🥇Uniservitate Award 2022 winning experience


Groups of critical reflection and existential dialogue between university students and prisoners to influence public policies on imprisonment.

The Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the Catholic University of Leuven organizes this experience as an elective course. The participants are 24 students who meet in a Belgian prison to discuss the ethics of punishment. They are all enrolled in the university course The Lived Experience of Imprisonment and receive the corresponding credits. 

Twelve of them live in the free world and take the course as part of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Criminology, Criminal Law, Philosophy or Theology. On the other hand, the other twelve students are in prison and have enrolled only in this course. They all engage in a unique experience of critical thinking and existential reflection, exploring the possibilities and limits of community-based, scientific and moral insights regarding the complex issues of punishment and prison systems in crisis. 

Some questions they ask include: What is considered good punishment, and to what extent is prison good punishment? To answer them, professors challenge students with engaging presentations of academic content, including philosophical and sociological theories of punishment, critiques of actuarial risk assessment, medieval histories of restitution, restorative justice, models of psychological punishment and adaptation. So the lessons are prepared with theoretical presentations and small group discussions in the prison’s own spaces (chapel or visiting room). Each group consists of internal and external students plus a facilitator from the university. The members do not change groups throughout the semester, thus facilitating a deep exchange and the development of mutual trust as a basis for debating academically relevant existential and ethical issues. 

As a result, the experience enables them, grounded on respect and recognition of equal human dignity, mutual learning and reciprocal service, to overcome prejudices and develop empathy and communication skills to understand the possibilities and limitations of Detention Centres from the inside. Therefore, they can prove to society the capacity for reflection of incarcerated people, who, together with university students, contribute ideas to improve the conditions and detention regimes for people who break the law.  

Every year, since 2017, as a result of the interchange and shared critical reflection, four texts, presentations, videos or audio recordings are produced. At the end of the experience, these documents are presented and discussed with the authorities of the prison services or those responsible for public policies related to the local prison system and Detention Centres in the European community. 

This experience also introduces a model based on the pedagogy of social transformation and the culture of encounter to work with incarcerated and migrant populations. The university also provided more opportunities for this population to access higher education.



  • Name: The Lived Experience of Imprisonment

  • Region: Northern Europe

  • Country: Belgium

  • University: Catholic University of Leuven

  • Area or School involved: Elective course in the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Criminology, Criminal Law, Philosophy or Theology. Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, and the Leuven Institute of Criminology.

  • Theme: Education

  • Place of implementation: Leuven Central Prison, Hasselt Prison

  • Responsible for the experience: Pieter De Witte and Zuijdwegt Geertjan.