On 5th March 2020, Linacre College hosted a special lecture reflecting on Isis Youth Offenders Prison, London through a comparative analysis of Arba Minch Prison, Ethiopia. This lecture is the latest initiative in developing the relationship between Linacre College and Isis. It follows the second Annual Oxford-Isis Prison debate, which took place at Isis on 23 October 2019, organised by the local chapter of the Linacre African Network.

The key speaker was Emily Thomas, Governor of HMP/YOI Isis Prison with the discussant being Professor Ian O’Donnell, Fellow of Linacre College and Professor of Criminology at the University College Dublin. Other guests from Isis Prison included Father Valentine Erhahon, the Managing Chaplain, Charlie Abbot, the Equalities Manager, and Islamiat Elizabeth Husein, Offender Supervisor and Leader of Game Changers Rehabilitation.

The Lecture kicked off with a brief introduction of the Isis by Governor Thomas. She highlighted some of the challenges the prison encounters from limited spaces, issues of budgets, recruiting and retaining of prison officers to the unique characteristics of the inmates. Professor Ian O’Donnell drew parallels with his research at the Arba Minch Prison in Ethiopia where overcrowding was also an issue. He presented on how prisoners devise their own code of conduct, create and maintain their own “governments” and maintain an internal economy. He depicted some of the impressive art pieces created by inmates from wood carvings, paintings to weavings. In this Arba Minch Prison, vulnerability was in terms of poverty rather than victimization. Some of the lessons he took from visiting the Prison were self-governance, normalization such as attires worn by inmates and porosity whereby prisoners can go in and out.

A question and answer session followed. Some of the points of discussions revolved around penal philosophy, limited public resources to maintain prisons, inmate solidarity and sense of agency. Based on the demographics that end up in the prison system and the patterns of reoffending, the justice system does function on principles of retribution rather than restorative justice. Prisoners are expected to return to their communities upon release and resume with life. However, this is difficult as they are stuck in the cycle that can be difficult to break. Issues of how prisons are created for purposes of respite and protect communities and women who would ask to be put in prison for protection due to homelessness, especially during the Christmas period. This open discussion was not only informative but also unpacked some aspects that are often left under-examined through prisons as public institutions. 

Before a formal dinner hosted by the College, there was a moment of gift exchange. Father Valentine presented Linacre College a handwritten letter from one of the inmates expressing how a mentorship program would be beneficial as well as a drawing depicting the Oxford-Isis Prison debate of 2019. The College in turn gifted Isis a painting of Linacre College.

Isis Prison and Linacre College will continue to build their relation through activities including supporting the rehabilitation process of Isis prisoners.

 isis prison special lecture group photo