This Digital Life: Mums, Dogs, and Inmates (3 of 3)

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This is the final installment of a three-part series on the work of the University of Southern Queensland’s Digital Life Lab. Part 1 & Part 2

“Not my world. Not my accent. Not my story.”

We could be talking about marginalised communities working with visiting artists, or institutions trying to address social exclusion.

We could be talking about science-fiction exiles visiting an imagined alien world.

We could be talking about the frustrations of being forced to study Shakespeare’s language in a postcolonial nation.

We could be talking about all three.

In the final installment of this series on the University of Southern Queensland’s Digital Life Lab, we turn to the inmates of Australia’s prisons. What part are they offered in digital life? What would they make of it for themselves? What might other communities learn from work with the prison population?

Making the Connection is a government-funded project to educate Australian prisoners using digital technology. Inmates are denied internet access, so five higher education courses are offered using an internet-independent server and notebook computers running a modified version of the University of Southern Queensland’s StudyDesk system. Since 2013, thousand students across Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Australia’s federal capital have taken part in the course, studying modified courses across the arts, science, and business.

Associate Professor Helen Farley leads the project. Helen’s eclectic career has embraced musical journalism, veterinary science, and religious studies – but this made her the perfect candidate for the challenging business of prison education.

“I used to think that working with prisoners had to be vocational, it’s such a specific context,” Helen explains. “In fact, it took someone with my particular combination of skills to devise this project. I had knowledge of educational technology, the practical ‘just-get-it-done’ mentality of veterinarians, and my studies in religion gave an awareness of the spiritual dimensions to our lives – which you need when you are going to look at a prisoner and see beyond the crime to the whole person.”

Students on Making the Connection can feel liberated to write their lives anew, even when the courses are practical or prosaic. “One of our students told us than when he first went to prison, he would only think ahead five or ten minutes at a time. If someone approached him, he’d bash them. Becoming a student gave him a vocabulary for discussion and a sense that there were alternate outcomes for him to choose from. He could employ that new vocabulary as he wished to. And in an environment where there is very little opportunity to make choices, he could look forward to choosing the next course he took with us.”

Even the transformation from inmate to student was significant, says Helen. The identity of “prisoner” is heavy with shame, but seeing oneself as a student creates a sense of new possibility and common cause with other people studying for qualifications in the outside world.

These qualifications might be directly relevant to practical life skills, but they don’t have to be. Although correctional education tends to focus on vocational programs and outcomes, recent studies from a project in Utah indicate that even “impractical” courses such as astrobiology generate positive outcomes for prisoners, prisons, and wider society.

A paper from the 2017 Astrobiology Conference, “Facilitating transformations: Bringing astrobiology to incarcerated populations” (PDF download), sets out how astrobiology and space science activities can help inmates connect to the cycles of the cosmos, our common origins, and the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe. Consideration of extraterrestrial life is linked to sustainability activities such as gardening, recycling, apiculture, and aquaculture. Researchers argued that these opportunities for reflection help prisoners to consider their place in the world, and the need to look after one’s self and one’s relationships.

These science-fictional enterprises are not so distant from the kind of arts outreach which also seeks to empower prisoners’ creativity.

Since 2006, the University of Queensland’s Rob Pensalfini has worked with the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble on the Shakespeare Prison Project, which enables prisoners to participate in performances of Shakespeare’s plays using the original text.

“Shakespeare Prison Projects have existed for some time in the US,” Rob explains, “and the American setting is rather different to ours. While US projects often run for twelve months and are tailored to older long-term inmates who are keen to reflect on their lives, we are often delivering three-month projects for young prisoners who are on relatively short sentences and are often moved between prisons.”

This might limit opportunities for prolonged rumination, but as Rob argues, “we give prisoners an opportunity to develop their social and emotional skills. This isn’t necessarily vocational training: we’re not looking to train up a new generation of stage managers, although, after their release, prisoners have gone on to train with the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble and even do backstage work for us.”

“The real question is, What would you rather prisoners do? Most of them are going to return to society eventually: how do you want them to behave when they are released?”

The Shakespeare Prison Project draws on Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” to encourage prisoners’ creativity and expression. Rob explains:

“We don’t lecture on ‘how to put on a performance’. The process flows from theatre games to rehearsals to performing in front of people. All the games we play break down authority between facilitators and participants so that when we put on a play we’re all in it together.”

Rob gives the example of one withdrawn prisoner whose only words in his first Shakespeare session were, “Thanks for coming, this is a miserable place.”

One week into the project, he was offered Macbeth’s final soliloquy: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time…”

The prisoner delivered the speech with simplicity and honesty, finding that the words echoed both prison life and the addiction which had led him there.

