Writing together, challenges and practices of collective working

SPARC is unique as a research group in that several members are serving prisoners who began their studies in custody. However, it should come as no surprise that functioning as a collective while half the members are incarcerated has proved challenging. Not simply for the basic logistical issues of communication and meeting, but for the disparity between our respective status, perceptions, aspirations and opportunities as two polarised populations – citizens and prisoners. Given the potency of these constructions, what is and remains the only genuine surprise is that we were actually able to become a collective at all! That it strives to be inclusive, non-hierarchical and egalitarian, is all the more remarkable. Our members are differently situated in profound ways: some are still in custody; some are on parole; some have been working and studying in universities for decades; some are the first in their family to obtain a degree.

In this blog we address how we are coming to form a true collective, a body of equals, across these differences and the challenges and triumphs in this process. It marks an attempt to reflect on our constant struggle against the rigid boundaries and subject positions imposed by institutions, and a society, that actively seeks to enforce a clear and binary distinction between us. And sometimes these boundaries are internalised and enacted by ourselves.

These different social and institutional positions were most apparent in the first meetings among eventual SPARC members, as we were introduced and got to know each other in a prison-based educational activity prior to forming the collective. It is fair to say that none of us, whether coming from university or based in prison, knew what to expect in those early days, and all of us had our own anxieties about how it would go and what the ‘civvies’ would think of the prisoners, or vice versa. As those early days of our meeting turned into months and then years, a natural sense of rapport developed. And, as our sentences and degrees move towards completion, we felt an ongoing interest in continuing to meet up and pursuing issues we had been unable to within the context of prison-based activity.

None of us imagined this would lead to founding a collective, a year or so down the line, where we all identify as academics. Or co-producing research recognised by the foremost authorities in criminal justice across Western Europe. Or calling each other colleagues, let alone friends.

The profoundly positive and transformative effect of education as an engine of social and personal change is something we are writing a peer-reviewed journal article on right now. What will be missing from it are the seemingly infinite and myriad processes and dynamics within our group we work through to develop our capacity to co-produce things like academic papers. While we aspire to be non-hierarchical and equal, for example, there is a sizeable gulf in our respective experiences, of life and education. This can leave some feeling like they are being carried by the efforts of others who just seem to do this like it’s nothing. Or we can feel like we need to defer uncritically and at all times to perceived areas of expertise – whether this relates to Foucault or food in prison.

This can trigger frustration and re-inscribe institutionally imposed differences. We are slowly learning that insecurity (either intellectual or personal) is not the sole preserve of those in prison, and that a sense of equality is not always to be found in achieving identical types of knowledge. Some of our strongest bonding moments have been a feeling of being equally confused, angry or powerless.

The aspiration of equality within our group concerns a lot more than academic prowess. It’s about the kind of people we are thought of and constructed as respectively, and it can at times be difficult to process. Both universities and prisons face problems of inequality, power and security with implications for the roles we think we are able, and have a right, to play in our collective, our professions and the wider world.

It’s why the small, taken for granted, intimacies that come from working and socialising as friends in the community; meeting up for lunch; greeting with hugs; and sharing details of our personal lives, overwhelms some of our prison members. So aware of their negative construction it still jars to be so openly accepted. And why those same bonds also incite anxiety when meeting again in a custody setting, awkwardly formalising our interactions for fear of how ‘overfamiliarity’ may be interpreted by prison staff.

It’s what makes our university members uncomfortable as they broker our imprisoned colleagues’ community access to participate in meetings and events, and by doing so, accepting the responsibility to supervise, and report back to the prison regarding their behaviour. Or why our university members feel frustrated further when our prison members then view them as authority figures in the community, not just academically, but in relation to their partnership role with SPS.

Our university members do not wish to be perceived as teachers and jailers, any more than our prison based members wish to be perceived as deviant and incapable. Moreover, none of our members wish to be perceived, least of all by each other, as either ‘us’ or ‘them’.

Most times, we successfully transcend such value laden, binary distinctions, working and socialising together as the true collective we aspire to be. But unfortunately, despite best efforts, either through personal insecurities or practical limitations, we occasionally resort and adhere rigidly to type.

There’s a hundred hang ups that all of us struggle to let go. But for all that baggage, we haven’t lost sight of the fact that we are involved in something remarkable, a coming together of people who, in a very short time, helped, encouraged and in some cases forced each other to challenge everything we had learned about our rightful place in the world and what we could aspire to do as individuals and as a group.

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