DMU and Leicester Prison – the ‘inside’ story…

Student volunteers outside the prison

Heading home from a night spent at the Times Higher Awards with a banging headache and a huge feeling of disappointment probably isn’t the best time to update this blog, but it might help me get a few things off my chest. Naturally being shortlisted for a national accolade and not walking away the prize is a bit deflating. Even though the judges thought we weren’t number one, I thought I could share some insight into De Montfort University’s work in Leicester Prison, so at least I’ve told you how good it is. Since I am trying to theme my blog posts around UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 – let me point out that work in prisons forms an important part of the targets. The UN indicators recognise that poor prison conditions and prison overcrowding point towards systemic deficiencies in justice systems.  Reforming the penal system and prisons is high priority across the world, as well as access to justice. These areas include a lack of access to legal aid, alternatives to imprisonment, youth crime prevention programmes, offenders’ rehabilitation; social reintegration measures, as well as the overuse of pre-trial detention. The programme at Leicester Prison very much focused on offenders’ rehabilitation and social reintegration. The idea was, and continues to be, that by working with staff and the men inside the prison, the university might be able to influence a different path to reoffending upon release.

DMU and Leicester Prison:

HMP Leicester was the focus of a damning report by the prisons watchdog, the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, at the start of 2016, and ranked amongst the worst in the country according to the prison league table (yes, sadly there is such a thing). But after working with DMU staff and students the prison surged 50 places up the table. Leicester’s then prison governor Phil Novis hailed the partnership with De Montfort University as one of the key factors behind the improvement. The work was later praised by independent prison inspectors. Mr Novis collaborated on a strategy with #DMUlocal, DMU’s public engagement team, that encouraged university staff and students to contribute teaching, learning and research projects to benefit the prison and its men.

Examples of the projects included:

  • ‘Learning Together’ teaching workshops where prisoners and Prison staff learnt alongside criminology students side-by-side
  • The construction of a memorial garden by students for prison staff
  • A concert by a 32-piece orchestra thought to be one of the first ever in a prison
  • A revamp of the prison visitors’ room by DMU interior design students to create ‘changing space for changing lives’ themed space for allowing flexibility to use the room for arts performances, conferences and family visits.
  • A prison research conference was held inside the prison and at DMU
  • A two-week arts’ festival called Talent Unlocked

This is what a 32-piece orchestra playing in a prison looks like

The idea of creating a large varied programme of activities was inspired by the governor’s desire to foster a new spirit and give the men hope at a time when the regime had been dogged by violence, overcrowding and drug abuse. University staff and students embraced the opportunity to work in a new environment to gain real-world experiences, gather research data and demonstrate the skills of the university as part of #DMUlocal’ s commitment to working for the benefit of the wider city. Students gained a unique experience of working in a challenging environment with people from different walks of life. Academics get the chance to deliver their work in a new context, often with a useful purpose that enhances teaching or creates high quality research data. The collaboration has become a valuable asset to the city, enabling the university as an anchor institution in Leicester to bring other authorities around the table to discuss issues that often result in a cycle of repeat offending. Strategies to challenge the issues that often result in men being sent to Leicester Prison have come to the fore in the city. These include aspects of homelessness, anti-social behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse. Prison Governor Phil Novis said: “The impact of the partnership is impossible to measure with metrics, but I have no doubt they are indelibly linked. They go hand in hand. With the help of De Montfort University, we have been able to create a feeling of community in the prison.  The events have helped make prisoners feel part of a community, and feel part of Leicester. It has enabled them to think of something else but violence and drugs.”

Prison programme:

Since the 2016/17 academic year more than 20 staff and 200 students have worked across a programme of 15 projects with the men and prison wardens. Projects included teaching and

One of the student designs for the visiting room

learning activities, a concert by a 32-piece orchestra, a revamp of the prison visitors’ room by DMU interior design students to create ‘changing space for changing lives’ themed space for allowing flexibility to use the room for arts performances, conferences and family visits. Students receive boundary training and undertake appropriate checks including DBS before they are allowed to enter the environment. The prison is less than 10-minutes’ walk from DMU’s city centre campus making it accessible for regular student visits. Security is high and university staff and students have to follow the strict Home Office protocols. Feedback from inmates suggest that the programme has a positive impact on life in the prison with many suggesting that the university should further increase the opportunities within the jail. The partnership has created a new level of trust, allowing the university to try new ideas with the prison. For example, HMP Leicester hosted the first two week arts festival in a UK prison – Talent Unlocked. This provided an opportunity to learn about the challenges and the value of producing a festival within a prison.

Prison project impact:

Lots of students take part in the project

The  annual prison rankings saw  HMP Leicester rise from 104th position – just five spots off bottom place – to 47th in 2017. While it should be noted that the partnership with De Monfort University is one of a number of factors that has enabled improvements, the significant impact of the university has been highlighted. Mr Novis said: “The impact of the partnership is impossible to measure with metrics, but I have no doubt they are indelibly linked. They go hand in hand. With the help of De Montfort University, we have been able to create a feeling of community in the prison.  The events have helped make prisoners feel part of a community, and feel part of Leicester. It has enabled them to think of something else but violence and drugs.”  Mr Novis took the helm of HMP Leicester in February 2016 and vowed to tackle deep-lying problems.  “We were at rock bottom. I told the staff we would not be going any lower. I said ‘We are going forward, and my target is to be in the top 50 prisons within two years.’ We have hit that target in a year. We had a 21% reduction in violence. In the rest of the prison estate, it’s gone up massively. One prison has seen their rates of violence rise by 300%.” Prisoners have felt deeply engaged in the programme. One said: “The Learning Together programme has helped me understand the making and breaking of laws and how it affects different people in different ways. Hearing people’s different views and experiences have helped me to build my self-confidence so that I am able to express my feelings on certain subjects.” Another said:

Behind the scenes at the filming of the new DMU advert for 2018/19 took place in the prison

Learning Together has been the highlight of my time in prison so far and I feel I have learned a lot. I’ve been able to take on board other people’s opinions and also that university students are not such a massive social leap away from us prisoners as I expected them to be.” Criminology students who studied alongside the prisoners also described their impacts. One said: “Really appreciated the opportunity. Hope the learning together continues for future students”. Another said: “One of the prisoners said he was determined to pursue education and a degree once he left prison based purely on what we had discussed over the week – how amazing is that?”

*The work in Leicester Prison continues. If you would like to get involved, you can email me via mcharlton@dmu.ac.uk