A prisoner describes his distance learning coordinator role

Al, a long sentenced prisoners, describes a role he has taken on assisting education staff as a prison Distance Learning Coordinator:

“I work in the education department as an administrator for my main job, doing filing, flyers and general admin. I also help with the Careers Advice Service, sending out appointments, photocopying and so on.

As coordinator I deal with all the distance learning applications and administration that comes in from my fellow prisoners, ranging from art material grant requests up to Open University (OU) student loan applications.

I try to offer a complete service to advertise and support students moving on to further study. The job really created itself. On arrival here I was applying for my next OU courses. The provision at the time was limited to say the least, with a member of staff tasked to provide support without any allocated hours. Applications went unanswered for weeks. I missed the deadline for applying to my course with all seven of my applications arriving at once, stapled together with a ‘sorry, too late’ reply on top. There was a need for a dedicated member of staff with allocated hours to take control of the whole distance learning system.

The real impetus for change came from an inspection visit, where distance learning provision was highlighted as being substandard. A new staff member was put in post to take over. Unfortunately she did not have any experience of the OU process, or further education in general. I was known as a vocal supporter of education in general and had some experience of the whole scheme and so I was offered a support role (unpaid) as Distance Learning Coordinator to help her get the department up and running. I helped draft policy documents, fought for IT access, handled paperwork and provided a crash course in degree classifications.

I began to give a talk to new inductees telling them about the distance learning opportunities that they could access. As part of the education department induction process I speak to all new arrivals. I hand out a guide to what courses and grants are available and give a short, inspirational talk, on the benefits of expanding their educational horizons. I point out the benefits further qualifications bring in a whole range of areas, not least for the Parole board and prospective employers. I say: “By taking on further study you are showing that you have a commitment to change that goes beyond just talking about it and that you are backing up your words with action. You are investing in your own future.”

I also make the point that education in prison via education departments can only go so far. We get a lot of long term prisoners here, most of whom have reached the Level 2 “wall” earlier in their sentences. They now have the opportunity, thanks to PET, to get qualifications that will make a real difference by deepening and widening their understanding and skills. Usually I find the guys are receptive to the message, especially when I ask around about what areas they need skills upgrades in. As this is an open resettlement prison, practical courses and qualifications are particularly popular, especially if you can show a link between qualification and employment or wages.

I also promote the OU, both to advertise it and to find out if there are any continuing students. We have a good support team here and any new student, once they have got over the shock of not having the Virtual Campus, can get a great deal of help and support from other students. What is quite surprising are the number of students we get starting their degree courses at this point in their sentences. I think this is because they see it as a bridge activity that they can take from inside to outside, a bit of constancy in a time of change.

I think my biggest contribution is to the other prisoners themselves. It means that their primary contact is a fellow con rather than an authority figure from the staff. It helps to develop rapport rapidly. They are more likely to open up about challenges and dreams. I do my best to be open and professional in the advice I give them and I try to be as realistic as possible about what career choices will be available to them in the future. All of this rests of having a good relationship with the Head of Learning and Skills who has trusted me with the post.

One real problem at this point is the courses that we can’t offer as funding is unavailable. We can do academic but there is a shortfall in provision to be able to offer licences and vocational training. Plant machinery needs specific industrial training licences nowadays, as does agricultural machinery. These courses are reasonably expensive and I can’t get funding for the guys except on an ad hoc case by case basis. One avenue that we were quite hopeful of was to use the 24+ career development loan to fund things such as gas safe training and registration. These would have been excellent, as they would have shown prisoners investing in their own futures to find employment and stable lives. I am not sure how this could be resolved without government funding, but it remains a stumbling block for prisoners trying to get industrial qualifications.

From my own experience, studying with the OU in prison is one of the very best things that you can do. It’s not for everyone but it really is surprising what you can achieve if you put the effort in. The OU is used to non standard students and has everything in place to help you achieve things that you never thought you could. I was offered the chance to start my own degree course early on in my sentence and I have to admit I already had a degree in literature. I decided to look at a new area, sociology, to help me to understand the world around me a bit better.

There were many reasons I decided to take on six years of work. I was at a very low point emotionally. I had lost everything I had and, as it turned out, everyone that I knew. My self esteem and feelings of self worth were non existent. I thought that a structured course of learning with regular goals would help build me up again. I also began to gain a sense of achievement over the years that I was still worth something, outside of the prison regime. I was included in the world, not isolated and forgotten. I found a place passing on my experience and knowledge and began to have a sense of pride in seeing others blossom and grow as they stepped out of the narrow confines that their life experiences had trapped them in. The change I gave seen in people as they complete their studies is nothing short of life changing. They have understanding and from this confidence that no amount of prison time could have given them. Reoffending simply isn’t an option anymore.

My degree illustrates this perfectly. When I came in I was lonely and alone. On the day itself, staff and tutors who had taught me turned up from all over the UK to celebrate my achievement. I had made new friends who accepted me for who I am and saw that I still had something to offer the world. That was more valuable to me than my Degree certificate!

Now I am in the process of taking an MA postgraduate degree. It’s taken three years to get onto and a lot of effort to bring everything together across three establishments. I am finding it hard and IT access is still a problem but I am learning and I am succeeding. It’s another three years hard slog but I feel liberated by what I am learning.

I also advise about PET’s art materials grants. These are a great help for many prisoners who don’t have the means to get art materials. I was helped to buy calligraphy material, a hobby I have had for years. The things I produce are just for me. They’re not the best in the world by any means but I like doing them and they make me a happier person for creating them.

To finish, none of what I have described could, or would, be possible without the Prisoners’ Education Trust. They are the engine that feeds all this creativity, learning, aspiration and hope. They do a vital job in our prisons by supporting those that the outside world has given up on. Every Graduate, every artist, everyone who gained a little more competency and control over their lives doing a PET supported course should give thanks that there are a group of people out there who believe in us enough to put money where their mouth is to help achieve our goals."