Wife, teacher, prisoner: shining a light on women 'in' prison

30 Mar 2016

There are three groups of women ‘in prison’ I would like to shine a light on: families, women prisoners and staff.

The first women I came into contact with when I started working in prisons were the wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters who were visiting loved ones at HMP High Down in Surrey. One mother, whose young son had been taken into custody for the first time, arrived at the prison laden with her boy’s favourite home-cooked foods. She was devastated when we told her she couldn’t give them to him. The experience of going through the security searches, not understanding the many prison rules and procedures, and seeing her son struggling after his first night, was such a shock that she collapsed in the visitors’ centre.

Many prisoners say succeeding in education is the one thing they can do to show their families they are trying to turn their lives around, and these ‘hidden’ women and girls often provide valuable, but often unsung, support if they are given opportunities to.

One learner, who has taken on a range of courses through PET, told me he sends all his certificates to his Nan who has them proudly displayed on her wall - this gives him the motivation, he says, to keep spending his time constructively. Another prisoner, who found a talent for numbers in prison education classes, was funded by PET for part of his maths degree. It was his mother who helped get vital study resources to him - including a calculator that the prison had initially refused him access to.  

PET funds a large number of women in prison, who are motivated by their desire to create a brighter future for themselves and their children. They take on an array of courses, including business studies, fitness qualifications and vocational work. Some take part in arts-based projects, with organisations such as Clean Break, using drama and creative writing to help them explore traumatic event and create powerful performance pieces.

One woman PET funded for a distance learning course told us: “Your funding has been a great resource and propeller to re-directing negativity to positivity. Taking up courses in prison has been life transforming.”

 

Education in prison, in the community, and after release, can be a way to create a ‘safe space’ for women to discover new identities, talents, skills, friends, confidence and most importantly, hope.

The other women I have come into contact with in the world of prisons are the largely uncelebrated teachers, volunteers, librarians, managers, governors, officers and peer mentors.  At our annual Prisoner Learning Alliance award ceremony last year, we recognised some of these women nominated by prisoner learners.

Two teachers, Liza-Ann and Amanda, were nominated by a woman who entered prison not able to read or write.  Despite confessing to initially being “a nightmare” in class, she said Amanda and Liza-Ann: “Would not let me fail. They go out of their way to make you want to come to education to learn and I never thought I would ever say that.” Three prisoners nominated Sharon, their institution’s Open University coordinator. One learner said: “She is helping me put in the foundations for my future free from crime and heartache.” There is a great need for increased professional development for prison teachers and officers to help more staff to help more prisoners transform their lives and those of their families.

At this time of significant policy interest in prison education, we need to focus on all these groups of women; the families, the women prisoners and the staff, to improve its impact and to reduce re-offending, meaning fewer victims and safer communities for all.

Nina's blog was originally published in the 'All Women Everywhere' section of the Huffington Post.