Prisoner Students: Building Bridges, Breaching Walls

Weinbren, Daniel (2017). Prisoner Students: Building Bridges, Breaching Walls. In: Burkett, Jodi ed. Universities and Students in Twentieth Century Britain and Ireland. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 45–75.



In 1971, when the Open University’s (OU’s) first dedicated television programmes were broadcast and its first correspondence materials dispatched, among the first of its part-time, adult, learners were prisoners. In common with many other OU students, prisoners often started from a position of low self-esteem, having few or no prior formal qualifications. OU students were separated from one another and often prisoners were particularly isolated. Many faced additional difficulties when studying, as some teaching materials and experiences were denied to them. In this chapter, by focusing on prisoners who have studied through the OU, the broader impact of the OU’s students upon their communities is illuminated. The experience of being students provided the prisoners with opportunities to gain in self-confidence and self-belief. It enabled them to hold a mirror up to the mainstream and recognise the ways in which the social order could be made and remade. Studying provided some prisoners with a sense of emancipation and equipped them with fresh tools with which to deal with issues of power and politics. The varied experiences and practices of students in prisons can be categorised and illuminated if the prison is understood as a Foucauldian heterotopia, that is a ‘place which lies outside all places and yet is localisable’, where the prisoners could rearrange the conventional in order to create a laboratory or lecture theatre, where they could juxtapose ‘in a single real space, several spaces, several sites which are themselves incompatible’ (Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, 16, Spring 1986, pp. 22–7). Through such contestation, some prisoners were able to become members of a student body, to create a new space of discourse which was formed and reformed as texts circulated. Supported by pedagogic scaffolding developed by the OU, they could develop mutual experiences and structures for reciprocity. This enabled them to render the unfamiliar—university life—as familiar while recontextualising and rendering as novel the habitus of prison life.

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