Monday, October 9, 2023

Going Backwards to go Forwards

I am a great believer in prison education. After all, it was where I completed my secondary education, A Levels, BSc and MA. My PhD failed when I ran out of funds. That's a very long journey, over 32 years. My education helped shape the person I became.

But. I always have a but, I'm afraid. But what is it that I believe in that flows from education? It’s taken as axiomatic that education itself reduces offending, cuts future crime. Trouble is, I’ve never seen any research to substantiate that. If you have any, I’d be grateful to see it. Sans actual evidence, it's always been my view that the “education good” axiom actually rests on a moral belief - that educated people are inherently more likely to be “good”. This has at least a surface attraction. To be realistic, if I was some lumpen shaven headed illiterate of a murderer, my public reception would have been far less amenable.

I don’t for a moment think this proposition is actually true. Education does not have an inherent ability to make you a better person as such. Education just makes you more educated. That said, education does help you if you want to change your view of life. I know that for myself, education gave me the intellectual tools to deal with my own psychological aberrations, and a system that rests wholly on naked State power. Reading Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ in solitary confinement sharpens the understanding of legitimacy and power….

Education in itself does nothing. But education can be an open ended toolbox that can be used to transform yourself and your life, should that be the path you elect. But there is no reason whatever to think that this necessarily follows. In this sense, education could potentially reduce reoffending. Or it could give you more capable criminals. The law of unintended consequences is the burden of any prison policy. Note the number of PhDs amongst the leadership of the S.S….Education may give you the tools by which you can better discern moral choices and deal with them. It doesn't guarantee a moral decision.

Which brings me to the new Education Policy announced by the Ministry. The press release just hums with positivity. They always do. But then they call a full scale riot an “incident of concerted indiscipline”. Smaller riots are “disturbances”. You get the idea. MoJ press released have always been given the Hallmark touch.

When you take a moment to squint past the glow and interpret the words, the reality begins to sink in.

Every prison will have a Head of Education Skill and Work. Huzza!.

Of course the very same role has existed for years under the different title of Head of Learning and Skills. I’m not sure what having to reprint the letter heads and nameplate does to improve education or training, but the Ministry make it sound truly marvellous.

For the first time, there will be apprenticeships in catering and construction, in league with large name employers.

I would be all for this and have no “but”, but…

There has been a long and regrettable history of companies misusing prisoner labour. A significant part of some prisons budget comes from the Governor selling prisoners labour. And note this isn't the free market - prisoners are compelled to do this work under the threat of punishment. It is literally slavery, only actually allowed under the European Convention. And obviously any company using forced prisoner labour, at under a tenner a week wages, instantly has a market advantage. So you will excuse my cynicism when I hear of collaborations between companies and prisons.

Obviously the skills and qualifications gained through an apprenticeship could stand a prisoner in good stead on release. So long as they are not exploited by companies along the way and get a fair days pay for a fair days work. Alas, they will be misused.

There's an extra couple of million towards basic literacy, and an App to use on release. All good there, but more money is always nice.

Over 2 years, around 2000 prisoners will be trained in scaffolding, electrical, and other vital industries. This will guarantee a job interview on release.

This is where having an old “birdman” lurking at the edge comes in useful. This used to be standard across the prison estate. C&G training in painting, decorating, welding, carpentry, etc. The skills where a guy could start a small business himself and not rely on the dubious largess of employers in the face of an ex con begging a job. This was so prevalent that even I found myself compelled to learn welding. Strange times.

This was the situation for many decades, until the arrival of a new wave of managerialist control swept prisons in the early 1990s. Out went the trades, and in came the psychologists. Straight swap. It was declared that the very best way to cut reoffending was to force prisoners to undertake a raft of “offending behaviour courses”, psychological treatments that would turn the polluted criminal waters into sparkling prosecco. Two decades later and the data shows we’ve pretty much wasted several hundred million pounds. The only benefit of all this was to keep psychologists away from wider society.

Now here we are again, two decades later, retreading the old path. Only on a miniscule scale. 1000 men a year. Out of a population of 100,000. So this is not signifying a great switch away from psychological interventions back to trades, it is a passing nod to the past. This is regrettable. The insatiable appetites for degrees has seen a generation or two of workers not working, but avoiding the trades. The economy is ripe for more tradesmen. So this tiny effort on the part of the Ministry becomes even more insulting.

There will be “new” contracts to education providers, with tough “new” targets for basic literacy and numeracy.

They have existed for a decade or two. Always have. Education got flattened by the managerialist zeitgeist like everything else. And like everything driven by targets, the statistic frauds began instantly. You get the idea from the fact that I was compelled to take basic literacy and numeracy exams at every prison that had me. After gaining my BSc. And MA.

Target driven education also leads to coercing education. You are made a “throffer” - an offer wrapped in a threat. The Ministry's version of “Nice life you have there, pity if something happened to it…” The Psychology Department excel at them, but Education Depts are also not shy about leaning on a con to get him to take an educational path that he really doesn'tation want to. Just to meet some target.

You may believe, of course, that leaning on someone to get better educated must be no bad thing in the scale of things. But consider the poor bloke working away packing crap in a prison workshop. He's making 12 quid a week. His girlfriend is nearing term with their new baby, and his brother is playing up at school. He needs that workshop job and wage to pay for phone calls home. Badly. Having some self righteous manager desperate to meet a target come along and grab him is really not what is needed.

For all its bluster, these ideas do nothing significant for prison education. The ideas that have a kernel of use are flawed or too limited in scope, and changing job titles is meaningless. Not the lack of the word “internet”. In a document about education. In 2023.

I was legitimately online in a Cat-B prison, with Summit Media, in 2001. Here we are, over 20 years down the line, and prisoners still do not have internet access. With the rate of illegal mobile phones in prison being around one for every two prisoners, trying to stem the internet tide is utterly Canutish, a bizarre denial of reality.

The obsession with basic skills is overshadowing everything else that has potential. Trades should explode across the estate, not be limited to a few thousand people. Higher education, though in prison terms that means a decent GCSE, falls off the map. When prisoners are serving ever longer sentences, abandoning them once they are literate and numerate is verging on the cruel. Being literate is a necessary component of getting work, but hardly a sufficient one. It is utterly depressing to realise that under the present arrangements, I could not have taken the educational journey I did, and may not have developed into the joyous, diplomatic, subtle man I am today…