For the past two years, SCCJR’s PhD students and staff have been part of reading groups in prisons in Scotland. We meet monthly and read social theory and political theory, philosophy, politics, human geography, linguistics and more. These are challenging academic texts, at the upper postgraduate level of comprehension.

When I describe the prison reading groups to others, I often have to correct the assumption that ‘we’ (the academics) go into prisons to teach or support ‘them’ (the prison-based students). No-one is there for anything but their own learning and development. The groups are intended to create in prison something that is routinely available to students on the outside: peer-led forms of educational engagement where you learn to discuss, debate, argue, critique by actually doing these things rather than being taught them. Reading groups are one of the spaces that contribute to good societies; they nurture a collective sense of purpose and support (as well as frustration when the going gets tough). Through these experiences we are doing more than educating ourselves – we are practising community and citizenship.

Reading groups are one of the spaces that contribute to good societies; they nurture a collective sense of purpose and support

Scottish prisons have opened their doors to a range of enlightening, transformative and stimulating activities nominally fitting under the banner of ‘education’ but offering a powerful route of getting people to re-think their abilities. Most of this work flies under the radar of media coverage, which is a shame as these activities offer a very different and innovative picture of what can be accomplished through education compared to our neighbours south of the border, where there remains, with important exceptions, a fixation on basic skills and aspiration-free, low-wage-focused employability courses. In Scotland, the prison service exposes those in its custody to: sculptural art placements, philosophy MOOCs, creative writing placements, running and producing an award-winning art magazine, scientific laboratory work and, soon, astrobiology courses.

There is a problem of high ambition and ability obscured by a default and widespread stereotype of prisoners as having educational limitations

The high uptake for these activities (there have been waiting lists for philosophy!) and levels of enthusiasm and engagement in our reading groups has led me to think of Scotland as having a “hidden literacy problem” in its prisons – that is, a problem of high ambition and ability obscured by a default and widespread stereotype of prisoners as having educational limitations. While (not infrequently methodologically shaky) measures show literacy levels often lower than in the wider population, an illiteracy focus leads to a limiting and limited understanding of education as empowering through the acquisition of a basic skill, as if reading as well as a 15-year-old will solve all the problems people face.

The reading groups have given me a much broader and more fundamental sense of education as relational and environmental: supportive, multi-directional, curiosity-driven relations among students, teachers and others (including prison staff) have wider positive effects on the prison environment and experience. The conversation in reading groups flows out of that space onto the wing (or the car as we drive home) and into discussions with family and friends.

In the ongoing age of austerity we hope Scotland will be able to remain committed to this strong foundation and understanding of education

And now the but…We started up our reading groups at the invitation of a prison education provider, one that has developed partnerships with many universities in Scotland to produce the initiatives mentioned. These always were envisioned as ways of enhancing an already rich foundation of learning provision. Such initiatives are not and should not ever become the main source of stimulating engagement with higher education opportunities. University partnerships are effective because there is an underlying foundation of ambition and vision about learning in Scottish prison. In the ongoing age of austerity we hope Scotland will be able to remain committed to this strong foundation and understanding of education which motivates staff, students and all around them to reach higher and do better.

As Samuel Beckett exhorts: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Sarah Armstrong, Director of SCCJR (@SCCJR_Director)

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