Thursday, 3 July 2014

A Prison Education

As someone who was until recently a prisoner, I think I can give an balanced insight into the other side of prison education: from the prisoner's perspective. In two prisons I was assigned to work as a classroom assistant (peer mentor), although I also hold various degrees myself. I supported prisoners struggling with literacy, numeracy and basic IT.

My own experience is that in those establishments where participation is purely voluntary, prison education provides a lifeline for prisoners whose schooling has been disrupted or ended early (usually because of exclusion). I've helped support adults in their 40s, 50s or even 60s learn to read and it has been a very rewarding experience, sometimes even more so than my previous career prior to imprisonment.

Compulsory education?
On the other hand, at two prisons all inmates with literacy problems were forced to attend education or face punishment, including solitary confinement (Basic regime). These classes were almost impossible to work in, as the reluctant 'students' resented their attendance and made learning difficult, if not impossible for those who really wanted to learn. Life for the tutors was miserable and I've seen some staff reduced - literally - to tears by aggressive and abusive refuseniks. This whole policy is counter-productive and self-defeating.

I think it's necessary to make a clear distinction between encouragement and compulsion. Locking an adult (or a child for that matter) in a bare concrete box for 23 hours a day because he or she struggles with reading, particularly in a classroom setting, is utterly counter productive and undermines everything good teaching practice stands for.

Many of the prisoners I helped to improve their levels of literacy had experienced horrendous abuse as children, some in a school environment (boarding schools, 'special' schools, approved schools). Forcing them back into a classroom as very damaged adults - as opposed to offering one to one tuition, at least until they had regained confidence in their own abilities to learn - was unimaginably cruel and led to at least one suicide of a prisoner who simply couldn't cope with this pressure.

I fear that this policy of compelling prisoners to attend education classes or face punishment erects a final barrier that will discourage many from learning for the rest of their lives. What a tragic waste of resources and opportunity.

The other major problem is that recent budget cuts mean that no courses above Level 2 (GSCE equivalent) can be offered by prison education departments. Any higher level courses have now to be funded by the prisoner and recent changes to the IEP system (PSI 30/2013) have effectively blocked the sending in of course books or other material. This is having a very negative impact on those prisoners who really want to improve their education and gain qualifications, whether academic or vocational. This merely undermines attempts to achieve rehabilitation. Sometimes it really does seem that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) are just setting prisoners up to fail.


  1. Panorama: Last Chance Academy 9pm, BBC1

    Last year alone, 3,900 pupils were permanently excluded from school –what we used to call "being expelled". It's a figure that takes on more meaning when you learn that even those temporarily excluded (well over 100,000) are unlikely to go on to gain any GCSE passes. This film follows life at Baverstock Academy in Birmingham, where exclusion is unacceptable, and which goes to great lengths to ensure its students remain in school –and have a fair crack in the exam room.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Many of my fellow prisoners had been excluded from mainstream education as children, so I think that there is a definite link that needs to be followed up and addressed. Unfortunately prison education is being so under-funded that many good education practices and methods are being abandoned in favour of rote-learning just to pass low level exam so that the contracted out service providers get paid a fee.

  2. Well done Baverstock Academy!