deep, extended experience with a group of people, ostensibly unlike themselves, to study together. In 2018, the University accredited the course at level 3 for HMP Pentonville students and level 6 for the University of Westminster students.
This semester, the project was due to be cancelled because of the pandemic as universities moved to online delivery, and prisons are in lockdown. HMP Pentonville students would be denied the opportunity to study and take part in this invaluable higher education experience. Jose Aguiar, Andreas Aresti, and Sacha Darke came together to think about an innovative way of delivering the course.
Jose Aguiar worked with HMP Pentonville governors and prison staff to develop an operational process to deliver the course on Zoom. The course started on the 21st of October 2020.
This semester seven HMP Pentonville students and, for the first time, two prison officers attend the course. Dr Andreas Aresti and Dr Sacha Darke deliver the lectures, and eight recent graduates from the criminology degree at the University, who were on the project last year, join the weekly remote sessions.
Jose Aguiar said:
This is a historical moment for education in prison. Prisons need to follow what other educational institutions have been doing and provide their residents access to education opportunities in these challenging times.
Ian Blakeman, HMP Pentonville Governing Governor, added,
The pandemic has had the unintentional benefit of allowing us to push through many things that before would have been stopped. Using an internet-enabled course for prisoners is just one of those examples, and I hope that this is just the start of us doing more activities like this. I also saw this as a fantastic opportunity to facilitate some joint work between staff and prisoners. That they can learn together is a great leveller and I am sure will go a long way to improving relationships within the prison.
Dr Andreas Aresti commented,
The opportunity to continue the project despite the lockdown measures, illustrates what we can achieve when you have the support and backing of the prison governors and prison staff. To continue the project virtually, is a remarkable achievement, given that prisoners do not have internet access, and internet access to prisons, comes with many restrictions and complex security measures.
On the 16th December seven prisoners and two prison officers attended the graduation ceremony in the prison Chapel. There was a sense of achievement in the room.
One of the prison officers said “Thank you for making the course as interesting as it was to learn new things. I definitely think I may lean more towards studying more of criminology side of things.”
The course will run again from February 2021 for 10 weeks. Pentonville learners and prison officers will enrol in the course and will be joined remotely by university students as part of their level 6 studies. 14 university students already showed interest in joining the course.
HMP Pentonville is also in the process of setting up Entrepreneurial Skills workshops delivered by Urban Lawyers – University of London. Workshops were planned to be delivered face to face from the 1st week of February, but in the face of new lockdown restrictions and how Covid 19 is affecting prisons, the workshops will be delivered on Microsoft Teams.
It is really fantastic to see that despite the challenges of lockdown, dedicated prison staff and academics have found innovative ways of continuing to deliver education in prisons. You can read more about some of these examples here and here.
This is part of the Prison University partnerships blog series, which shines a spotlight each month on an example of prisons and universities working in partnership to deliver education.
If you would like to respond to the points and issues raised in this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Helena.