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Dr Ruth Armstrong wins award for bringing prisoners and academics together

Dr Ruth Armstrong, Institute of Criminology, Cambridge University, and College Research Associate at St John’s, has won a Butler Trust award for her pioneering work in Learning Together, a scheme which brings prisoners and academics together to learn from one another.

Ruth Armstrong, along with Dr Amy Ludlow, Faculty of Law, won the Butler Trust award, presented by Princess Anne, for their work in Learning Together, which delivers ‘Education across walls’. Amy and Ruth first started this initiative with the University of Cambridge and HMP Grendon, and the education programme has been rolled out to include prisons and universities across the country and even further afield - it has now been adopted in Australia and this year Ruth and Amy will travel to Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina to meet with prisons and universities interested to think about working in closer partnership.

The Learning Together programme offers degree level content and is led by Cambridge academics from several departments. Prisoners, academics and university students are brought together to learn with and from one another. The project has already won considerable acclaim, and Justice Secretary Liz Truss recently spoke at the London launch of Learning Together at HMP Brixton. Butler Trust Local Champion Carole Roe, a Volunteer with Friends of Grendon, said that the initiative gave the Cambridge University students the chance to “transcend detached academic learning and instead engage directly with prisons and prisoners”, and that “the impact on the students…has been profound.” Sophie, a Cambridge student who took the philosophy and theology course this year said: “'Escaping from the library walls to being inside prison walls was an unexpected delight - the weaving together of life experience and theory on the course enriched discussion and allowed for new insight. I will never look at Gandhi's theory of non-violence the same again!'

Ruth and Amy were nominated separately by several prisoners. One called Brian (names have been changed) said, “To me, ‘Learning Together’ is the best experience of my life. It’s the first time I felt like I belonged next to the normal people…It was the start of the rest of my life.” Another prisoner, Gavin, stated that Ruth and Amy “have made me feel like a human being again, and shown that no matter where you have been in life, you can still achieve with the right support and guidance.” Grendon’s Governor Jamie Bennett commented how Ruth and Amy “profoundly believe that prisons can be better places” and how “they have taken personal responsibility in trying to make that a reality.”

Ruth and Amy are still developing and extending the programme, and they are working alongside Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service, with support from the Annual Fund at St John’s College which is made possible due to the generosity of alumni, to think about how to develop the use of technology in prison education to support partnership working with universities.