'Education gives you a sense of pride and justice' - Ben's story
Making a change to your life comes down to opportunity. That's what I enjoyed about working with PET, because you give opportunity; you don't ask for anything.
I come from a very difficult background. My mother was depressed and she couldn't really work, and the police were after me for nicking food when I was young. I was incredibly angry as a teenager and a young man. I used violence and did a lot of horrible things I'm not happy about. But most of my friends were in similar situations - drug taking and selling drugs was normalised, it was just what you did. When I think back, we were trying to succeed in the circumstances given.
I’m 30 now, and I’ve been in prison twice. The first time, I was only 21 when I went in and I was still very, very angry. I used crime in prison and I saw a lot of violence. Needless to say I didn’t take education very seriously. But my second time in prison was different. I was older, I had been working. Going in again was a shock. Early on I saw someone commit suicide, and that changed me. I decided in that moment I was going to change for the better, and I started thinking seriously about what I was going to do when I got out, and started to think about my business plan. I wanted a better future for my children (when I decide to have some) and my family. I found out about distance learning, and applied to do AS Level Business with Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET).
Just accessing education gives you a sense of pride and justice - you feel as though someone has given you a chance.
I loved the experience of distance learning. It made me feel like I wasn't in prison anymore. You know how sometimes you walk into a library and you feel a change of atmosphere? It's almost like that in your own cell. Suddenly you're interested, you’re engaged, you’re using your brain, you're talking to a tutor. All of those things are extremely positive and self motivating. It transforms you.
When I got in to Guys Marsh prison, no one was facilitating the distance learning process and helping students. The more I spoke to some of the other lads, the more realised how empathetic I was about the plight of some of them. I had so much energy and thought I should use it in a positive way, which is why I decided to apply for the job of Distance Learning Orderly. That sort of job is normally given to the 'safe' people, who haven't come from the same social situation as I did - I was very lucky to get it considering my past behaviour in prison, and it hit at exactly the right time.
I was literally dragging the blokes out of bed; slapping the drugs out of their hands.
I worked at encouraging people to learn, giving them reasons to do it and telling them they were capable, basically. I designed a poster that was put up around the wings, produced leaflets showing an overview of the courses that were available, devised planners to help students manage study time, and put together end of month reviews for the staff to use. I would link people up, making sure kitchen staff knew they could do a qualification in catering, for example. I was literally dragging the blokes out of bed; slapping the drugs out of their hands. I became quite notorious!
There’s a serious lack of resources in prison, and I’m not just talking access to computers or the internet, but access to pens, pencils, envelopes. Vulnerable inmates wouldn’t be able to take part in education because they couldn’t leave their cells, but staff wouldn’t give them pen or paper to work independently. I would try to get on to wings to deliver materials and staff would try and stop me. So I’d have to explain how important education was, how it reduces violence and mental health issues and how fundamental it was to our rehabilitation.
What encouraged me to continue my work was the difference I saw education make to myself and to other people around me. We were interviewing people, asking them what they wanted to do, asking them what their relevant skills were. We built a culture of people who were learning, who wanted to learn. What I'm telling you now isn't anything imaginative - it’s just common sense. If you want someone to make a change you try and find out what motivates them, you explore it with them and then follow it up. That's the important thing, following up and making sure the support is ongoing. In jail the thing you need the most is a prospect of hope. If you have goals, why would you do drugs? If you have something to lose, why would you commit more crime? Just accessing education gives you a sense of pride and justice - you feel as though someone has given you a chance.
Prison should be a place where people feel safe, so it can be a place of learning and rehabilitation. At the moment it’s none of these things.
There’s always going to be a need for some people to be locked up, but the simple, overriding problem with prisons is that they make you worse. Is that what we want as a society? For someone to go into prison and come out more violent with more mental health issues, having seen traumatic events? I'd like to think I'm a strong person but some of the trauma I've witnessed is just horrific. I saw a huge amount of suffering among the men. Some of them don't even realise how badly they are affected by the institutions that they're in. That makes me sad, when I see these blokes who feel they've got no hope, they're using drugs and education is not being provided or followed up. That is criminal. These people are dying to be free and socially mobile, but they have nothing to aim for.
A lot of officers put it down to ‘prison culture’ and say it can’t be stopped, but we need to change that. We need to involve key staff and prisoners, people who have respect and who can influence people. We need to trust them. It needs to be instilled within prison that this is where you learn, that it is a safe place and you will receive some support. Prison staff need to value education. If they value it, it will filter down. Prison should be a place where people feel safe, so it can be a place of learning and rehabilitation. At the moment it’s none of these things.
I came out of prison 3 months ago. When I first left I didn’t have a job, I was living in a hostel. But I had a business plan I’d been working on for a while – to buy second-hand HGVs (Heavy Goods Vehicles), recondition and sell the parts. I received a grant from PET that got me up and running with a laptop and printer. Now I’ve received a further loan and training from the Princes’ Trust and am applying for a bank loan. I’ve also found paid work, which means I could move out of the hostel. It’s going to be hard but, but it’s a fresh start and I’m full steam ahead with the business idea.
I will pay tax, work hard and hopefully one day be in a position to help others. Not just prisoners but anyone regardless of classor ethnicity who need help or want to fulfil their potential. I will be included and valued in society. This is how I will give back and repent for the crimes I have done. Being locked up for 16 to 22 hours a day and not included in the communities they will one day be released into does not work in regards to rehabilitation.
Making a change to your life comes down to opportunity. That's what I enjoyed about working with PET, because you give opportunity; you don't ask for anything. PET was just phenomenal, helping so many people.
I am really positive now about mine and my family’s future. Education has opened so many doors for me and I can only thank the charitable donations and kind people who facilitate adult learning in prisons.
Ben will be speaking as part of a panel at the PET Annual Lecture on 11 July. To register click here.
PET funds over 2,000 prisoners a year to complete distance learning courses up to degree level. To help a person like Ben make the best of their time in prison and life after release visit http://www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/donate