The danger of closed minds

December 10, 2004

John Kirkaldy explains why the OU reaches out to inmates

It was 3am and the man at the party was very drunk. "When," he demanded belligerently, "is the Open University going to give up giving degrees to murderers and start putting the money towards people who actually deserve it?" He would have perhaps been even more aggressive if he had known that in the morning, I had given a tutorial, not only in a prison, but at a vulnerable prisoner unit (VPU).

This antagonism is based on some ill-formed assumptions of OU prison work and a few examples, mainly culled from the 1980s. The most notorious was Myra Hindley, who gained a degree from the university. She was pictured in a tabloid newspaper with a certificate being presented to her. The picture had nothing to do with the OU and the ceremony was the result of a private arrangement.

The university has, in fact, pioneered access to many groups - the handicapped, ethnic minorities, women, adult learners and those living in remote areas - for which it is generally applauded. Yet its work in prisons sometimes causes unease and even hostility.

This prejudice seems to rest on three misunderstandings or half truths: (1) It is unfair that the OU spends money on prisoners when it should be spending it on "ordinary" students . The OU spends no money on prisoners.

Funding comes from the Home Office in England and the devolved governments in the rest of Britain. The decision as to whether a prisoner joins the OU rests with the prison and is based on whether it considers that the potential student will benefit from study. There are only 860 OU students in prisons in England.

(2) Prisoners enjoy a privileged existence for study, protected from all the usual distractions. Nearly all prisoners have to do work in the prison system. The myth of a comfortable cell with a telly in the corner owes much to repeats of Porridge and has no basis in reality. In general, a prisoner will be allowed ten hours study time a week in the prison's education centre. Students in prison do not have to pay for their course, books or support materials. They are not subject to entry quotas but a few courses are banned because of content or lack of facilities in the prison.

For most students, study will often be done in the severely limited space of an overcrowded cell. "The only way that I can work is with ear plugs," explained one of my students.

Some students try to work late at night, but this needs a lot of stamina and motivation.

The reaction of other prisoners can be one of indifference or in some cases of outright hostility. A few of my students have had work that has been defaced or have had precious notes hidden or thrown away. One student had to pretend that he was enjoying pop music, while really listening to an OU work cassette. All distance learning involves a degree of isolation, but this is often very much more extreme in prison study. It is highly likely that the student will be the only one in the prison studying the particular course. All communication with the outside world in nearly all cases is forbidden or severely restricted. Prisoners can expect ten hours of tutorial support in a year at foundation level, six at post-foundation level and four for a half credit. This is far less than for the average OU student.

(3) It is wrong to allow free study for people who have committed crimes against society . Some OU students have been convicted of very serious crimes, but the university is not part of the judicial process. Is it not better to offer some chance of rehabilitation in society? An important figure to remember is that an average 58 per cent of all prisoners will reoffend. Prisoners often lack qualifications and skills to help them re-enter the job market. The OU counters this and can bring a change of attitude. The alternative is stark. Prisons can easily become what they have always been - universities of crime - with hostile and aggressive attitudes reinforced, criminal skills learnt and a list of contacts in the underworld extended.

Prisoners face many of the same problems that all students confront, such as meeting deadlines. But they also face problems that are unique to their environment. One of the biggest is the fact that prisoners are continually being moved, often at short notice. Alcohol and drug dependence are often important factors in crime. The level of support in prisons does seem to be very variable. At best, education centres in prisons can be encouraging and helpful. A few prisons that I have worked in have not always been so helpful (in my judgement, the virtual privatisation of prison education in the past few years has caused an overall drop in general standards of provision). Individual warders, if crossed, can make life very difficult indeed. One prisoner, admittedly a very difficult customer, had OU materials that took several months to get from the main gate to the Education Centre. In the middle of his exam, a major body search and a complete turning over of his cell were authorised. Hardly the best scenario for a good pass.

Prisoners are often subject to great mood swings. Relationships often fall apart or are stretched to breaking point. Most OU students in prisons are keen not to discuss their crime. A small minority are almost obsessive about discussing their case and almost nothing will stop them. There is something macabre about discussing why a man has murdered his wife while trying to analyse a sonnet. An occasional excuse message can highlight the differences between ordinary study and that done in prison. "Fred will not be in today because he has attempted to castrate himself," commented one note.

This puts extra demands on tutors. Notes and comments have to be very detailed and explicit. Simply getting in and out of a prison can take a lot of time. It is interesting to note, though, that dropout rates, which were very high, are now comparable to the outside world.

If we are truly open, then we must be open to everybody and that must include prisoners. As the 17th-century poet Richard Lovelock commented:

"Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage."

John Kirkaldy is an associate lecturer with the Open University.

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