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In Conversation: Education and Employment

Sophie O'Sullivan, about 4 months ago

In March, The Prisoner's Education Trust (PET) hosted an enlightening talk by Dr Jamie Bennett about the transformational potential of prisoner education. PET supports an impressive 3,000 prisoners every year with higher level distance learning. These individuals are 25% less likely to reoffend and 26% more likely to be employed upon release.

I loved the experience of distance learning. It made me feel like I wasn't in prison anymore. You know how sometimes you walk into a library and you feel a change of atmosphere? It's almost like that in your own cell. Suddenly you're interested, you're engaged, you're using your brain, you're talking to a tutor. All of those things are extremely positive and self-motivating. It transforms you.

-Ben, Mechanic and Former Prisoner

Recently, on the blog, we collaborated with The Longford Trust, who offer scholarships and mentor support to individuals who have been through the criminal justice system. Organisations like PET and The Longford Trust recognise education as a route through which people can change their lives for the better. By providing educational opportunities, they act as a building block, boosting employability and future prospects of an ex-offender.

If education is the engine of social mobility, it is also an engine of rehabilitation.

- Dame Sally Coates, 2016

During the speech, Jamie spoke about some of the prisoners he has worked with as previous governor of HMP SpringHill, HMP Grendon and current governor of HMP Long Lartin. Stephen was a prisoner in HMP SpringHill in his early 20s. Now, he is currently studying a PhD with the Open University (who are celebrating their 50thanniversary this year). He is also employed by the OU as a regional manager working in secure environments. James was a prisoner at HMP Springhill and went onto to complete a degree in sports science with the OU and he now works in a gym as a personal trainer. Mark, another former prisoner at HMP Springhill, studied with the OU and now is a full-time campaigner for the Prison Reform Trust. These diverse examples show ex-offenders who have taken on great personal challenges that require discipline, courage and determination- characteristics which are actively sought by employers to benefit business.

Being in the right environment made a difference, but it also gave me structure and routine. Today I continue many of the same habits I adopted in prison as it keeps me grounded.

-Dave, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of York (Dave studied with the OU while serving a prison sentence)

Jamie mentioned the role that partner organisations and universities play in expanding the range of educational opportunities available within prisons. Many offer courses that act as bridge between college and degree level.

Prison-university partnerships like Learning Together break down barriers and help people not only see their potential but also see their privilege. That has the power not just to change individuals but to change worlds.

-Dr Jamie Bennet, Prison Governor and Research Associate at University of Oxford

Learning Together partnerships provide higher education opportunities for people within and without criminal justice organisations to study together. In 2017, they expanded their programme and offered a 'Literary Criticism' course in the English Faculty at the University of Cambridge for the first time. There were ten students from Cambridge, including myself, and ten students from HMP Grendon, along with a number of academics and PhD students.

Each week a guest lecturer from Cambridge or Oxford gave an informal talk on a plethora of topics from performance, politics, visual art to religion and loss. This was followed by group discussion and, my favourite part, the highly anticipated tea and biscuit break.

The social element of the course was really important because we were able to illicit interesting discussions and to be academically challenged in a supportive, trusting environment. Tom was a brilliant writer and performed his poetry to the entire group. Gavin kept me updated about the acrylic painting he was working on outside of class time. We met in the library, which had painted books on the walls and quotations from famous authors. The room reflected our collective ambition to explore literary theory and learn well together.

We each wrote a 1500-word essay on a topic of our choice. At the end of the course, Learning Together hosted a Celebration of Achievement. The graduation ceremony marked successful completion and builds a culture where achievement is valued in the prison community. Additionally, the certificate represents the journey a student had been through and what achieving this qualification meant to them.

The Exceptionals is a social campaign. We aim to inspire and inform businesses to employ people with convictions. This social momentum for change is inclusive of education. Education is a means through which offenders can start to think differently, imagine an alternative path and gain new skills to enable them to reach this new destination. Education and employment go hand in hand.

This course [Principles of Horticulture] will help me to maximise my chances of gaining eventual employment or securing a voluntary placement as I approach open conditions and eventual release.

-Paul, prisoner supported by PET

Click here to find out how to get more involved with the PET and stay tuned for their next event.