Kirkham Prison Debating the Differences Blog

In April of this year, criminology lecturer Laura Kelly, asked me if I would like to come along and watch the final event in the ‘Debating the Differences’ series of debates between Uclan students and the men of HMP Kirkham.  As the criminology team lead I was delighted to lend my support but more than that, I was really keen to learn more about how the debates were organised and how all the debaters felt about participating in them. As it turned out I had more to do than I had expected.  The final topic was, ‘Does religion do more harm than good?’.  I knew that Laura K was a little anxious about this, as it is a subject which can stir up very deep emotions and can involve challenging very deeply held beliefs.  For personal reasons one of the usual judges did not feel objective enough to judge this particular debate so Laura asked me if I would step in. No pressure there then!

On the way there (on a very large bus for 12 of us) the students were enthusiastic about this final debate and I could see that for some this was a very personal topic.  From their discussions I could certainly tell that they had done their research. On arrival at Kirkham we were made to feel welcome as we went through the usual security checks and were directed to the visitors’ room where the debates were held.  There I met the prison librarian, Michelle, who has been instrumental in getting these debates off the ground.  She is a mine of information about how the prison operates and I learned a huge amount from her on that afternoon.  We have a lot to thank her for in making these debates so successful. She was also the co-judge with me.

As the men joined us, what struck me immediately was the chemistry between them and the students.  They greeted each other as equals and the good natured banter that followed set the tone for the friendly rivalry which continued all afternoon. As the teams were selected there were some groans and moans as people were put on a team opposing their natural viewpoint, but there was no ‘kicking off’ and those people took it as the challenge it was designed to be.  As the teams separated to do their preparation I wandered round to listen.  What a delight!  There was no chit chat about last night’s Corrie or the footie scores (yes, that happens all the time in my classes back at Uclan) just complete focus on the task.   I saw groups of individuals demonstrating superb team working skills.  There were some people who had a lot to say and they were listened to, and challenged when necessary.  This was no pushover.  There were some with less to say but they were directly encouraged to participate to give everyone a chance to contribute.   Great prep work from the teams.

What of the debate itself? I didn’t really know what to expect to be honest.  Our students are well used to speaking in groups, some will even be assessed on it, so I expected them to run away with it.  How wrong I was.  Even our students can suffer lack of confidence at times and there were a few stumbles.  As for the men – well it quickly became very apparent that there were some intelligent, articulate deep thinkers amongst them. They had limited access to research materials for this debate but they more than made up for that by the construction of cleverly thought out arguments. This was going to be harder to judge than I had imagined!

The 1st round came and went with no clear winner – the arguments came thick and fast.  To be fair, both teams found the response stage challenging.  The 2nd round was equally tight.  Just when you thought one team had nailed it the other team pulled some other convincing point out of the hat. The rivalry did not only exist between teams but also between the students and the men themselves.  I reckon there were some interesting conversations in the billets that evening. What Laura and Michelle were able to tell me was the scale of the improvement in both the men and the students since the debates began.  The value added in this scheme seems to have been impressive.

Anyway a decision had to be made as to the winner … but Michelle and I could not do it!  We could not put a hair between them – it was a photo finish – it was a dead heat (you get the gist).  The depth and complexity of the arguments from both sides, together with the delivery of the points, when looked at overall meant it would have been unfair to choose one team over the other so it ended in an honourable draw. What a great afternoon of debating I witnessed.  Great work from everyone.

A few weeks later I went back to HMP Kirkham for the certificate awarding ceremony and celebration lunch to mark the end of the successful debates series. I was delighted at this stage to get to talk to the men at length about what their views were on the debates, what they had got from them and how we could improve them next time.  I had some really useful conversations and as a result of their feedback we hope to expand the debating programme even further next year. It’s good to know that the men have enjoyed the debates and feel that they have got something out of them on a personal level.

After lunch we were lucky enough to have a few of the men take us on a guided tour of the prison.  This was fascinating and it was made so much more impactful by having the residents talk us through the various sectors.  The prison is a hive of industry and it struck me what a range of skills are needed from the men to keep it ticking over and allowing it to be as successful as it appears to be.  For me though, it was the places away from the hustle and bustle which made the biggest impact on me: the library, with the corner set up so that dads can read a story to their kids and get it recorded, and the pride with which those who work in the library explain how, amongst other things,  they help men improve their literacy skills; there was the chapel, which soothed you as soon as you stepped inside and which acts as a tranquil place for men of any religion (or indeed none at all); and the gym, which acts as a different sort of  church for some of the men and which needs the skilful and powerful management which it gets from the staff there.

A heartfelt ‘Thank you!’ to all the debate participants, both students and men, to the staff at Kirkham especially the superb Michelle and most of all to Laura Kelly, who has been the driving force behind this initiative.   It has been a great learning experience for all involved.

Finally, going back to the debate – l learned that we all need something to believe in – it’s what makes us human.  You can choose to believe in your God, your family, your football team, or just yourself.  But whatever is your choice:


by Laura Hughes

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