Prisoner/Student Debate: Take 3

Should voluntary euthanasia be legalised in the UK?

By Laura Kelly, Lecturer in Criminology and debate facilitator

Location: HMP Kirkham

Blog Session 3 photo

This pilot programme has been such an absolute pleasure to run, and in complete honesty I am quite overwhelmed by how well it has gone. It is genuinely turning out to be one of the highlights of my academic career so far, and I feel incredibly lucky to be involved in it. After session two all participants were given the opportunity to suggest topics for the third session; they wrote their ideas down on post it notes and I went through them after leaving the prison. Out of 16 suggestions, 8 related to the legalisation of euthanasia. While I had been advised to steer clear of controversial topics for the duration of the pilot, I wanted to make sure that participants knew that their say was important. With this in mind, I got permission off UCLan and Kirkham to go ahead with this, and advised all participants that they would need to be prepared to listen to arguments and opinions that may not sit well with them (obviously this is part of the skill of learning to debate!!).

The structure of the sessions has remained the same throughout, with participants being split into two groups, and given 30 minutes to prepare their arguments before the debate begins. This preparation time is one of my favourite things about this scheme, as the level of engagement surpasses anything I have seen before (I wish I could bottle it, as I could make a bloody fortune selling it!). During this session it was clear that all participants had become better at working as a team, and listening to and appreciating each other’s arguments; Interestingly, individuals who tried to take over during earlier sessions appeared to have learnt to take a step back and give others a chance to have their say as well. These improvements could be attributed at least partially to the fact that the students and prisoners had become much more comfortable with each other; in a different context I can imagine that some of them would probably become friends, which is nice (but also struck me as being sad). This scheme has shown me that stigma is contextual; and in this context, the stigma of being a prisoner/offender/criminal (etc etc) has become almost irrelevant.

After a short refreshment break, the debate began. Participants had learnt from previous sessions how the debate was structured, and needed less prompting about what they were supposed to do and when. While the quality of the debate was again brilliant, there was one key difference which really highlighted the importance of schemes like this; The confidence levels and communication skills of many of the participants had increased significantly. One standout example of this came from a student who had been very quiet in earlier sessions. After session two she had told me that she was making it a personal goal to talk in the third debate, and she did, which was brilliant! Similarly, in earlier sessions one prisoner had really struggled to get his point across, stammering and blushing throughout. However, in this session he was like a different person, delivering multiple confident, clear, persuasive arguments. I was taken aback by the transformation and actually felt moved by it. The prison librarian who was acting as one of the debate judges responded similarly, remarking that the difference in him was astonishing.

After the debate was over, the judges (one from the university and one from the prison) made their decision, deciding that the team who had been arguing for the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia were the winners. Because of the success of the pilot we have decided that a final fourth session is to be added, where the debate will be watched small audience, and where participants will receive participation certificates. I am aware that this blog probably reads as being very cheesy and overly positive, but I genuinely feel that what happens in that room during each session is quite magical. I think if members of the public were to watch these sessions like I have, their opinions about prisoners and the purpose of the prison system would unavoidably alter. I also think that schemes like this could play an important part in the desistance process, not only for the skills they help participants to develop, but also because they give prisoners the opportunity to temporarily shed their stigma.

Quotes from feedback sheets:

“It teaches one the ability to take other opinions on board, and patience in listening to other views”

“It has been good interacting and watching people interact and enjoying the final project. This is very valuable and will be remembered for my own personal development”

“It makes you question your own perceptions and helps with public speaking”

“[I have enjoyed] learning to work better as a team, and meeting students from the university and sharing ideas with them. It has given me more confidence in public/group speaking”

“Great way of bringing together people from different backgrounds and who have different perspectives… As well I think it has reduced the stigma people may have regarding prisoners”

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