Barred from useful work

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Philip Lyons says cuts in the prison education service are counter productive. I wouldn't be here if someone hadn't grassed me up. I have to share a cell now. Let out for an hour a day. What kind of a life is that?

I read a lot, but there's no one to discuss it with. My cell-mate's a smackhead, so there's no joy there. Plus he listens to rap all the time - it drives me nuts.

As soon as I get out of here I'm going to make enough to get clean away. I've got a few useful contacts; you have to believe there's a future, don't you? I sleep as much as I can. There's no sweeter feeling than drifting into unconsciousness. I imagine it's how a television feels when it's turned off. The bliss of being that little grey dot before it disappears."

I teach in a prison. Or I used to and the extract above represents the state of mind of many men who were my students.

The effect of recent cuts has been to destroy what was already a fragile timetable, and in some prisons whole departments have been shut down. In the prison where I work, sessional teachers like myself have lost most if not all of their hours, without reference to the quality of the teaching we did. I'm told the expression for this is budget-driven, a fine example of Orwellian Newspeak. The fact is that prisoners and prisons are affected and rehabilitation will suffer.

Prison doesn't work. Everyone seems to know that except Michael Howard and his henchmen. Education offers no miracle cures, but it does enable inmates who are illiterate to learn to read and write, a vital step if they are to break the pattern of offending behaviour. It also gives the more intellectually-gifted inmates (of whom there are plenty) a forum in which to test their ideas, learn new subjects and sometimes to begin questioning why they have done the things they have.

Prison officers find it difficult to recognize the value of this, holding prejudices themselves about education, not least that it's a soft option. They tolerate it, at best. So it's no surprise that when money's short, classes are the first thing to go.

Only last summer (halcyon days, in retrospect) I was able to spend a fortnight teaching Macbeth to a group of highly-motivated inmates. We read the play, exploring its use of language and imagery, watched the BBC production on video, then read the play again. A passionate debate took place as to how far Macbeth had been manipulated by his wife and how far he was responsible for his own crimes. With my current inmates none of this would be possible (believe me, I've tried), unless I could demonstrate that Macbeth is really a play about a man who pushes class A drugs.

I'm not averse to finding common ground with the men I teach; indeed, that's precisely what I strive to do. But drug addicts - of whom there's a growing number - need a different kind of rehabilitation.

At the moment inmates are vetted for education purely on the basis of security, not on their motivation to learn. It's a measure of the indifference to education that what counts is bums on seats rather than quality of learning. Which is why it's so much easier to shut education departments without any immediate ill-effects.

But for those who want to learn it makes a world of difference whether they're using their time or just doing time.

Hell, why should I care? I've lost my job, or as good as. But it was never a picnic: alone with up to 10 inmates in a cramped room for classes lasting two-and-a-half hours a time. I suppose I care because I've seen education working, transforming depressed and isolated individuals into functioning social beings with a true sense of their own worth. The message from the Home Office now is they're not worth anything at all.

Philip Lyons formerly taught at HMP Bristol and is currently in the continuing education department at Bristol University. He also teaches creative writing to a mental health group.

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