Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
AWARD WINNERS 2016-17: Ruth and Amy, from Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology and Faculty of Law, respectively, win an Award for pioneering ‘Learning Together’, bringing together prisoners, university students and academics, to learn with and from one another. The initiative, which began with Cambridge and HMP Grendon, now includes a number of prisons and universities across the country. [This Award is supported by Novus. Ruth and Amy also receive the Keith Bromley Award for Education & Skills Training.]
Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow are the pioneers – and beating hearts – of a remarkable and innovative partnership, ‘Learning Together’, which is delivering ‘Education across walls’.
Amy and Ruth received seven separate nominations from prisoners, and among a slew of more professional and academic language, their words, as so often, stand out for their heartfelt clarity, such as in this quote from Brian*:
“To me, Learning Together is the best experience of my life. It’s the first time I felt like I belonged next to the normal people… it was the first time I realised I could understand things that were difficult and explain them to other people in a comprehensive way. It was the start of the rest of my life.”
As their lead nominator Gavin* put it, “[they] have made me feel like a human being again, and shown that no matter where you have been in life, you can still achieve the right support and guidance.”
The Masters level content is led by Cambridge academics, and as Butler Trust Local Champion Carole Roe, a Volunteer with Friends of Grendon, puts it: “the impact on the students…has been profound.”
Carole adds “for the Cambridge University students this has been an opportunity to transcend detached academic learning and instead engage directly with prisons and prisoners.”
This extraordinary programme is now being rolled out at 15 other prisons, with another dozen exploring developing it, and international interest has led to its adoption in Australia.
Carole notes Ruth and Amy’s “incredible drive, passion, and enthusiasm” and the fact that “they have been able to change lives through the power of learning.” Nominating prisoners agreed, with one saying “I can’t tell you how grateful so many of us are to them, they are absolute legends round here.”
Another became quite emotional as he said “They have the most beautiful hearts, the most beautiful souls, I will be grateful to them for the rest of my life.”
Grendon’s Governor Jamie Bennett is an enthusiastic supporter of the transformational project, noting how Ruth and Amy “profoundly believe that prisons can be better places” and how “they have taken personal responsibility in trying to make that a reality.”
Again, prisoners bring a pith and wit to their remarks. One, speaking at an end of course celebration, noted that he’d never have done such a thing before commending Learning Together for “putting a sheen back onto people’s lives” and convincing him that “I, too, can change the world. Or,” he added with impeccable comic timing, “maybe just contribute at weekends or something.”
Ruth and Amy continue to extend and develop the programme. One graduate was employed as a University of Cambridge Research Assistant (while still in prison), while others have spoken at conferences and contributed to academic publications. In one of these, they commented that: “We know that positive experiences of education in school and prison are linked to socially beneficial outcomes; increased wellbeing and reduced reoffending.” Further, they noted: “Connections were formed through learning together as equals in the room, and through experiencing interactions as humanist, rather than as humanitarian.”
From a voluntary start to securing funds and significant expansion, the project has won a series of plaudits, coverage and awards, including having Justice Secretary Liz Truss speak recently at the London launch of Learning Together at HMP Brixton. Meanwhile Amy and Ruth are working alongside NOMS to think about how to develop the use of technology in prison education to support partnership working with universities.
Another benefit noted is on perceptions, with staff speaking about “the impact on them of seeing the students in a new light.” The end of course celebrations, to which graduates are allowed to invite two guests each, are a powerful chance to change perceptions, too. As one prisoner touchingly remarked about his graduation, “My family commented that it was the first time they’d seen me go up to collect something other than a sentence.”
The project can be followed on Twitter at @JustisTogether
* Name changed