Wandsworth governor: I’ll consider yoga, scaffolding and a tattoo parlour in my prison

29 Sep 2016

“Whether they are with us for a week, a month or a year, we want every single person to learn something every single day.”

The governor of Wandsworth prison has said he would take advantages of his new freedoms to push the boundaries of what is possible in prison.

Speaking at the Prisoner Learning Alliance conference in Cardiff, Ian Bickers said he was in discussions to build a scaffolding tower, offer yoga classes and even instal a tattoo parlour within Wandsworth, which is the UK’s biggest jail.

“My principle is pushing boundaries,” he said. “I do it to engage prisoners, to make a change and see a difference.”

Wandsworth was named as one of the government’s six ‘reform’ prisons in the last Queen’s speech, meaning Bickers has an unusual amount of autonomy for a governor, including control over his own budget.

“When they asked me if I wanted to be a reform governor, I didn’t ask what they meant, I just said ‘yes - I’ll do it’,” he said. “I had understood enough - that they were going to give me the money and let me get on with it.”

Bickers said he sees education as the best way to rehabiliate the men within his prison.

“I was really keen that as a reform prison we put education at the centre of everything we do,” he said. “Whether they are with us for a week, a month or a year, we want every single person to learn something every single day.”

Before Wandsworth was named a reform prison, Bickers said he felt had “hugely constrained by an organisation that had centralised itself”. As a reform governor however, he said he is “shocked” by the degree of freedom afforded him.

His plans include opening up access to IT and the internet in his prison. To do this, he said he will follow the examples from mainstream education, looking at how schools use firewalls to limit and monitor what websites students have access to.“If schools can do it, why can’t prisons?” he asked.

Bickers said he had a raft of businesses, schools and colleges “falling over themselves” to get involved in Wandsworth. He plans, for example, to team up with London restaurants to open a cookery school within the grounds.

“Push forward, and a lot of times you’ll find you’re pushing against an open door.”

Bickers admitted that his discussion of a tattoo parlour was likely to unnerve people at the government’s National Offender Management Service, but assured the audience that prisoners would not practice on each other.

“Anyone who’s been inside a prison will meet men who are excellent artists,” he said. “It makes sense to find a way to use and develop that skill. After all, you can earn more running a tattoo parlour than you do as a prison governor!”

As the sector waits for the government to enact legislation on prison reform, he urged other governors to follow his radical approach. “Don’t wait for someone to knock on your door and say ‘Ta-ra! Reforms are here!” said. “Push forward, and a lot of times you’ll find you’re pushing against an open door.”

Education, said Bickers had “changed his life”. At 14, he said, he “preferred messing around to learning” and was pulled aside by a PE teacher who told him “You, Mr Bickers, are going the wrong way,” and encouraged him to take up running to keep him out of trouble.

Since then, he said, he had had an unwavering belief in the ability of education to transform identities and lives, and is determined to pass this on to the men in his care.

From graduates to prison officers 

“Graduates should be thinking ‘I want to be a prison officer because I could be able to change lives’"

Bickers was one of 150 sector experts at today’s PLA conference, who included prison staff, policy makers, charity workers and former prisoners. Panellists discussed the sweeping changes to prison education that Dame Sally Coates called for last year, and their future under a new Justice Secretary.

The conference also heard from Bodil Isakden, programme director at Unlocked Graduates, the government’s new scheme to attract university leavers to become prison officers.

Isakden called officers “unsung hereos”, who do an incredibly difficult and important jobs “without the recognition that doctors or lawyers would get”.

In such a role, said Isakden, even a “tiny conversation could make a huge difference”.

“Graduates should be thinking ‘I want to be a prison officer because I could be able to change lives’,” she said. “It can be an amazing career, and what we need are enthused and motivated people to make a difference.”

Like the Teach First scheme, graduates would receive training as they go along and would be expected to stay in the profession for two years. They would start as basic grade prison officers and would earn a Masters at the same time.

After this, said Isakden, they might continue in the prison service, might join the Ministry of Justice, or might go into the private sector.  In this way, she said, the Unlocked scheme could help to create “more Timpsons” - businesses that were open to employing former prisoners.

Contextualised learning in Scotland

"It's sneaky teaching at its best"

Meanwhile, Katharine Brash, who is heads prison work at Scottish education provider Fife College, painted a picture of the state of custodial education north of the border. She focused on Polmont Young Offenders’ Institute, where there had been a conscious drive to change the way education is delivering, making it more engaging and inclusive for young people.

“For me what makes Polmont stand out is that there has been a real drive towards positive change,” she said. “Learning spaces are much more inviting and lessons are shorter. There is a realisation that we have to move away from silo working, and we’ve adopted a whole-prison approach with all staff working together to help each individual.”

Polmont has completely abandoned traditional timetables and is teaching all core skills through ‘contextualised learning’, said Brash, meaning students take on large-scale projects on topics such as Brexit, the Celts and World War I boy soldiers, which develop multiple skills at once.

A project on The Holocaust culminated in an event that was planned, prepared and hosted by the boys themselves, who displayed poetry and created 100 felt flowers attached to luggage tags to commemorate Holocaust victims. There were 100 attendees from the community, to whom the boys each gave a 20-minute presentations. All of this contributed to a formal accreditation for work across a number of subjects.

“It was not an easy task but it had a huge impact on learners,” said Katharine. “Those directly involved continued to read about the subject long after the project had ended.”

Feedback about the new approach has been very positive, said Katharine, with one boy remarking that “It teaches us about things we didn’t think we were interested in”. The initiative, she concluded, was an example of “sneaky teaching at its best”.

Read PET’s report on education in youth justice here.

The PLA conference was kindly hosted by Cardiff Metropolitan University, where the Widening Access team are committed to encouraging and supporting former prisoners to study degrees.