Post by Mayze Teitler, MSc student at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

Piled into the back of a van with other MSc Criminology students, bumping over cobblestoned streets, I glance out the window.  Other students stream through the gates of their colleges, rushing to class and greeting friends.  In Oxford, the future feels wide-open. A University is alive, kept alive by the students who hope, work, and dream within its walls. Studying at Oxford grants each of us in the van a privilege that is designed to set us apart. We live in a community that gained its prestige by shutting others out.  In 2018, one-third of Oxford colleges accepted three or fewer black applicants per annum. Until 1920, women could not become full members of the University. But when we arrive for another meeting of the Oxford-Huntercombe Prison Reading Group, passing one-by-one through a metal detector, I can’t help but think that there’s something dead about a prison.  Like Oxford, there are gates, and like Oxford, people move in and out, but those gates do not swing open easily.  Prison walls can shut out, but they also shut in the people they detain—away from their loved ones, their lives, their worlds. 

However, the prison and the University are not as separate as they might appear.  As the fluorescent lights flicker overhead in the prison library, one of our fellow-students asks me “Why are you all here? What do you want from us?”  The questions are completely fair and asked in a friendly way, but I’m not sure how to answer.  The history of prisons and academia is not a happy one.  Over centuries, scores of academics have studied aspects of the criminal justice system, including prisons and policing, with an eye towards improving their function, but remaining completely uncritical of the legacy of injustice that those same institutions deliver.  Rather, much of their work enabled justice systems to operate in fundamentally unjust ways.  This legacy continues in England and Wales today, whether it’s massively over-incarcerating BAME citizens—26% of adults in UK prisons and 42% of children in YOIs are BAME, compared to 13% of the general population—or disrupting family bonds by incarcerating parents extremely far from home.  The criminal justice system could not exist without the involvement and support of intellectuals, regardless of their political orientation. The liberal-minded reformers who dominated prison studies in the 1970s oversaw huge periods of prison expansion under the name of “rehabilitation,” tough on crime conservatives expanded and advocated for retributive punishment, and even neoliberal theorists tried to “design out” crime and calculate reoffending risks through technological advancement. Policies of the modern carceral system represent a hodge-podge of legal, political, and academic theorizing, across academic schools and eras.

Even more sinister histories exist.  In the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, through the 20th-century, prisoners were regularly used for unethical and uninformed medical testing.  In the now-famous 1932 Tuskegee Study, African-American men were, without their knowledge, deliberately infected with syphilis by government researchers, to study the disease’s progression.  Even after researchers knew that penicillin would treat the men they had infected, they withheld information and treatment from the unwilling participants.  This history is not to say that all University involvement with prisons is inherently evil, but that there is a long history of researchers either uncritically ignoring the legacy of their policy recommendations or actively exploiting the bodies and experiences of prisoners for their own academic benefit.  As such, Universities owe a debt to prisons: they have extracted knowledge without considering as full persons or tangibly benefitting those people whom they study.  The “expert knowledge” we produce, and the means we use to produce it, can be just as easily applied in the service of evil as in the service of good.  Even more importantly, while I can leave our reading group at HMP Huntercombe enriched by the knowledge and experience of my visit, none of our fellow students who are incarcerated at the foreign national prison enjoy the same luxury.  So that simple question, “Why are you here?” invokes a dark and sinister history in my mind.

But rather than shy away from questions about our visit, our group jumps right in.  We all start asking questions to each other: What is the purpose of a prison?  To rehabilitate? To punish? To protect? A student points out that the logic of imprisonment breaks down when we consider incarcerated people who are foreign nationals, facing deportation at the end of their sentence.  Our fellow classmates will leave behind families, homes, and careers to live uncertain lives in now-unfamiliar places.  Another criminology student asks, “What makes a crime?  Why do you think some actions are crimes when people commit them, but not when the government does?” and suddenly we’re in the middle of a deep conversation on the nature of the state, and how the government could better represent the will of the public, with all of the participants putting forward ideas that are more interesting and radical than most of what I’ve heard in my seminar classes.  The hour flies by, and I’m shocked when a program coordinator announces that it’s time for us to wrap up our conversation.  We briefly trade ideas about texts we could bring to HMP Huntercombe on our next visit, before we are shuffled back out into the parking lot, to make the long drive back to Oxford.

Moments like this one demonstrate the potential of University programs within prisons.  As the Prison Reform Trust point out, most prisons in England and Wales fail to provide “purposeful activity,” including education, for incarcerated people, and educational programs continue to face budget cuts and poor funding.  Over half of all incarcerated people in the UK, at the beginning of their periods of incarceration, have literacy skills equal to those of the average 11-year-old child. Prisons contain those most excluded from education, while simultaneously generating an entire field of academic scholarship often inaccessible to the people incarcerated within them.  A tangible need exists, exacerbated by lack of opportunity, for new approaches towards prison education.  Universities like Oxford have the resources and capacity to run regular classes within prisons, potentially as credit granting coursework.   While many incarcerated people in the UK have access to higher education through the Open University’s distance learning programs, in-person seminars are accessible and dynamic. Incarcerated and unincarcerated students tangibly benefit from these bridge-building efforts, which open the walls of both the prison and the university, allowing knowledge and discourse to flow freely between the two.  But, more importantly, the historical relationship between the University and the prison should lead Universities to wholeheartedly embrace such work.

Studying within a prison, illuminates the direct repercussions of criminal justice policy.  By breaking down the barriers between the lived-knowledge of incarcerated students and the academic-knowledge of criminologists, Universities can work to build a truly radical knowledge base, one that does not serve to further distance academics from the communities that are most affected by the power structures that the University helps create.  Fields like criminology and legal studies, which ask critical questions about the form, function, and purpose of our criminal justice systems, should not only welcome but actively facilitate the inclusion of those people and communities that have been most involved in and disadvantaged by the systems themselves. When asking, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” Foucault commented on the nature of state power, the mechanisms that the government uses to structure our lives.  But those of us within schools and within prisons can and should levy whatever means we have to reshape that power, to look critically at the legacies of our institutions and to create better knowledge within them.  Discussion groups and classes offered by Universities within prisons offer the first step towards that change.