Lessons under lock and key

July 6, 2001

A conference next week will look at the case for education behind bars and ask whether it can help put inmates back on the straight and narrow. Olga Wojtas reports.

Various branches of the education system claim to suffer as the Cinderella of the sector. But the most marginalised and misunderstood is arguably prison education. Next week, the University of Abertay, Dundee, hosts a conference designed to bring together academics, policy-makers and prison staff to debate the role of education in the prison system in the 21st century.

The chair of "Prison Education: a Passport to Freedom?" is David Wilson, criminologist at the University of Central England and a former prison governor. He says there has always been tension surrounding the ethos of the prison service: whether it is about rehabilitation or control and preventing escape. The prison service mission statement covers both issues, but Wilson says the duty to hold prisoners securely can subsume the duty to treat them with humanity.

Also, the penal and education systems have conflicting ideologies. "Education, at its best, is about transforming people, and often about challenging the status quo. If you do that in an environment that is a prime exemplar of the status quo, you face difficulties. Education is about liberating people, freeing them - even these words put you in diametrical opposition (to the penal system)," Wilson says.

At present, the emphasis in prison education is on basic skills - improving prisoner literacy and numeracy. It was recently discovered that Ford Open Prison had been boosting performance figures in basic skills tests by getting graduate inmates to sit them. "Rather than finding creative ways of subverting the system, we should be trying to ensure that prisons are free to teach the subjects that best meet the needs of prisoners," Wilson says. Most of the prisoners who lack basic skills are concentrated in local prisons, serving relatively short sentences, he says. Longer-term inmates have generally mastered basic skills very early in their prison career.

Conference organiser Anne Reuss, a sociologist and criminologist at Abertay, is critical of a "one-size-fits-all" approach. "If someone said, 'All university students are going to study this,' there would be an outcry. Prisons are full of people with different needs and different levels of ability."

Reuss was part of a pioneering programme bringing higher education to prisoners. The Leeds University programme at Full Sutton maximum security prison was launched in 1989, but was axed in 1998 when the prison service cut its funding. "The penal system is interested in keeping people secure. If savings have to be made, then often it is education that is cut. Security takes precedence every time," she says.

Reuss praises the Open University's long-standing work in prisons, but says the Leeds programme took a different approach in that it tried to bring a university atmosphere into the prison. While OU teaching is one to one, Leeds offered first-year level classes, bringing together up to 15 long-term, category A and B prisoners. "The only thing they had in common was imprisonment. There were people from all walks of life and all nationalities, which makes for absolutely superb debate. It was a sociologist's dream," she says. Courses were intensive, three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, four days a week. The academics were a point of contact with the outside world for the prisoners - people who would treat them as individuals rather than as numbers.

Reuss says she has found it difficult to readjust to standard university teaching. In her sociology classes, the prisoners discussed society, of which they were a part, but from which they were excluded. They would frequently reflect on the crimes they had committed in terms of what they were learning. A man guilty of violence against women would say classes on gender inequality had made him think about what he had done.

"Teaching Marxism to prisoners is fascinating. One prisoner said: 'This is great, this Marxism, Anne. Do you know that it has explained for me exactly why I've ended up in here.' He took this grand theory of how modern capitalist society works and said, 'That is why I committed robbery and that is why I'm here.' For that particular prisoner, it had made sense of his world."

Reuss says that she found prison a frightening environment. She was searched on the way in and sometimes on the way out. She was teaching men convicted of serious crimes. She says most of her students wanted to learn, and treated her with respect and courtesy, but there was an underlying fear of being taken hostage. On one occasion, there was a security scare, everything was shut down, and she was unable to leave. Prison officers would suddenly remove prisoners from the classroom for random cell checks, known colloquially as "cell spin". "Most teachers in prisons have experience of prison taking precedence over education. It disrupts the learning process and unsettles everybody," she says.

She was once lecturing on ethnicity and race to ten students, three of whom were black. During a debate on inequality and intolerance, a prison officer entered the classroom and said to one of the black prisoners: "Oi, Leroy, come here - cell spin."

"I ain't Leroy," the prisoner said, to which the officer replied: "You look like a Leroy."

There was no thought for the prisoner as an individual, or his sense of self in the eyes of the other people in the room, Reuss says.

Prison officers often found it difficult to deal with prisoners taking higher education courses that would make them better qualified than the officers. They would complain that Leeds was simply "making smart cons smarter". "I used to say I thought they had as much right to learn as anybody else," she says. But despite the resentments, she says prison staff liked the fact that education kept the prisoners occupied.

She adds that many prisoners prefer to take classes rather than going to workshops, because they see working as doing something for the prison, while education is something they do for themselves. It raises prisoners' self esteem, and can be a strategy for survival, a positive way of marking time.

Reuss was dismayed to see the cutting of courses offered in Full Sutton by the local further education college, followed by the axeing of the Leeds course. "It led to frustration and tension, and the last thing you want in a prison environment is frustrated prisoners who are bored." Education is not a magic bullet, she admits, but if prisoners have done something worthwhile in prison that makes them feel better about themselves, the community must also benefit. The prisoners who said they were thinking about their crimes in a new light is testament to, she believes, to education's power to transform.

But it is difficult to produce concrete evidence that people have changed their behaviour. Follow-up studies are difficult, because former prisoners generally want to fade into the background and do not want to be tracked. But Reuss is still in touch with some who, as a result of the Leeds course, chose academic rather than criminal careers once they were released. "We need to ask ourselves whether education in prison should always be aligned with rehabilitation and falling rates of recidivism. Can we get to a situation where education is there for people to look at something they want to look at? You have people who are going to be way beyond retirement when they get out. Why shouldn't they learn to build beautiful sailing ships out of matchsticks, because there is a value in that for the person doing it!"

Prison Education: a Passport to Freedom? is hosted by the University of Abertay, Dundee, July 10-11.

Details: www.abertay.ac.uk/shs/conference

Offenders help their peers

The Opening Doors pilot project at Polmont Young Offenders' Institution in Scotland's central belt offers young men the chance to become peer educators in subjects such as health issues up to university level.
A partnership between Community Learning Scotland and the Scottish Prison Service, it is described by Polmont's governor Dan Gunn as "a completely new way" of bringing community and penal systems together.

Youth worker Lisa Hogg is the only person from an outside agency to work full time within a young offenders' institution. Gunn believes the project will build self-esteem and prevent recidivism.

Marian Pallister

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