Take the lock off prison classes

13th April 2001 at 01:00
It has been suggested, in my opinion correctly, that education is the key to rehabilitation - but, by their actions, the Scottish Prison Service do not subscribe to this belief.

The Prison Service, in the face of years of inflation with no corresponding rise in prisoners' wages, have recently published a wage review. Prisoners are now graded in three bands according to their abilities, and can earn between pound;5.50 and pound;9. Out of this they buy tobacco, deodorant, tea, sugar, sweets and postage stamps.

A prisoner in a workshed can by proficiency earn the A band of pound;9-pound;7.80. The only exception to this are prisoners pursuing education or programmes to address their offending behaviour such as anger management, drug relapse prevention. No matter how much commitment they show they are restricted to B band. There is no reason for this exception to the norm, but it certainly sends a message to prisoners that any attempt at rehabilitation will curtail their access to the little "luxuries" that most people take for necessities.

Many prisoners have little prior experience of education and derive enormous satisfaction from obtaining Standard grades and even from progression to Open University, and there can be no doubt that many have turned their lives around by obtaining college or university entry.

But there have been dramatic changes in prison education over the past few years in that the range of subjects on offer has been drastically reduced.

To give a personal example, I had never been aware of any artistic ability in myself, yet by learning sculpture techniques I found my work exhibited in the Glasgow School of Art.

This is now impossible since only certificated modules are available on a "bums on seats" basis, with any "therapeutic" subjects having been removed.

The success stories of Jimmy Boyle and Hugh Collins, which acted as a stimulus to many prisoners, would not happen today.

Prison teaching also requires a special type of educator and prison teachers of many years' experience are leaving the service, disnchanted with the mechanical nature of their work now categorised by increasing hours of non productive paperwork geared only to counting the bums. These teachers have motivated many over the years, but motivation is no longer counted as part of their function.

So the message to prisoners seems to be "we will teach you enough to fill out your benefit forms more legibly, but don't set your sights beyond that". As for programmes, a prisoner applying for parole or open prison will be refused unless they have completed programmes addressing their offending behaviour.

So much has this become a growth industry that in some prisons the inmates are encouraged to boost numbers of bums to the extent that some are addressing problems they do not have. And for all this the reward is a pay cut - the age old Prison Service fare of half a pound of carrots and half a ton of stick.

So we are left to follow a regime where rehabilitation is likely to be in spite of the system rather than because of it. This prison is a major plank in preparing lifers for release with lifers being transferred here for pre release programmes and "training for freedom", and education played a major part in the past with a group of prisoners undertaking OU degrees and often securing university entry on release. Now there are no prisoners undertaking such courses here.

The message seems to be that education is a poorly regarded luxury, and offending-addressing programmes a stick-driven exercise in collecting certificates of doubtful value. It is not the encouragement to achieve one's potential that once obtained.

As prisoners we have no voice and simply must accept these retrograde changes, but please spare us the empty rhetoric about the rehabilitative and inspirational effects of education in prison. That the Government no longer provide it is saddening. That they crow about the poor substitute they do provide is just sad.

John Higgins

HM Prison Edinburgh

(Mr Higgins sent a copy of this letter to Jack McConnell, Education Minister)

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