Experiences of Study

Experiences of Study
Robert, MA in Social Sciences and prospective PhD student, HMP Shotts
Obviously there was no internet access, certainly not in the prisons I’ve been in.
Library facilities are almost nonexistent, unless you want to read Barbara Cartland or
whatever (laughs). Any reference books are so out of date as to make them almost
obsolete. Having like-minded people to talk to about your course is also a massive
obstacle, at least I’ve found it so. It is getting better because there are now more and
more students who are looking at higher education and therefore their mindsets have
changed. But there’s a sense of loneliness in your study.
I can’t say what it would be like for people outside because I’ve never studied at this
level outside, but I would imagine that people outside can speak to other people,
maybe not about that particular subject, but certainly at that same level, and get
informed opinions or ideas from them. Here, and I don’t mean this disrespectfully,
the main topic of conversation is football and…football (laughs). And unless you’re
doing a degree in football then it doesn’t do you much good.
There are little obstacles. The everyday running of prisons creates obstacles in
themselves, but after what, 12 years of studying I’ve learned how to navigate around
them. Or under them or over them. And my experience I pass on to new students,
you know with the hope that they will perhaps have an easier time of their study than
I did, certainly in the early days.
Kirsten Dwight
So what are some of the ways that you’ve found over the years to try to overcome
those obstacles?
Patience (laughs). I finish what I start. I recall one incident where an assignment
went missing. I’d posted it, and here I can’t actually post it directly, I have to go
through a third party, who then goes through another party as well. The assignment
went missing. Three attempts later, it still hadn’t reached my tutor, which was
frustrating to say the least. Not only because I’d taken the time to write up the
assignment, and also to get it away on time in the first place – if an assignment says
it’s to be in on a certain day, it will be in on that certain date, as far as I can have any
degree of say in it. I’m not pointing a finger of blame at anybody here. But I just
ensured that it did get there in the end. But mainly, as I said at the beginning,
patience. You’ve just got to rise above some of the obstacles that are presented
before us.
We have a different regime in here so it’s not like outside where people can just
study when they want. And I know some people work but some people obviously do
full-time study, where they can go to the library when they want or they can use the
internet or they can go to the forums. It’s not like that for us in here. We have work
during the day and the gym sessions and we have lock-ups. We have cell searches,
we have different problems that go on in a prison that don’t enable us to study when
we want.
For a couple of years there what I used to do, I used to study on a Sunday night. We
used to get locked up at half four on a Sunday. So I used to sleep all day Sunday,
from half four till about 9 o’clock, get up and study from 10 o’clock to 5 o’clock in the
morning. Because that was the quietest time, when the prison was asleep I could
study, and I could get my TMAs done. Because it’s like you’re living in a house with
a hundred people, and it’s just constant noise and TVs, hi-fis, people shouting,
alarms going off. So it’s trying to adapt it around that.
Kirsten Dwight
So how do you feel when you’re actually sitting down to write an essay or write a
story, you know when you’ve finally found that moment of quiet – you’re just there
with a piece of paper?
John, Diploma in English Literature and Creative Writing; presently MA
student, HMP Maghaberry
You don’t feel like you’re in prison. That’s the first thing I noticed. You really don’t
feel like you’re in prison, just everything disappears into the background. I usually go
through a process, it takes a couple of weeks to build my characters and the whole
storyline which way I want to go, and it changes as it evolves and, you know, grows.
In those few weeks I take notes and, you know, listen to people talking. Sometimes I
go, “That was a really nice line, I’ll use something like that”, you know. So it takes a
couple of weeks for that to evolve.
And then when I have the story sort of set up and lined up in the direction I want to
go then I sit down in front of the computer and the whole prison just seems to
disappear into the background. The only thing that brings me around is if they give
me a knock for my lunch or something, I’m kind of back in the prison again. And
once I’ve had my lunch and get back to it I’m away again, I’m in the story and I’m
outside and I’m in with my characters in my story and the prison’s not there. The
time from TMA to TMA every month, it just passes in the blink of an eye. It’s ‘cause
you have something to focus on. You know I’ve served 13 years, and for the last 6 or
7 of those I’ve been doing coursework, and I just didn’t see it go by.