With the recent media saturation regarding the "prison crisis", there is hopefully a communal sense that this cannot go on. But how can we reverse the degradation of the institutions that are responsible for housing those that have hurt society? How can we make sure that, when they are released, ex-prisoners are rehabilitated and become useful to their communities? It is not enough to just hope that a ‘long-enough’ stint in a ‘bad-enough’ place is going to mean that the guy who stole your car last week will not do it again the moment he gets released. Something human has to happen in between. People have to change.
For a long time, prisoners have been taking advantage of, or trying to cope with, the fact that the wings of our prisons are understaffed, overcrowded and increasingly sinister. With a handful of staff expected to control and care for 120 guys who all have anger, trust, substance and psychological issues (to name just a few), we are presented with great institutions that have been reduced to little more than warehouses for the damaged and damaging. So what would make a difference?
Education and safety are not values in an either/or equation. They go hand in hand. Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) research has found that those who engage in higher-education courses are between 5 and 8 percentage points less likely to reoffend. The trouble is, meaningful education gets sidelined in times of crisis. At times like this, prisoners spend more time behind doors and have less exposure to the sort of interactions that allow someone to find the reasons to turn their life around.
We already know, as academics and policymakers, that providing the tools for people to find out what they can give to society is imperative in helping them to lead law-abiding lives. Getting a job and being able to read and write are all really important. Prisons have the highest concentration of illiterate men in our country. So teaching them how to read and write is a start, but this is only the start for the guys who cannot read. The next step is to understand their potential. Focus their minds on something that would ultimately benefit the entire community and we would see people in prison wanting to achieve something good, as opposed to trying to get away with whatever they can. We’d see people leaving prisons with a goal in life – a reason to stay out of prison. What is more, we'd see the transformation of prisons themselves. We'd have more focused places – ones that have an air of people moving towards being kinder and more constructive.
PET has for years recognised this important distinction between simply installing literacy and numeracy, and how a deeper, more personalised education can be transformative to both prisoners and the people they’ll ultimately influence after custody. There are countless studies showing the impact of higher education on allowing a person to move forward from crime, yet in times of crisis, these solutions are often the first to be sidelined or scrapped altogether.
Higher education transforms people. I wish you could see the passion of guys who have, in many cases, committed the most awful crimes when they have become engrossed in an economic studies or art history module. These men are not devils. These are not the people who want to hurt their communities. They want to be part of it.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness
Desistance literature backs up my personal experience of what helps a person to change their way of life. Professor Shadd Maruna’s Making Good tells us that the investment a person has in society will be a particularly strong factor in whether they feel and act responsibly towards it. To grow up in a world in which you feel like the rules, and the benefits of following the rules, aren’t really meant for you, leads to not caring about the people you share this world with. It leads to you not ever considering that you could be a valuable part of the world. When education is good, when it is meaningful, it has all the components someone needs to move away from crime. Engaging in subjects critically, understanding the complex nature of the world and realising that what you think and feel is important to doing something powerful in society, is part of this and this is the very essence of education.
A quote from Martin Luther King highlights what needs to be done to right the wrongs: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Although there is an array of different people in our prisons, from all walks of life, there is no doubt that the disillusioned and desperate make up the majority of its population. For people who have felt like they have been living on the fringes of society, felt like they have been living in darkness, further darkness will not convince them to be nicer to people when they are released. People who are forced to live in shadows can become adept at doing so. Education is a way back into the light, a way of understanding what it means to be part of the world and a way of learning what is at stake when people are not.
Gareth is a serving prisoner at HMP Grendon