'We treat you with respect and dignity';A day in the life

5th November 1999 at 00:00
Raymond Ross shadows a prison education co-ordinator

HM. Prison Edinburgh. 10.45am: "These guys will have arrived in the prison yesterday. Some might be a bit confused still, especially if it's their first time. Others might still be under the influence of drugs. My job is to explain what the education unit has to offer and to administer the BSA (Basic Skills Agency) literacy and numeracy test . It's purely diagnostic and entirely voluntary," says Ian Henderson, the prison's education co-ordinator.

It has taken 10 minutes to cross the prison, through numerous corridors, courtyards, secure doors and gates, and then pass from the education unit to the throughcare centre, Here the new prisoners receive their induction into the prison system and make their first contact with education.

We have to wait 10 minutes. "Waiting around for prisoners is not untypical," says Mr Henderson. "I see up to 30 new arrivals a week. I saw 17 on Monday. Today there are four."

A door bangs open and the four go straight past us into the room. The youngest makes a derogatory comment in the passing, switches on the TV in the room, switches it off again, comes out and into the toilet. This guy knows his way about. He's been here before and lets us know it, bristling with nervous energy. Mr Henderson has already recognised him.

Mr Henderson explains the courses on offer. He tells them: "The education unit is run by Falkirk College and we treat you as students at the college. We treat you with respect and dignity. Any modules or units you complete are done through the college. Nowhere does it say you completed them in prison. You do not lose wages by coming to education. If someone tells you different, they're lying."

The approach is relaxed and encouraging, but Mr Henderson is forthright when he feels it necessary. "There is no shame attached to going to a literacy class," he says.

He tells them communications studies is "the fancy new name for English. This can help you with writing letters home, maybe for the first time or your first letter for a long time."

Three of the new students - education never refers to them as "prisoners" - ask with interest about various courses and opportunities. The wordly wise young man feigns boredom, shifting around in his seat, sighing and affecting the weariness of a man who has been to Alcatraz and back. He doesn't sit the test. He completed it during a recent, short sentence. The others try. One can't complete it because he didn't have his glasses with him when he was sentenced. Mr Henderson tells me this is a "not uncommon situation," but one that can be rectified in a few days.

Mr Henderson's day began at 7:30 this morning, as on every weekday morning. Teaching starts at 8:30, but he allows himself an hour's breathing space to do admin work. He has one other full-time lecturer on his staff and seven part-timers.

By 8.30 we were sitting in his office. Five students from last week's intake had come to arrange classes. Computing classes are proving so popular that the unit has doubled the number. Financial record keeping is also high on many student agendas - convicted prisoners realise that self-employment may be their only option on release.

The 100 students who attend every week also take courses in adult basic education, French, German, art, history, social science, maths, guitar, creative writing, communications studies and parenting. Each student is allowed up to 10 hours of classes.

"There's a misconception that prison education is all about basic education," says Mr Henderson. "It's not. It's about developing potential more comprehensively."

Processing the five students looks complex administratively, educationally and psychologically. Mr Henderson encourages them to make the most effective choices. He and they have to take into account literacy and numeracy levels, previous education, length of sentence, family situation and the student's ambitions after his "liberation date". Students read and sign their education contract. Each will be given a personal development plan when their courses begin.

By 9.50am the new admissions are finished with. Mr Henderson spends half an hour checking attendances, requests and refusals with his part-time admin assistant before we head over to the throughcare centre.

"No two days are the same in my job," says Mr Henderson, who began his teaching career as a Voluntary Service Overseas secondary teacher in Nigeria.

He began prison lecturing in 1995 at Edinburgh, Cornton Vale and Glenochil prisons before becoming senior lecturer in charge of Edinburgh's education unit last December.

"I have an open door policy," he says without a trace of irony. "So when students are here between 8.30am and 12 noon and between 2pm and 4pm, they can come and see me if I'm not teaching or in conference. My time is divided pretty evenly between teaching, guidance and administration, though the guidance part is definitely increasing."

Returning from the throughcare centre, morning telephone calls have to be returned before the lunchtime staff meeting. He chairs the meeting, dealing with curriculum and timetable matters, class sizes, resources, SQA enrolments and the new no smoking policy - the student body seems to have accepted it. Health and safety comes up too. It is of obvious concern in a locked unit where the teachers are not key holders.The staff can now finish their lunch.

By 1.45pm we are on our way to B Hall to meet with special management prisoners. These prisoners are segregated and only come to the education unit on the two afternoons a week when mainstream prisoners do not attend.

"I don't see these prisoners at induction, so I have to come here," says Henderson as we are admitted to the hall. There are no takers today.

Standing in the hall, he discusses with the residential supervisor the the possibility of a "lunchtime education fair" to advertise the courses on offer.

"It can be more difficult for these prisoners to access the education unit. They have a more limited access to begin with, and some are unwilling to leave the hall, or just unsure."

Arrangements made, Mr Henderson returns to the unit to deal with class list changes, mark that day's BSA tests and attend to other administration matters - this is not a teaching day for him. The work will more than fill in his time to 5pm.

Clearly committed, Ian Henderson claims a lot of job satisfaction to the day. But how does he judge the success of his work?

"Obviously there are no hard and fast indicators in what is a short-term prison for many. But if you don't see them again, you always hope. A lot is about improving self-esteem and social skills. Developing self-worth is certainly part of that."

A detailed daily diary


Clear my desk before student contact.


Pick up staff at the front gate.

8.30 to 12.30 pm

Most days I teach one or two classes in maths, history or social science. I also do some of the following: make a presentation to new admissions at induction in the throughcare centre, interview new admissions individually in the education unit, meet with the Industries manager - and admin.

12.30 to 2.00

Lunchtime meetings with teaching staff,or a meeting with external agencies working in the throughcare centre.

And some of the following: arrange evening classes for the untried prisoners, adjust class lists on the computer, catch up with phone calls, deal with individual staff requirements

- and admin

- and have lunch.

2.00 to 5.00

I teach one or two classes, andor tackle the external and internal mail, prepare for prison co-ordinators' meetings, attend co-ordinators' meetings, hopefully prepared, compile information for performance indicators, visit special management prisoners, make calls about student courses, finalise class lists, mark BSA assessments - and go home.

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