02 December 2022
In this blog, PLA member Charlie Harrison draws on his lived experience to describe a change he would like to see in prison education, why, and what difference it would make.
Too many prisons keep people locked up for too long, unable to access education and other opportunities. Many people in prison have skills and knowledge that could support other prisoners. In this blog, Charlie makes some suggestions as to how we could expand education and support people to reach their full potential.
Education across the whole prison
I think there should always be something for a prisoner to work towards; thereby providing an incentive for good behaviour. Once trust has been established, greater freedoms could be permitted. This in itself is education. Education need not be confined to class based opportunities with a tutor. Moreover, the whole institution should be geared towards rewarding behaviour which we want to see more of, and sanctions for those displaying behaviours which are illegal, inappropriate or otherwise unwanted.
Supporting prisoners to contribute, and seeing potential
Different types of people, commit a broad range of different crimes, for all kinds of different reasons. Yet they’re all sent to the same place, given little or no positive interaction and expected to come out better. Statistics prove that the prison system in its current state is an expensive way to make people worse.
Does anyone consider what prisoners could contribute? Can they be trusted? Do they have a skill or knowledge that can be put to use and rewarded with extra freedom and privileges? Are they prepared to work? Can they motivate other prisoners to work by demonstrating the benefits and advantages of working and conforming to the rules?
What struck me quite early on during my experience of prison, was the amount of time that each man spent behind bars in his cell. What a waste. Being locked in a cell for 23 hours of the day should be the most punitive circumstances a prisoner finds himself in – this should not be the norm.
Education should be the silver lining to prison. A prisoner should be able to say “this is a really bad time for me, but at least I have the opportunity to better myself.” And if he doesn’t feel that way, there should be people working with him until he does. Otherwise the only benefit prison offers is that law abiding members of society get a break from the prisoner’s behaviour/offending.
Education as a meaningful use of time
Currently there are different categories of prison and of prisoner. I forget exactly, but I think prisons range from Category A to D, and you used to begin your time on ‘basic,’ then work your way up to ‘standard’ then ‘enhanced .’ ‘Enhanced ’ means you’re allowed to spend more money on the weekly canteen and allows you a games console. I was made an advanced prisoner, but so was the guy who took and sold drugs in the cell next door to me. I didn’t want a games console. I wanted the opportunity to do something meaningful.
As a qualified teacher, I could have taught anything from basic numeracy and literacy to English as a Foreign Language. What other skills and knowledge do other prisoners have that they could teach others?
Why aren’t prisons the cleanest institutions on the planet? All those prisoners who are locked up all day, without any meaningful purpose, and it can’t be arranged for them to clean the prison? I realise this isn’t education in the traditional sense, but it could be interpreted as such; teams of prisoners learning and demonstrating to others that a day’s work and some form of extra recreation at the end of the day was actually more rewarding and enjoyable than spending the day playing computer games.
Most of the prisoners I met had had the most awful starts to life. They’d endured extremely chaotic beginnings to life, witnessing domestic violence, drug addiction, alcoholism and neglect – and worse in some cases. So it’s no surprise that sometimes people end up in prison, with mental health issues and addictions of their own, and little capacity to help themselves out of the situation they’re in. I think the least the rest of us can do is to help them. Help could be in the form education, and offering opportunity and hope.
* This blog is an opinion piece by a PLA member and may not represent the views of all members. It is the fourth in a series – ‘A change I want to see in prison education’ – written by PLA members with lived experience of prison.
© Prisoner Learning Alliance 2023