Studying at The Open University is an amazing thing in so many ways. I love its flexibility, its lack of dogma around getting the top grades, and its general lack of snobbery and inaccessibility. An element of the OU which I only recently found out about is that the OU has a lot of students who are studying whilst serving prison sentences. In fact, I found out about this initially as my first research participant told me that he had studied an OU course in prison. He met me on the OU campus at Milton Keynes and couldn’t quite believe it was actually a real place with a campus. He hadn’t thought it was really proper, he had thought the courses were easier than ‘normal’ universities (although I really tried to convince him otherwise- insisting my degree was seeming just as hard as other universities and following the same processes!). When the opportunity came up for graduate students to deliver a session on their research to students in prison I jumped at the chance. Primarily I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to talk to people who may have experienced the issues that my research touched on. What a refreshing opportunity rather than always sharing knowledge with other academics who focus on the theory or the structure of the study, rather than the content and what it means first.
So off I went on the long train journey north up to HMP Stafford. My lovely grad school colleagues met me there as they also wanted to come along to see how it would go- it turned out I was the first student to give the opportunity a go. We entered the prison and were immediately struck by the care of the place- flowers planted all in the courtyard, hanging baskets fixed onto the 20ft fences with barbed wire on the top, like kitsch distractions from the reality of where we were. We went to the education room, which looked a lot like school, computers all around the edge of the room. The air was still- the windows were open but the bars on the window seemed to stop the breeze. Quickly the room was full- around 20 prisoners, 3 OU colleagues, 2 prison teachers.
I had planned to share my findings on the ways that masculinities changed for the men that I had spoken to, from the types of subordinated masculinities that they had felt at home living with domestic violence and abuse, to the ways that the men had developed different masculinities as they had become involved with the road and the gang. I was very conscious that the prisoners would feel I was ‘womansplaining’ masculinity to them and was very unsure how it would go down! I need not have been worried though. The first hand went up to ask a question during my first slide and that really kicked off the engagement. I had planned for a 30/40 min presentation, but with questions and discussions throughout we ended up spending the whole afternoon talking though my study. It was the most engagement I have had from anyone (including family!) since I started, which was so refreshing. To be honest that is probably because it is so unique to speak to people who have the time to consider things fully, as really, they have more time than anything else whilst serving their sentences. One element that they really homed in on was how would my research make a difference, what impact could it have on the lives of future men and boys who experienced the issues of DVA and gang involvement. That in particular really spurred me on to consider this aspect even more.
The men in the audience really wanted to understand my findings, however also had some really good viva style questions about why I hadn’t focused on particular things, which really helped me think though my decisions and what they might have found important as new eyes on it. By the end of the session men had been disclosing their own experiences in childhood, some with domestic violence and abuse, others with gang involvement, or with the ways in which rigid sense of masculinity has affected them. It was powerful stuff and shared with a keen interest and intensity which made the session very moving.
At the end of the session some men came and shook my hand before they left. There were also offers to read my thesis. There was also interest in accessing the music list of the men in the study. It was a wonderful session which I thoroughly enjoyed. It gave me an immense pride to be an open university student and in particular to be a tiny part involved in the teaching that they do in prison. So much so I have signed up to deliver another one in HMP The Verne in December!
I remember reading Nelson Mandela’s ‘A long walk to freedom’ where he talked about his studies in prison and thinking what an important way to spend the time incarcerated. Important for the individual to keep their mind alive, important for society for what that person may become. Engaging in education is never a wasted moment.