The Benefits of Science Courses in Prisons

Priyanka Dasgupta speaks with former prison-learner, Dalton Harrison about the benefits of science courses in prisons.

As I tried piecing together the framework of the still nebulous reach of science education courses in UK prisons, I came across a fantastic in-class science education program ‘Think Like A Scientist’ (TLAS)  that was hailed as being the first program of its kind in England.

The TLAS Course Pack
   The TLAS Course pack . Image sourced from Phil Heron, the course founder

Current scenario of science in UK prisons?

What was new about TLAS? The science-yes. The comprehensive coverage of it- yes. The fact that it was a 7-week course making critical discussions on topics like black holes and plate tectonics, accessible to a prison population- Hell, yes!

The surprising thing was that this was still a novelty in 2019. There are other programs like Cell Block Science, Code4000 also running science education courses around a variety of topics, in alignment with the UK’s education strategy. Besides such innovative programs, there are still fewer options to pick from for robust science education via distance learning courses. At the prison centres, often the main focus remains on Maths and English, or basic IT.

Teaching science to a disadvantaged population is not merely an equitable act though. It is an essential tool in decoding the technological world, for prisoners  rejoining society. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice makes a case for education, based on a significant link between education, employment and a reduction in reoffending rates.

With the restrictive environment STEM subjects are a challenge to teach. But after interviewing  several educators involved in delivering science courses across different UK prisons, I found that courses can be effectively delivered in a safe and secure way. These interviews however, were made for a longer study for my Masters. Here though, the focus is on another interview. I spoke with Dalton Harrison, who was a prison-learner and an alumni of the TLAS course at HMP Low Newton, about his experience of the course.

Dalton’s experience of the course

Speaking of the TLAS course, Dalton shared his earlier apprehensions about signing up. Part of it was because of his previous terrible experiences with a classroom setting. However, he’s glad he finally signed up. He recalled fondly when Phil Heron (who is the person who founded and ran the course) had eased them into solving their first science question with an everyday task, without them even realising it. This interactive, discussion oriented approach that encouraged critical thinking, was something that Dalton appreciated greatly. Soon enough, he was looking forward to the sessions.

“And he [Phil] just showed us all these different techniques of problem solving… I learned about tectonic plates. I mean if somebody said that to me a month before, I would have laughed at them. I was reading every article he was giving me,  I was exploring the outside world, how things work , and it just gave me a completely different mindset , and I think that I have carried that on since I got out.”

He reflected that in these classes, he had something to focus positively on, in an environment that can be overwhelmingly negative. An interesting insight he shared was the significance of having a secure place to conduct these group classes:

“There’s other rooms you can use. Now, he didn’t take us to the education department and I think that is actually a vital thing. Because in the education department  it’s a lot more disruptive with a lot of different classes going on. Now he took us to…kind of a meeting room and I found that a lot better. Being separate from the main prison body helps because there’s so much disruption ; so much almost negativity as well.… and people always have to be wary , you’ve got to have a particular persona. So prisoners at times, cannot relax if they’re around their peer groups….there’s still people having to defend themselves for any reason whatsoever. So separating and giving them that safe environment is definitely a key point as well.”

The novelty and benefit of a science course in prison

Besides the classroom setting done right, this 7 week course was  exciting also because science as a subject is such a novelty in prisons. Dalton mentioned that he had been in two female prisons, although he is transitioning into being a male, and said that in his experience, he’d never come across anything even remotely  to do with science.

Along with knowledge,  the course also provides a lot of perspective. It provides one with access and guidance to the resources many never get a chance to be nurtured with.  Like other constructive educational courses, it imparts the confidence to approach a better path after getting out. As Dalton put it:

“I think a lot of people in prison like I said, have a very negative view of everything . Society wants to judge them and they’re bad and that’s it. So you sort of carry that label with you. And when somebody says ‘all you are is no good’ or ‘all you are is a criminal’ or ‘all you are is a certain crime ‘ , eventually you take (believe) everything.… from school, I was taught I wasn’t any good at school. I was the bottom set at everything ….and you carry that with you and then you get another label, and another label and by the time you get into prison you just think you can’t do anything , so what’s the point?”

And that, according to him where this program made an immense difference:

“…. but when you start to learn science, it makes you reevaluate everything. It makes you understand your surroundings a bit better. You don’t feel negative because the first thing that felt good is the teacher (saying/acknowledging) you’re a person;you’re a student and you’re now learning how to be a scientist … we suddenly felt like it was something different;  positive.”

The course had them approaching tasks with a scientific thinking, while building on their understanding, analysis and communication skills. The course included topics like ‘science of sleep’, ‘the atmosphere and the air we breathe’, ‘the universe’ and more. Lessons included data analysis and creative writing tasks involving scientific data. One especially interesting activity involved the students being assigned a scientist each, in the first week. Over time, they then had to research that scientist and pitch their scientist as a worthy candidate for the new face of the £50 note. Needless to say, all these amounted to invaluable lessons for the learners.

The road ahead

Science education in prisons still has a long way to go. The initiative, Think Like a Scientist too is under preparation to expand. However, this requires funds that can be sustained. It requires energy and hours spent in campaigning to raise awareness about the need for it. Moreover, I found in my interviews for my thesis (one with Phil himself) that a massive challenge lies in dealing with logistical and administrative hurdles. Other science programs too are in similar positions: brilliant ideas battling to stay in existence. Like Dalton’s impactful testimonial conveys there is a huge benefit to more wholesome science courses as agreed upon by many science educators. Hopefully, more of such educational science programs can find a way to break-in.

Priyanka Dasgupta is a finished M.Sc. Science Communication student at Imperial College.

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