04 October 2022
In this webinar, we are joined by Dr Helen Nichols, author of Understanding the Educational Experiences of Imprisoned Men, to talk about how education is used by men in prison to cope with prison life, to reconsider their identity and to develop and maintain relationships.
Pains and coping with time inside
Education can help prisoners to cope with ‘The Pains of Imprisonment’.
Art, for example, can alleviate isolation; help those experiencing mental illness; keep people focused; and help pass the time.
Passing the time well in prison is crucial, because being bored is not a trivial state of being. Being bored is potentially quite dangerous. People who have a propensity for boredom are more likely to experience illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Shaping and reshaping identity
In England and Wales, prisoners are seen as offenders whose risk of reoffending is the primary concern. If we see a person in prison as a ‘criminal’ or ‘offender’ then we risk education becoming too concerned with addressing behaviour (Costello and Warner, 2014).
This leads to the narrowing of educational aims, curriculum, activities, and methods, and negates learning that facilitates personal development in a broader sense. This is important, because education can give prisoners an opportunity to re-forge their identities; enhancing their best qualities and changing how they see themselves.
In an interview, ‘Mark’ spoke about writing poetry in his cell, and how ‘this allowed him to protect the private parts of his identity that he had deemed unsuitable for audience-facing performances in prison’.
Education and relationships
If we look at the educational experiences of prisoners, we can start to understand their relationships with schoolteachers, prison teachers, prison officers, and family.
In letters and interviews, prisoners spoke of desires to be more active in their children’s education, and to help with homework.
I believe education is “a gift”, for which I am extremely gratefull (sic). My youngest son is studying for a Marketing degree at … University and during a recent phone call he reminded me that we should both graduate at the same time if I get my head down and study hard?! So you see education not only offers opportunities for the future but it also brings families together. Gregory’s letter to PET
While at times research participants spoke about prison officers having a disciplinary role and prison teachers having an ‘enabling’ role, some prisoners referred to ‘that one officer’ who encouraged them to engage in education. This shows us that the role of prison officer and prison teacher is not black and white.
Helen explained why some may think of prison officers and prison teachers in that way, however. In the ‘safe space’ of the education department, teachers get to see prisoners as people. They don’t have to wear a uniform or lock prisoners in their cells and can be more openly caring.
Whereas officers see prisoners on the wings – a very different space – and therefore might find it difficult to imagine the more sensitive, vulnerable side to prisoners. Officers also carry the burden of knowing the crimes that prisoners have committed, and so might find it more difficult to view and treat them in more neutral ways.
Education and desistance
The education a person receives in prison can contribute to change, and transformation. Upon release, however, a former prisoner will face a new set of challenges. They may have changed, but are likely to remain stigmatised, and will need to continuously negotiate between identities.
Education can help prisoners and former prisoners to create a new identity for themselves, in which they feel confident and resilient enough to handle the challenges of release. Education alone does not necessarily lead to desistance from crime but, combined with other factors such as family support and self-reflection, it can contribute to it.
Q. While some prison officers are supportive of education, not all are. Do you think this is changing?
A. At the recent Prison Governors’ Association conference, distinctions were sometimes made between ‘traditional’ prison officers, and new recruits. It was argued that, in the past, prison officers developed over a long period of time, experience and ‘jail craft’ which enables them to balance care and compassion, with security. Today, however, prison officers are often less experienced. Governors hope that more attention will be given to the importance of that balance, in the training and mentoring of new officers.
Q. Does education in prison facilitate friendships too?
A. Helen delivered a higher education module in a high security prison, to a mixed classroom of ‘main’ and vulnerable prisoners. Outside of the education department, it would have been unlikely for ‘main’ prisoners to associate with vulnerable prisoners. This highlights the education department’s role as a ‘safe space’ and education as something that can bring people together.
If you’d like to get in touch with Dr Helen Nichols, you can do so at Helen.Nichols@hull.ac.uk.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023