A Prison Exchange Programme run by Durham’s School of Applied Social Sciences has “changed students’ perceptions” of prisoners, according to an instructor involved in the course.
As part of the programme, Durham has become the first university in Europe to deliver classes to both students and prisoners.
The ten-week programme was introduced last October, and the second cohort of students are currently receiving lessons in HMP Durham and HMP Frankland, two high category prisons in Durham.
This term, 13 Criminology students, referred to as ‘outside students’, and 10 prisoners referred to as ‘inside students’ have received lessons together.
Instructors on the scheme underwent an intensive training course at Temple University, Philadelphia, where a similar scheme was introduced in 1997.
Lessons start and finish with all students sitting together in a circle and, although there are set topics which focus around key issues in the judicial system, the direction of the lessons is dictated by the conversations between inside and outside students.
“I’ve found it to be a very powerful process,” Dr O’Brien told Palatinate. “My job as an instructor is to facilitate dialogue between inside and outside students.”
O’Brien revealed that, although outside students were initially “anxious” about entering the prisons, they quickly became comfortable with their surroundings.
“Some of the students were anxious before the process started. They all went through with it, though, and no one has dropped out of the scheme.
“When we first came together, there was a very clear divide between the prisoners and the students. But, after an hour or so, those boundaries had been broken down.
“A lot of the outside students have told me that they can’t believe how bright the inside students are, and in that respect the scheme has removed a lot of prejudices.”
Both inside and outside students have written five reflexive papers on their experiences, two of which are summative, and the marking criteria is the same for all students.
Dr O’Brien believes that the scheme, which is nearing its conclusion, has been an unqualified success.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that this experience has benefited those involved. The course has led a lot of the outside students to look at their subject in a completely new light”.
Photograph: Rob Law