“It seemed that the words spoke him, not vice versa,” Rob explains. After this moment, the prisoner became enthusiastic and keen to contribute, witty and hard-working. He played Caliban in The Tempest and Cassius in the following year’s Julius Caesar.

“The journey with Shakespeare’s language goes from ‘that’s a really weird way to put it’ to ‘that’s a really cool way to put it’,” Rob says. Rob had felt much the same as the child of barely literate Italian migrants, a first generation Australian subjected to tedious high school Shakespeare lessons: “Not my world. Not my accent. Not my story.”

The encounter with Shakespeare’s language isn’t just about coming to terms with the pre-existing text. The opportunity for self-expression and creativity comes in interpretation and realisation – including the need to think on one’s feet when someone flubs their lines or takes their cues from a scene that hasn’t happened yet.

The need to listen, respond, and embrace consequence during performances echoes Linn Ullman’s description of writing itself as a listening experience:

Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” […] I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.

Understanding consequences and rediscovering hope for the future are the kind of revelations we might hope for in prison: changes which mean that inmates return to the outside world more able to cope with its demands, and ready to write their own life stories.

Although the Shakespeare Prison Project is not tech-heavy, Rob argues that its work is still of particular benefit for prisoners who will face a world of increasingly complicated media and technologies.

“The digital world is still created and operated by bodies, hearts, minds, and souls. We don’t train people with technology but, for example, two prisoners who met on our project went on to work together in the graphic design studios at Borallon. There, prisoners are trained in design using computers with no internet connection – which incidentally makes their work a lot more original – and we’re using them as our designers now.”

The internet is not available to prisoners in the facilities served by Making the Connection and the Shakespeare Prison Project. However, the question of inmates’ access to offline digital devices still leads us to wonder what other liberties might be achieved in digital space. How could digital technologies help people to leave the correctional system with a better future ahead of them – better both for them and for the society that incarcerated them?

Prior to her prison education work, Helen Farley had developed opportunities for university students to visit the online virtual world Second Life in her religious studies courses.

Her students chose avatars with which to explore the possibilities of a virtual existence. This invited experimentation with identity, with participants choosing characters that crossed boundaries such as gender.

For Helen, this work with Second Life connects to Making the Connection through the chances it offers us to imagine alternative identities. That might involve religious studies students experiencing Islam by going on a virtual hajj in Second Life, or prisoners reflecting on where they want their lives to head after the term of their sentence.

“Both projects are about taking people out of their usual context and inviting them to express themselves differently,” Helen says. “The next step would be to take Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality – natural successors to Second Life – into prison settings.”


Work in digital education for the incarcerated speaks directly to the tensions present at the heart of Australia and many other countries. So many remote and rural communities in Australia are still ill-served by the national broadband network – indeed, they may lack any form of internet access. The internet-independent learning technologies piloted by Making the Connection may prove equally useful for excluded outback communities.

It is all too easy to interpret digital inclusion in terms of mere infrastructure, or extending the opportunity for citizens to become digital consumers – ensuring that online banking or shopping are available to all. But what of the digital opportunities which allow people to express themselves on their own terms, or change the course of their own lives beyond the one-click options of a retail experience?

Projects like Making the Connection take seriously the notion that, in a world permeated by digital technologies and media, inclusion means the freedom to be creative as well as freedom of participation. Their findings apply far beyond the walls of prison facilities to all lives constrained by authority and social order.

As the poet and essayist Darran Anderson reminds us in his Imaginary Cities, a survey of visions for urban living: “We can Copenhagenise our future cities, make them as green and smart as we can, but provided we are still embedded in systems … that provide poverty and degradation, it will be mere camouflage. Dystopias will have cycle lanes and host World Cups.”

It’s a chilling thought – but initiatives like Making the Connection and the Shakespeare Prison Project challenge received notions of inclusion; they invite us to question who we are allowing to write the digital future. We should hope for such initiatives to converge, bringing more opportunities for self-expression into digital education and more opportunities to use technology in traditional creative practice.

These projects show that even for the most physically isolated communities, there are opportunities to change, grow, and dream of better things, on and offline – because this digital life is lived by us all.

Dr Matt Finch works with communities, companies, and institutions to help them do useful and surprising new things. Currently developing community engagement projects for the University of Southern Queensland and serving as Creative/Researcher for British Library Labs, Matt has devised everything from a season of burlesque in New Zealand’s biggest city to live zombie battles in rural Australia. He has spoken in the British & Australian Parliaments and is a regular keynote speaker at national and state events in Australia, the UK, and beyond.

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