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Turning over a New Leaf

Gareth Evans, about 2 months ago

For many people, thinking about education in prisons conjures images of lessons in 'how to tie fishing nets' or 'fold cardboard boxes'. It might surprise you, then, to learn that there is so much that motivated people in prisons can do to make amends and become better people. In this series of blogs on education in prisons, we will shine a light on the range of levels, needs and subject areas that are being made available to those who want to change their lives, positively.

It is shocking that there are about 5 million people in England alone who struggle to read and write. What is, perhaps, less shocking is that there is a disproportionate percentage of illiterate people in our prisons. Prison education goes some way to addressing these needs and there is a growing focus on providing education which meets the needs of a whole range of prisoners. Each prison has a contract with a local education provider, whose job it is to - amongst other things- facilitate adult literacy and numeracy tests. People can enter prison with poor functional skills and leave with GCSE equivalent qualifications

The landscape of prison education is much more diverse than this, though. Many industry-specific courses can be found up and down the country: from industrial cleaning, brick-laying and plumbing to horticulture, ICT and professional cooking. These are often run in conjunction with numeracy and literacy and offer some clear structure to structuring of how someone with minimal academic experience can shape a prospective career.

There are, however, many other considerations to be had when trying to move away from crime. For around 15 years, for example, one trust has been providing mentor training for people who can read in prisons to help those who cannot. Also, The Open University have been meeting the needs of students studying every level (from access-to-higher education courses to doctorates), whilst serving sentences in custody. Programmes addressing how to teach people who have often experienced disruptive school lives or had undiagnosed barriers to learning are happening in many prisons. People who never thought they could get a good grade - or even spell their own names- are turning their lives around. People who, before prison, had failed to find direction are finding their callings in academia.

The extent of the potential development available to (and frequently accessed by) prisoners cannot be underestimated. When people finally experience the connectedness and self-confidence that studying can provide, despite past schooling encounters, it tends to ignite a desire to understand their interests in the most in-depth ways. Advanced degrees give a further window into a subject that connects people to the world through curiosity and expertise. What is more, people who have studied in prison have, quite possibly, done so in a more studious and diligent way. The isolation and lack of distraction means students in prison are attentive to their studies in a way that is not always possible in traditional universities.

In this series we will demonstrate how small and national projects alike are providing portals for prisoners to transform their lives and we will hear from one or two who know what that transformation feels like. Myths and presumptions might be challenged when you read about how many people go on to do so many amazing things precisely because of education in prisons.