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Research from the University of Cambridge: The researcher determined to have the conversations in prison that others avoid

Behind locked doors, many prisoners confront the big questions in life for the first time. In his early 20s, Ryan Williams asked those same questions as he explored his own spirituality. As a social scientist interested in theology and religion, Williams runs courses that bring prisoners and Cambridge students together.

I first went into a prison four years ago. The physical structure of prison is chilling. It is massively imposing. Something approaching normal life goes on inside but at lock-up time, you hear the cell doors being slammed shut and silence descends.

Questions of faith, especially Islam, have become increasingly sensitive — even more so in prison than in the world outside. Strongly held faith is viewed as a source of conflict. Belief in Islam is regarded with growing suspicion, particularly when the believer is a convert.

Quite rightly, prisons make provision for residents to follow their religious practices. But open discussions about faith, and differences in faith, don’t really happen. While this is understandable, the lack of conversation about a central aspect of people’s lives keeps it under a shroud of suspicion.

I hope to make a contribution by opening up a dialogue about religion and its diverse forms of expression. Much of my past work looked at inter-faith relations and my research has shown me that people do really want to talk about the ethical and religious frameworks that play a part in their lives and to learn from others.

Prisoners have aspirations to better themselves, just like the rest of us. They want to be better fathers, to reach personal goals, to do good for others, to do the right thing and live well.

Trust is vital to relationships and personal growth. That’s one of the reasons I’m taking part in a Cambridge-led scheme called Learning Together. The programme brings university students and prisoners together to learn with each other and from each other. I’m helping to expand the course into Theology and Religious Studies. Both prisoners and theology students share the common experience of wrestling with the big questions in life.

‘The Good Life and the Good Society’. That’s the title of a ten-week course I run with a colleague at a high security prison near Cambridge. Last year we ran the course with 16 undergraduates and graduate students from Cambridge and 14 students from the prison. The course will run again from January 2018 and we expect the same number of students. Each week we go into the prison and listen to a short talk from a Cambridge professor and learn alongside one another.

I arrived in Cambridge from Canada to take a doctorate in the Divinity Faculty. My PhD looked at open-mindedness in the context of belief. Once you’ve got your PhD, it’s tempting to think that your education is complete. In fact it’s just beginning. That’s the great thing about being a researcher: the chance to carry on learning.

I found my PhD a horrendous slog. Rowing, something I’d never done before, got me through it. I rowed for my college, Clare Hall, and eventually served as captain. It was difficult to find self-confidence while doing a PhD. Rowing helped build that confidence and provided a healthy outlet. These days I don’t have time to row: I have three young children to wrestle with.

When I was a teenager it never crossed my mind that I’d be an academic. I was brought up in a city near the Rocky Mountains and scraped into my local university. I began a course in business and my grades were miserable. But the North American university system is flexible and, because I was interested in religion, I signed up for a couple of courses in Religious Studies.

A year in India was a turning point. I went there because I wanted to learn more about other cultures and religions — and I wanted to explore. I did courses at an Indian university with other Canadian students and spent a few months travelling. The experience was transformative, and I returned to university in Canada knowing what I really wanted to do. Once I’d dropped business and was taking courses in Religious Studies, my grades shot up and I did exceptionally well.

People often ask me if I have a faith. I explain that I started going to church when I was 16 or so, interestingly, at about the same age as many people turn to crime. I knew of some people who took that route. It may be that religion — and a beautiful woman who is now my wife — saved me from making poor decisions in life.

I’m not good at theoretical stuff — I don’t think I’m clever enough — I prefer getting out in the real world and talking to people. Much of my work is based on interviews, and it’s only from there that I begin to understand theory. I find individual lives very absorbing and compelling. We can learn so much from each other.

Prison is a place of extremes, and I don’t know how people cope with it. I would probably be one of those people who ‘smashes up my cell’ — I wouldn’t cope.

What fascinates me, and drives me to look deeper, is the messiness of humans — and how people cope with, and overcome, adversity. In order to be open to other people’s beliefs and ideas, you have to examine your own assumptions and make space for the surprises that other people can bring.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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