Behind bars there are few barriers to education

27th November 2015 at 00:00
A visit to a men’s prison proves that jail can be a healthy learning environment

I have long held the belief that I could never teach in a prison. I would find it too difficult to get past the notion that most of my students were there because they had done something dreadful to someone else. When I recently put this concern to teachers from a wide range of prisons, there was a consistent response: teachers are there to teach, not to judge – that job has already been done.

Most cite prison as the calmest educational environment in which they have worked, reporting few behavioural issues in class, not least because the distractions of everyday life have been necessarily removed.

Prison is not about punishment, as I am told on my day spent inside, most poignantly by a prisoner. “The punishment is the sentence but the objective of being in prison is the rehabilitation,” he says.

HMP Thameside, a category B men’s prison in south-east London, resembles a small town with a budget hotel, a sports centre and a well-equipped FE college – albeit one surrounded by high razor-wire fences and incorporating a lot of locked doors. Director John Biggin is responsible for an institution where up to 1,232 men are held prisoner, kept safe, supported into education and equipped for a new start on the outside.

The prison’s success is in part down to the collaborative nature of its leadership. The leadership team includes heads from the partner organisations who deliver various kinds of support and from education partner Novus (part of The Manchester College).

There is a unique purity in the notion of education offered at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Prisoners can create a new sense of identity through learning and build a future legacy beyond the label of “ex-offender”. It is many prisoners’ first chance to engage with education; prison is the only place where the multi-layered, negative influences of life outside can be stripped back and a safe place to learn can be embraced.


A new learning experience

Many prisoners were excluded from school and avoided re-entry. For them, their first ever positive educational experience is behind bars. “A lot of my young men have come from second or third-generation families who have never interacted with the education system,” Biggin says. “They get more collateral from the gang than they do from anywhere else. In the region of a third of my population will have some sort of gang affiliation.”

Education offers a prisoner some command of their life, in a situation where much of their control is surrendered to the institution. There are graduation ceremonies for prisoners who have gone through education and support programmes, and they are given certificates in front of their families. “For a lot of prisoners, it will be the first time they have had the opportunity to be proud of what they have achieved and for their families to be proud of them,” Biggin adds.

Numerous young men will become fathers while they are serving their sentence. There’s a separate facility where they can work with support staff to learn how to be new parents. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get something vital right. There are toddler play days in the visitors’ hall, and an initiative called Storybook Dad. This involves prisoners being filmed (by other prisoners, as part of a media course) in a nursery-style setting, reading a storybook for their children. The DVD is then sent to the family.

All this seems, at first glance, sympathetic to the point of sentimental. It isn’t. Evidence demonstrates that prisoners who keep in regular contact with their families are up to six times less likely to reoffend.


Outlet for creativity

Creative arts are a big deal at Thameside. In a well-equipped design studio, prisoners cut out fabric patterns. This is part of the creative process led by a team from Central Saint Martins School of Art, who are working with the Sue Ryder charity and the prison to develop the Makeright Design Academy, a self-sustaining, socially responsible enterprise. Teachers work with prisoners to design and make “unpickpocketable” bags.

Literacy is a priority and the library is a hub of activity. Book clubs, the six-book challenge, creative writing sessions and visits from authors make for a vibrant resource.

Government data shows that 46 per cent of people entering the prison system have literacy skills at entry level 3 or below, compared with 15 per cent of the general adult population. But the link between literacy and offending is complex. “Here, a third are foreign national prisoners for whom English is not their first language,” Biggin says. “I have a lot of people coming through who have significant mental health issues, and there are issues around learning disabilities. Dyslexia, autism and people with brain injuries are a massively underestimated number in prisons. So it’s not as easy as saying, ‘People are not achieving at school’.”


Yes, guv

This is the sort of information that a governor knows about their own prison. Perhaps this is why justice secretary Michael Gove is seeking to make reforms, passing greater responsibility on to the governor.

Gove’s proposals are broadly welcomed and regarded as highly progressive – an irony that won’t be lost on educators, considering his previous reputation. Dame Sally Coates, an academies director, has been appointed by the government to conduct a review of prison education. Due to be published in the spring, her report is expected to lead to incentivising prisoners to engage with education through an “earned release” scheme.

I visit a prisoner in his cell, a small, bright space with bunk beds, topless-lady posters and an open toilet area. I’m surprised to see a functioning computer. As the prisoner – an older, gently spoken man – logs on to the home screen of his virtual campus, he tells me how he is a peer mentor to others in his wing, encouraging them to engage with their tech and teaching them how to do so.

Around 8 per cent of Thameside’s population actively mentor peers and new arrivals. Their work is formalised through qualifications that help prisoners into work on their release. Most areas of prison life are used as educational opportunities: the delivery compound offers forklift-truck-driving qualifications; the prison barber shop (Short Back and Thameside) is equipped to teach a raft of qualifications. The latter is a popular choice in part because a radio is played there, a rare treat in this environment.

The calm, progressive nature of the site makes it easy to forget where I am. Security is managed with the utmost discretion. It’s only on the way out, passing through a series of gates and scanning devices, that I spy a sheet on the wall in one of the security rooms with a number of faces on it, under the heading “hostage-taking risk”, and another entitled “risk to females”.

But because this organisation’s priority – its security – is so robust, educational innovations can flourish. So too can ambitions for an increasingly dynamic, aspirational prison.


Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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