02 July 2020, The Tablet

Prison reform – lessons from the Inferno

Prison reform – lessons from the Inferno

Virgil and Dante encounter those guilty of Simony: the trading of ecclesiastical privileges, such as pardons. Inferno, Canto XIX
Engraving by Gustave Dore (1832-1883). PA/©DEsign Pics, Ken Welsh


A remarkable experiment has convinced a university teacher that reforming our prisons requires nothing less than the rehabilitation of our own hearts

Imagine the ideal university humanities class: filled to capacity with attentive students, open to tackling unfamiliar material, progressively adopting the course content through creative, collaborative readings of the classic text at hand; and, if you’re lucky, even a spare moment for tea, biscuits and a chat with a classmate.

This dream first became a reality for me, not among the centuries-old spires and well-worn halls of a prestigious university, but in Her Majesty’s Prison Whitemoor, a high-security men’s prison about 30 miles north of Cambridge in the Fenland market town of March.

In coordination with Learning Together, an educational initiative pioneered by Drs Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong of the Institute of Criminology, I invited a group of Cambridge University and Whitemoor students to navigate together one of the great masterpieces of Western literature, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

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