Recently I visited a men’s prison as part of Cellblock Science, a year-long science education project for inmates sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.
As we walked up to the visitor entrance to HMP Shotts, it began to look like a modern-day castle turret – tall, foreboding and impenetrable. I was with Dr. Mhairi Stewart, the public engagement officer for St Andrews University and coordinator of the Cellblock Science project. Mhairi had already explained the various security protocols and restrictions to me prior to my visit, but I really had no idea what to expect as I walked up to the gates. Would the prison be loud or quiet? Would the inmates be talkative or subdued? And would they be interested in discussing physics, a subject seemingly abstract and far from their lives?
I was about to find out. Upon entering, we had to leave our keys, phones, purses and even our watches in a locker before going through a body scanner and having our bags X-rayed. No internet-enabled devices, flash memory sticks or programmable devices are allowed inside, so Mhairi had burned the videos that we were to use in our session onto a DVD-R. After clearing security, we were collected, given an emergency alarm to wear on our clothing, and taken to the Learning Centre.
The Learning Centre is a bright, modern building inside the prison. Inside, it could almost be mistaken for a school – the classrooms contain bright posters on topics such as English grammar and the Romans – but the heavy metal entrance door was a reminder of the true setting. The Centre also has a small library, recently furnished with science books as a result of the Cellblock Science project. The prison staff told us that these books were very popular, and that unusually for books in a prison library, they hadn’t gone missing. The staff reckoned this was because the inmates had respect for the books and for the project in general – a positive sign.
Education within the Scottish Prison Service is focused on improving inmates’ literacy and numeracy skills. This is as it should be – without basic literacy and numeracy, newly released inmates will have much less chance of finding legal employment and avoiding the slippy slope back to criminality. The Cellblock Science project is working in conjunction with the existing education programme, bringing a diverse range of science topics to the prisoners. By learning about science, the inmates are becoming better-informed adults who better understand many of the big issues facing society today and will be better able to contribute positively upon their release. One inmate told me he had been inspired to learn programming in order to pursue a career in computing on the outside.
The Cellblock Science project consists of three phases. The first, to add science books to the prison library, is already proving very successful. The second phase is a series of prison visits, where guests working in different areas of science (such as me!) are brought into the prison to talk about their work. The third phase, due to start in the autumn, will get the prisoners to complete their own science projects over a period of a few weeks. The whole thing is due to culminate in a science fair to be held in the prison during British Science Week next March.
My visit was part of the second phase of the project. Mhairi had been to the prison a number of times before, and she had brought a number of short science videos with her to show to the prisoners. We got ourselves set up, and nervously awaited our audience. The inmates aren’t required to attend; they only show up if they want to. Around a dozen men filtered into the classroom, dressed in blue polo-necks and jeans. First we showed them a dance video on antibiotic resistance, which caught their attention. This was science that mattered. Mhairi explained the need for antibiotics and the problems caused by resistant bacteria. As she talked, the men became more engaged and their questions started flowing.
Still on the theme of biology, we then showed the inmates a cartoon video on genetics. This prompted long and divergent discussions about genes, gene therapy, evolution and ‘junk’ DNA. Mhairi pointed out that the video falsely claimed that ‘junk’ DNA had no use – in fact, it tells the protein coding DNA how much of a protein to make, when, and where to send it. She used this as an opportunity to tell the inmates to question things they read, hear or see on the internet – even professionally created sources contain many falsehoods.
We then moved onto an animated video on the history of physics, and I was slightly nervous. All the things we had discussed up until now were directly relevant to everyday life; now we were presenting material on special relativity and quantum mechanics! However I needn’t have worried; with my audience warmed up and ready to go, we had great conversations about wave-particle duality, entanglement, gravity and black holes. Some men asked so many questions that it was hard to get a word in edgeways, whilst others preferred to sit back and listen. One guy gave me a detailed explanation of his scheme to detect gravitational waves from space. Another asked me why we weren’t ripped off the surface of the Earth by the Sun’s gravity.
One of the best questions I received was on the subject of entanglement. I explained that a pair of quantum particles could be specially prepared together in an entangled state and then separated. If one of the particles were measured then this would affect the state of the other particle immediately, even if the two particles were separated by miles. “But wouldn’t this violate special relativity?”, asked an inmate. The key here, as I explained, is that no information is transmitted faster than the speed of light, so relativity is still OK. There’s more about Einstein and entanglement here if you’re interested.
I hadn’t known what to expect inside the prison. Some of the men were in for decades, and many carried deep knife scars. We didn’t know what their crimes were – we didn’t want to know. But we were there to discuss science with them, and in that time inside the classroom, they were people, not inmates. At the end of the day, they thanked us and shook our hands. I came away from the prison strangely upbeat, feeling that we had achieved something. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the fresh air and the clear sky as much as I did when I left the prison gates. My freedom suddenly meant a lot more to me.
Image credit: http://www.italiaperta.info/italia-grande-produttrice-di-regole/