Lifeline for one long-term prisoner

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Inmate John McLaughlin of HMP Gateside describes how he got his Open University degree.

I attended my Open University graduation ceremony a couple of years ago but instead of going for a celebratory drink afterwards, I had another engagement - with the security officer at HMP Peterhead. The reason is simple - I am a serving long-term prisoner in the Scottish penal system.

I have often heard prison officers complain bitterly that educational programmes available to offenders are a waste of taxpayers' money. I believe the very opposite is true. Educational achievement to the average prisoner is not merely a matter of passing an exam, it is a matter of being successful - against all the odds.

Convicted prisoners have broken the law which binds society together and are therefore excluded from society. There is a terrible finality in a prison sentence - it will follow the prisoner for the rest of his life and mark him out as someone to avoid. If an offender wants to come back from that he has his work cut out.

I firmly believe willing prisoners can be helped out of the spiral of recreating offending behaviour. What is required is a programme dedicated to raising the self-image of the prisoner so that he has a new dignity. This can be done by allowing him to work toward achieving something meaningful while serving his sentence.

The Scottish Prison Service is now moving toward that position. Prisoners can now gain qualifications in the skills they learn in workshops, whether horticulture, carpentry, decorating or catering. All these activities are designed to give the prisoner the opportunity to gain skills which will equip him for a successful life after release. My own degree is a result of my sentence. I would never have accomplished such a thing outside prison.

The interesting - and encouraging - thing about learning is how it changes attitudes. Most criminals have a very rigid, uncompromising mindset which allows them to continue to offend against society. What is needed is the means of giving the prisoner not only a feeling of self-respect but respect for others.

From my own perspective, in reading psychology, I have discovered much about human behaviour and its causes. I have applied what I learned to my own life and I now believe that I have an excellent chance of not re-offending.

It was not an easy option. When I started studying 10 years ago, I found I had to contend with anger from prison staff that money was being "wasted on me" and jealousy from fellow cons because I was trying to improve my status.

Today, despite swingeing staff cuts, the majority of prison workers are positively helpful and encouraging in matters like education.

Let us hope that the days of trying to get to grips with the complexities of Kelly's Personal Construct Theory while other prisoners do their best to deposit the cellblock roof on to the exercise yard never return.

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