Hope for convicts via fashion outreach

Students work with female prisoners on The Beauty’s Inside project

November 7, 2013

Source: Rex Features

Catwalk correction: the London College of Fashion has encouraged female inmates to take a different path

The celebrity-lined catwalks in Paris, Milan or New York are where you might imagine London College of Fashion students making their mark.

But young designers from the college, whose graduates include industry names such as Jimmy Choo, Patrick Cox and William Tempest, are also working to great effect in a far less glamorous location: a women’s prison on the outskirts of Woking.

Since last year, 11 students from the institution, part of the University of the Arts London, have visited HMP Send in Surrey, a closed women’s training prison, to help inmates write, illustrate and produce a fashion magazine for other female prisoners.

And it seems that the college is a rare example of a higher education institution working with prisoners.

On the project, which involves 10 inmates working over 10 weekly workshops, the students helped to create a publication, The Beauty’s Inside, featuring writing and photographs by prisoners.

The unusual alliance of tomorrow’s fashion designers and today’s female convicts might surprise some, but both parties have benefited hugely from the experience, explains Frances Corner, head of the college.

Students are forced to think harder about their craft, fashion markets and how to communicate their ideas to different audiences, while prisoners take pride in producing a product to call their own, she says.

Fashion also provides a good way to engage prisoners – notoriously hard-to-reach students – in education, adds Corner, whose collaboration with the prison began with jacket-making courses two years ago.

“You can’t make a garment if you can’t add up or measure properly, while communication is very important in fashion,” she says. “So you end up being sucked into doing lots of educational things without realising it.” The garment-making project “was also about building self-esteem and confidence, which is where clothes can really help, too”.

Building on the success of that earlier initiative, The Beauty’s Inside has helped to encourage inmates’ creativity and their ability to think of themselves as something other than “prisoner”, Corner says.

So far, the results have been encouraging. Four of the 10 women who took part applied to enter or began further or higher education upon release, with one applying to the LCF and another to do fine art at a sister college.

Funded by the Sir John Cass Foundation, the scheme is also being considered for possible expansion to other prisons (some 4,000 of the UK’s 88,000 prisoners are women) by the Ministry of Justice.

“Fashion is a really transformative force and it can be accessed by everyone,” says Corner.

Chalk-and-talk failures

While the college’s admittedly small-scale scheme may provide a way to help some prisoners engage with higher education, most convicts remain extremely difficult to reach: interaction with universities remains limited, says former prison governor David Wilson, now professor of criminology at Birmingham City University.

When universities do engage, innovative ways of teaching – such as the college’s – are required to reach inmates with few qualifications and, often, undiagnosed learning difficulties, he explains.

“Many offenders have been failed by traditional chalk-and-talk methods,” Wilson says.

With many lacking basic communication skills, education can often focus on teaching them how to learn or to express themselves more than the subject itself.

“It is sometimes the first time someone has ever spent time listening to them in a meaningful way,” Wilson adds.

Investing in prisoner education also remains a low priority for most politicians, particularly if it could be seen as coming at the expense of other parts of the education sector, he adds.

That point was underlined last month by Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, who highlighted cuts of £246 million in rehabilitation services in 2012-13 after similar retrenchment the previous year.

“Too many prisoners spend too long in their cells with nothing constructive to do, and when they are in classes or work, these are often of insufficient quality,” Hardwick says in the chief inspector’s annual review of the prison system.

“Equipping prisoners with the skills, habits and attitudes they need to get and hold down a job is an essential part of the rehabilitation process.”

No place for amateurs

So can universities do more to fill the gap left by budget cuts, perhaps with innovative outreach projects like those run by the college?

Wilson, who worked in the prison system for 14 years, is not so sure the task can be taken on by enthusiastic amateurs.

“It is a tricky specialist type of teaching and, in this field, The Open University is the unsung hero,” he says, warning the academy “not to play around” with the institution’s successful model.

Wilson says that the university is “at the forefront of this type of education” and has had an enormous effect, not just on learning, but also in the way it changes the offender’s self-narrative.

“If an offender can describe themselves as an Open University graduate rather than a murderer or a bank robber, it makes a huge difference to someone on release,” he argues.

But persuading prisoners who are capable of taking degrees to do so has become harder, not least because inmates, like all students, will be asked to take out student loans to cover tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year, says Helen Maxwell, head of The Open University’s offender learning programme.

With justifiable fears about future earnings, offenders are unwilling to take out large loans they may never be able to repay, she adds.

Although in reality it is the government that takes the risk of low graduate wages (with loan repayments starting only once annual earnings are above £21,000 and with debts being written off after 25 years), the perception is another matter.

Sadly, it seems that higher fees may be another reason why higher education remains out of reach for so many prisoners.


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