Saturday, April 3, 2010

More Education

Prison education use to be provided through the local education authorities and it was, broadly, a benign shambles. Whilst offering maths and English, there was also an eclectic mix of sociology, politics, current affairs, various arts and crafts. It was in this 'system' that Cohen and Taylor taught at Durham prison, their unofficial participant observation research making their way into a book which remains one of the penological standards (“Psychological Survival: The Experience of Long-Term Imprisonment”).

We were not encouraged to become educated, the view that an educated con is a dangerous one holding firm against the rehabilitative impulse. Nevertheless, the brightest of us used to find our way to sociology classes or whichever local variant offered the atmosphere that supported debate and reflection.

Un-standardised, bereft of targets and on a shoestring budget, the old education system provided an atmosphere of genuine learning and achievement. Alongside this, the teaching staff were unencumbered by the con-hating ideology of the prison staff and so treated us as people first, prisoners second. Education Departments were a refuge for us, a place where we could escape the demeaning culture and attitudes of the prison and be real people for a few hours a day.

And then the managerialists moved in, the bean-counters assessing, measuring and systematising every aspect of the educational experience. Along the way, they have managed to kill it stone dead.

Now, under the modern educational ethos, the purpose of education is strictly instrumental. The mantra is repeated endlessly, that prisoners generally have "low literacy and numeracy skills" (a phrase which makes me want to vomit, but sums up precisely the problem I relate), and this leads to unemployment and offending.

Ergo the whole machine, and the budget, is geared towards Basic Skills. Not basic as in GCSE's, but basic as in "do you need help doing up your shoe laces?". The qualifications on offer comprise a jumble of acronyms that, unravelled, easily spell out "low expectations".

The targets set for each prison relate solely to these basic skills, leading to managers scrabbling around to find ways to "persuade" prisoners to complete such qualifications. An attempt was made last year to have me undertake a Basic Skills Level 1 in Numeracy, for instance.

This target-driven culture has no consideration for the needs of the actual prisoner-students, it is all about the needs of the institution. With qualifications higher than basic skills not being part of any target, they are of no interest to education managers. What sort of perverse system is it that only rewards people for endlessly completing a raft of basic skills but has no time for them once they can spell their name?

If any prisoner has the temerity to aspire to dizzying heights such as A-Levels, no funding is available. We rely on a couple of educational charities to support our efforts and they bear the weight of the educational needs of thousands of prisoners.

Degrees have been available to long term prisoners for decades. The part that the Open University has played in changing the lives of so may prisoners is a subject long in need of exploration as well as celebration.

Who pays for this...? Are we benefiting from our crimes by receiving a free education? Yes and no. Educatinal charities pay for the first year with the OU and then the OU itself pays. So yes, it is free but not at the direct cost to the taxpayer. The OU treats us as if we were outside and on low incomes.

Working from a low base, it may take ten years or more to traverse the educational hurdles up to completing an undergraduate degree. What was I meant to do for the next twenty years, sit in a workshop and count nuts and bolts into plastic bags?

Post-graduate education is a wilderness for funding. The prison service has absolutely no support mechanisms, just getting sufficient writting paper out of the Education Department is a minor coup.

Again, this must be self-funded or via the support of charities. Prisoners are forbidden to access any student loan facilities. My Masters cost other people some œ2,500. My PhD runs at over œ1,600 per year for five years, a sum that is incredibly difficult to raise and which has led me to having to take time off. It will be a miracle if I complete it, more due to fundraising than a lack of suitably focused neurons.

Assuming the best, though, and I will leave prison with one of the best educational histories a prisoner can achieve, and none of it at a direct cost to myself.

I say direct cost, as focusing upon education cost prisoners dearly. If I had opted for the short-term, venal, route then I would have gone where the money is. Being employed in the Education Department guarantees receiving the lowest wage in every prison.

The workshops, though, can pay the highest. By packing nuts and bolts in plastic bags for an outside company, I could be paid double or triple the education wage. After a few years, I would be one of those prisoners who seem to live a more comfortable life, with a PlayStation, DVD player, nice clothes, and a few hundred quid in savings.

But I took the longer view. In order to have a chance of a decent life in the future and to grow as a human being, I would have to take the route that guaranteed decades of prison poverty. Whilst educational achievements of prisoners don't bear the burden of paying fees (most is borne by charities), we do bear the cost in our daily lives.

It is such a pity, though, that Education Departments have ceased to be a refuge for the brighter prisoners, a respite from prison. It has become a utilitarian machine, a conveyor belt for churning out target-completions and where one manager proudly boasted to me, "I have security running through my veins". Whatever happened to genuine education, as an end in itself?


  1. My own experience as a 'teacher' in prisons bears out every word Ben says. Okay, so it's just a pov; I concede that. I used to prepare people for exams in 'literacy' in which they didn't have to write a single word -it was all multi-choice. Rather than elicit a love of the written word, my task was to accessorise people with apostrophes which they would never use (though they did get briefly very expert at apostrophising every letter s they saw). I watched as art was strangled (no 'employment pathway').

    It's a disgrace. And since I am sure that some of this blog's readers are prison teachers, I wonder what defence they would make of the wretched lot they've settled for. Let's hear you.

    I've now got to type the word 'sicken' into the verification box. It seems to have developed psychic powers!

  2. Ah, yes Ben, education for educations sake, it so should be a right just as we in breath air, drink water that falls from the sky, fruit from the trees, vegetables from the earth, just as we have a right to live life so too should we have a right to education just as an end in itself, as you say.

    This is being eroded everywhere and it started in the 1980's with Thatchers Tory government and has shamefully been continued by new Labour, and it is utterly rotten, especially because those in privaledged positions in society have a nice neat private education system for themselves and their own children. What utter swines they are especially since they are and would be nothing without the sweat and toil ordinary people put into making the world go round, our 'masters', just take take take from us, sucking our blood like vampires. They are nothing but thieves.

  3. In fairness, I’d like to point out that some of the funding that charities like Prisoners Education Trust provide for education for prisoners comes from Government. This charity administers access to funding for initial OU study on behalf of the Government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and working closely with prison education staff and OU staff. The funding available is limited but is able to cover around 800 prisoner students each year, around 83% of those who applied. We also have some funding for courses such as A levels that comes from BIS and we’re glad to work in partnership with them.

    This charity also raises voluntary funds to support over 1000 other prisoners each year – and we regret that we have to turn down many worthwhile applications because funds are limited. Ben is right that finding funding for postgraduate study is hardest of all – it is an amazing achievement to get this far inside prison.

    We believe it makes sense to enable access to the right courses for all prisoners who wish to learn. And we strongly agree with Ben that the role of the OU in changing prisoners lives is worthy of both research and celebration. When the inevitable discussions about cuts in public spending take place, it is hugely important that this vital area is not cut back.