Prison can raise many images in our minds. While you might not have given prisons a great deal of thought, I can assure you that when you hear about them on the news, or read about them in your newspaper an image or two appears in you mind. It might be that you see Ronnie Barker in Porridge, or you might have the media presented images of holiday centres, or places of continued rioting going through your mind. This article wants to present a new image for you to consider.
We will always have the uniformed prison officers that walk the landings and deal with the prisoners’ requests, we will also have the medical, teaching, training and religious staff that help to deal with the complexity of needs that prisoners present with. Then we must remember that all prisons will have the backbone of civilian staff that offer administration support on all levels; without these people the prisons would not operate.
If you were to walk into any of our prisons around this country the scene you wold be presented with is not one of rioting, and it is not one of holidaying with the prisoners doing whatever they want. There is a lot of hard work that goes on in workshops, and other places of employment.
There is also a great deal of emphasis placed on what brought to prisoner into custody. Today the Prison Service and its partners work hard to provide courses that prisoner must, or can (if not directed to) participate in to gain an understanding of their offending cycles, the triggers that caused them to offend. These courses are not easy and each participant will undergo vigorous challenges in order to change their attitude and behaviours..
None of this matters if the prisoner simply participates in the OBPs and leaves jail with no further qualifications. I have lived the experience of prison, and I have seen the systematic destruction of real rehabilitation through education by prison ministers and governors alike. The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, said in an interview that he wanted to treat “prisoner’s problems, educate them [and] put them to work”. This would seem a good idea, and it should be, but most prison governors do not actively encourage their prisoners to get involved with education. They would prefer the prison population to be working in the workshops. Many of the prison workshops are now run as private enterprises or contracts that are bringing much needed funds for the jail. So, why would the governor want his prisoners sitting in a class gaining new qualifications when they could be earning for the prison?
The serious question here is, what will happen when prison governors get more powers to decide what education courses are made available in their prisons? The Rt Hon David Gauke MP (Secretary of State for Justice) said that “the first step on a prisoner’s path to employment on release is acquiring the right skills”, and I hope that he will remember this when he hands this power to the governors.
What this new strategy sets out to achieve is admirable, but as a former prisoner I can see the pitfalls between the Justice Secretary’s comments and what the governor puts into action. The key points to bear in mind about this new strategy will be that:
Prison Governors will be able to commission whatever education they deem meets the local employability market.
Some reduced regulation in how the education budget is handled.
PA new vocational pathway be set up to enable prisoners to gain apprenticeships.
If a governor chooses to look at what the local employers are wanting to fill their vacancies, and then commissions learning that will fill the gaps it would seem that they were doing the right thing. It is not as simple as that. Many of the prisons do not hold local people. In the county that I live in we have three prisons, all operating on a different regime. If you were to walk into anyone of them you would find that the majority of prisoners do not come from this area. This would mean that while the prisoner would be learning a new skill it might not meet their need, and might not be what employers in their area are seeking.
In the recent Ofsted report into Education, skills and work in prisons and young offender institutes the inspectors highlight that in just over 110 prisons and YOIs around two-fifths were able to study at level 2; at the same time the Chief Inspector noted that ‘participation on level 3 courses has been in decline over time, dropping from a peak of 2,400 in 2012/13 to a low of 100 in the latest published data’ (Ofsted 2018).
Two-fifths of the prison population works out around 33,000, which is not many people learning new skills. It concerns me that even before governors gain these powers that there is a drop in level 3 learning. There should be an emphasis on getting prisoners into learning. The author of this article chose a pathway to rehabilitation that came through education, and continues now even though he is the other side of the high walls and razor-like-topped fences. The author of this piece went into jail knowing that my English levels needed enhancing and improving, and now he is reading for a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at the Open University. And he believes that this opportunity should be afforded to every prisoner in the country.
Not only should prisoners be given the opportunity to learn new skills in custody, they ought to be offered the chance to study through distance learning. Rod Clark from Prisoners’ Education Trust, says that ‘prisoners who spend their time studying through distance learning are significantly more successful in securing employment after release.’ Offenders in employment within one year following their release from custody were significantly less likely to re-offend than those offenders who did not get employment, confirms many reports.
This writer believes that this is the most sustainable pathway to real rehabilitation. There is that ancient saying that, if you give a man a fish you feed him for the day, teach the man to fish and you feed him for a life time. The same with education and rehabilitation; if you show a man how to do something new he will know what to do, but if you teach that man to want to learn he will learn more new skills and go on to show others. When this prisoner is then released from custody they are armed with more than a skill; they will leave with a new pathway in life, and that will lead to change in the community that they return to.