Monday, March 29, 2010

Prison and Education

Some comments that the Editor sent me from those posted in response to my Guardian pieces seemed a bit grumpy that I have gained an education. They would much rather that I had stuck to being punished.

This does raise the issue - what should be done with prisoners whilst they are confined? Should it be remorseless (and often pointless) punishment? Or should there be one eye on the future, a recognition that "better" human beings been released are far less likely to commit future crime?

Specifically, in this context, should prisoners be denied reasonable opportunities to increase their life-chances whilst in prison? The situation at present, and officially has been for decades, is a weird mixture of the two that only serves to highlight the deep socio-political ambivalence about the importance of punishment and rehabilitation.

If the decision is made to deliberately deny prisoners the opportunity to gain an education, then it should be done with a conscious recognition that this amounts to an acceptance of increasing their risk of reoffending, along with their being consigned to unskilled jobs or perpetual unemployment. This inevitably reduces the economic contribution they may make to the nation, as well as saddling their families and children with all of the problems that accrue from having a low socio-economic status.

It is common for some to duck responsibility for this by heaping it onto the prisoner - "you should have thought about that before you committed your crime". This is facile as well as being logically improper. The criminal is responsible for his crime, but it is society which decides their response to it. Society bears the responsibility for what happens in prisons, not criminals.

Such an outcome is a shocking return for the £40,000 a year it costs to keep people in prison. If you’re going to burn people at the stake, fuelling the flames with twenty pound notes seems to be a touch masochistic.

Some have taken offence not so much at the fact I have any education, but the level I have achieved. It seems that basic literacy and numeracy are all that should be permitted to prisoners. Lord forbid we attempt to use education as a means to explore and develop ourselves, let alone increase our chances of living "a good and useful life" on release.

There is an attitude afoot that nothing good should accrue from being in prison, it should only hurt and keep hurting. That this is self defeating is a point wilfully overlooked by the punitive obsessed.

Education, for me, is not merely instrumental. It may well lead to an improved quality of life and opportunity but that is the least of it. The importance of education lies in its ability to transform the individual.

If people are going to be held in prison at great economic and social cost, it is nothing if not perverse to refuse to give the prisoner an opportunity to change.

Education is one such route and a powerful one. If through experiencing it, some prisoners become more amenable and social people then we all benefit.

Except for those who want to keep piling money on the fire at the foot of the punitive stake.


  1. I really don't understand the illogical spite with which some of these people react to prisoners being given the opportunity to NOT repeat their mistakes by getting an education whilst inside.

    It seems that people do bad things for three reasons: Heat of the Moment, Social Disadvantage or Mental Illness. The latter can probably never be released from custody but what kind of person would make a sick person suffer ever more, just to feel superior? THAT to me is sick and sinister.

    The other two cases? Of course punishment has to happen but surely after that the person must be rehabilitated so that they can come out a better person for their sake and everyone else?

  2. I am amazed to read that some people feel as described by Ben here. As far as I am concerned I want prisoners to receive an appropriate punishment for their crime and then to be rehabilitated in such a way that they have no need to lead a life of crime to live a successful and fulfilling life. If education is a part of this rehabilitation then carry on educating.

    I really wish some people would stop being judgemental about prisoners - one never knows what will happen and who will be a prisoner next - so please be open-minded about prisoners and encourage them to become good citizens and lead a crime free life.

    Keep strong Ben - keep writing - it is such a bonus being able to read your blogs.

  3. For me, prison was the best education money can't buy, what and eyeopener1

  4. Sounds like jealousy to me. They probably haven't achieved educationally at the level that you have. They're trying to look down on you. So stuff 'em!! Keep going :D

  5. I agree entirely Ben. Education should be a universal right, even - or perhaps especially - in prison.

    What's particularly galling is that from your description of indeterminate sentences, your tarriff is your punishment and once you're beyond that you're no longer inside for punishment but (at least theoretically if not in actuality!) for the public protection? Denying education as a "punishment" in those circumstances would be even more ridiculous.

    You make a reference to the "if you can't do the time don't do the crime" argument again here, fatuous though that argument is. I wonder if you could tell us a little about any preconceptions you had about prison, either before your crime or before you actually ended up in prison proper, and how it compared to the actuality when you got there.


  6. Perhaps those who got upset by your success with your education, would prefer Prison to be like a Black Adder series, where Prisoners get whipped every five minutes, naked of course! You don't suppose all of those complaining, were ex-police, and ex-military, those we suspect of wanting to be Prison Officers, and the like. They are sometimes a bit thick! Well! That is how it ends up, isn't it?

    It is strange, how the ones clamouring for blood at the Prison Gates, are always like some cartoon character from a nightmare from hell! Oops! I forgot, this is Hell! That's why they belong here, and not that other place. They will never get in there, will they? See, you can only return, from where you came from! It is not allowed, for any to go where they have not already been! That is how it all got messed up in the first place. So get off of Ben's books, you morons, get back to your heap of ---- where you belong!

  7. It seems to me that the best chance we have to transform a person is education and if it can change someone from a criminal to a useful member of society then prisons should offer it. The problem, as so many have said above, is jealousy. It's now so viciously expensive to get a university education that those who are paying for their kids to ge a degree are always going to object to someone who has committed a crime getting it for free. I can to an extent see their point but this is the fault of the system, not the prisoner and they shouldn't be punished for the fact that the government prefers to spend the tax take on pointless wars and other assorted crap rather than free and decent education for the masses.

  8. Okay, let's play devil's advocate for just a moment here. Education is not necessarily transformative; it may simply serve to turn a clever criminal into a cleverer one a more (wait for it) manipulative one. Some of the world's worst tyrants had very good libraries - and some of the world's most enlightening novelists and thinkers were, in their private lives, complete shits.

    I can say that, Ben, because education has clearly enabled you to become a best possible version of yourself!

    And that's the point. That's what it achieves in almost everybody who can get themselves some. So those whose hearts are filled with hate don't need to get their heads around liberal notions and hard words like 'transformative'. All they need do is consult their self-interest. They can save themselves and the country a pot of money by turning people round, not recycling them as angry, illiterate social exiles. I can never understand why this simple calculation is beyond the wit of the majority. Perhaps it demonstrates an irrational need to hate and, therefore, a need for an object for that hatred. If it weren't prisoners...

    You are always a stimulating, rigorous read, Ben. Apologies if this is a bit half-arsed. (I have now got to type - I'm not joking - the word 'twits' into the verification box.)

  9. Charles Cowling. That's an interesting point, but I would reply that some people will use education to be better versions of themselves, like Ben has whilst others won't, weather they get their education in prison or they've never seen the inside of a prison in their lives.

    The fact that such a high percentage of people in the prison system are illiterate makes education arguably THE most important to in rehabilitation I would think.

  10. Doh! I meant to say 'arguably the most important tool in rehabilitation. Silly me :P

  11. Exactly, Gaina. This is what I was trying in a rather contorted way to say. Thank you! Must learn to make myself clearer!

  12. I just got to this amazing site not long ago. I was actually captured with the piece of resources you have got here. Big thumbs up for making such wonderful blog page. Prison Correspondence Education


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