Education – Are prisoners being left behind?
Firstly, let me state that my direct experience has only been related to Public Sector prisons, specifically Wandsworth, Highpoint North and South, Hollesley Bay, Ford and High Down. Every prison is different and in terms of education – dramatically so – and not just because the education providers are often private enterprises. Secondly, I do not intend to focus on the minority of prisoners who have severe learning disabilities or whose social behaviour or mental disorder makes formal education difficult for those prisoners who choose to progress. These people should be treated separately – and, in my opinion, placed in a specialised institution beyond the scope of my competence.
- What is the purpose of education in prisons?
The classic answer to this question is rehabilitation. But that answer is not sufficient without some form of definition. Rehabilitation can mean learning social skills through being part of a group. It can mean learning a trade to ensure employment after release. It can be a combination of those two things, in that the prisoner may be required to reach a certain level of English or Maths before starting trade training. Examples might be Level 2 maths in order to be able to build a staircase, Level 1 English in order to learn how to write a CV or just being in a classroom to show that the prisoner has sufficient discipline and self-restraint to progress to handling potentially dangerous tools in a construction workshop.
But what is so often forgotten is that not all prisoners are uneducated, have learning disabilities or exhibit anti-social behaviours. Much of the work I did for prison education departments was in helping people with courses that were deemed too advanced for prison education to cope with, such as Level 3 Maths, A level Maths, Creative Writing or French. The emphasis of much prison education was, in my experience, on helping those self-identifying as excluded from society rather than those who had, for example, simply not completed their O or A Levels.
Another purpose of prison education should be to provide employment for prisoners whilst in prison. Sadly, the Education Orderly is often just used as a general dogsbody or a teaching assistant of the lowest level. Some of those who work in prison education even see prisoners who are capable of teaching, or are even qualified teachers, as a threat to their jobs, rather than a resource to be exploited for the benefit of all parties. To attract the best qualified prisoners to be used as teachers, however, prisoners and orderlies in education would have to be classified as essential workers. Currently, whenever there is a problem in the prison – through understaffing, incidences of violence, lockdowns for security, etcetera – the Education Department is the first to be closed. So well-qualified candidates often prefer to do other work such as Reception or Induction Orderly because they know they will always be unlocked every day, treated as a useful member of the community, and exposed to the prison hierarchy.
Finally, an overall purpose of Prison Education should be to maintain a level of harmony in the prison by creating an atmosphere that is less reminiscent of “dumbing down” and more associated with “levelling up” or personal advancement. Many of us would answer, therefore, that there are things in life which are good for us in terms of improving cognitive abilities and self-esteem yet serve no identifiable external purpose when compared, say, to gaining a qualification as a bricklayer.
- Does education in prisons deliver the skills needed by employers, and what more can be done to better align these?
The simple answer to this is that it depends on the employer and on the prisoner. This question actually underlines the requirement to have an individualised approach to rehabilitation of prisoners, and an individual approach to the needs of employers. There can be no generalised approach to rehabilitation. This bespoke solution may require greater resources, but optimum resourcing levels cannot be excluded from decision-making if we are serious about rehabilitation. An example which demonstrates a fundamental point – a prisoner who wanted to take accountancy exams who found an enterprise willing to sponsor him and succeeded in getting the promise of employment. The idea that prisoners are, in the majority, incapable of learning to that level, or even if they were would not be willing to do so is just, plain wrong!
- How can successful participation in education be incentivised in prisons?
The greatest incentive for a prisoner is to be able to spend time out of his or her cell doing something useful for himself or others. Yes, he should be paid enough to get by in prison without external aid, but that is probably less important to most than self-esteem, being treated as a reasonable human being and having a sense of being useful to this enclosed community. If prison education is deemed as continuously “non-essential”, and therefore subject to cancellation at the slightest incident, then there is little incentive to participate as a student, teaching assistant or general orderly.
- Are current resources for prison learning meeting need?
The resources that I experienced were variable in terms of quality and quantity. There were some amazingly well motivated staff who battled against a wall of indifference from prison hierarchy in most cases. Classrooms where windows were broken, heating systems that didn’t work, access to disgusting toilets that was too difficult or where there were insufficient staff to allow movement outside the classroom, all contribute to a general feeling of imprisonment rather than a place of learning, The lack of access to the internet in a world of employment wherein even the humblest of warehouseman needs IT skills and familiarity with the internet, cloud computing and on-line transaction processing is a problem that needs to solved and for which a plethora of technical solutions exist.
- How does the variability in the prison estate and infrastructure impact on learning?
This variability does not just apply to education, of course. It applies to rules on such things as books, possessions, “canteen”, pay, clothing, regime. So, the inconsistencies are also a barrier to continuity in education. When a prisoner is moved even from one side of a prison region to another, he has no certainty as to how he will be able to finish a course whether it be internal or external (such as the Open University). Access to computer equipment varies from prison to prison It may seem strange, for example, to find a prison refusing sensible printing facilities even when the prisoner offers to pay for the paper and ink!
- How effective and flexible is prison education and training in dealing with different lengths of sentences and the movement of prisoners across the estate?
This is a serious problem which is also linked to the paragraph above. There needs to be continuity between prisons but also continuity between prison and real life so that, regardless of the length of sentence, a prisoner can choose the best option for his future. Giving prison governors autonomy may well be a laudable policy, but, as anyone knows who has worked in education, continuity in the learning process is essential in terms of efficiency.