Life in the beyond – a learner’s view of enabling environments

Lesley, 60, recently finished serving a 27-month sentence. During her time in prison she was funded by Prisoners’ Education Trust to complete a course in Project Management. A former teacher, Lesley developed an interest in how to create an ‘enabling environment’ – a place that is supportive and nurturing for its inhabitants. 

The initial shock of going to prison didn’t throw me as much as it did other people - having spent the good part of 30 years working in boarding schools, I suppose I was quite institutionalised. By the time I was sentenced I was divorced, and didn’t have any children. I had no strings attached, which in a way was lucky. One of my first impressions of prison was that it wasn’t run or managed as efficiently as I imagined it would be. The staff would tend to make a lot of little transgressions, but when you’d expect them to come down more harshly, they didn’t. Let’s just say that they could have learnt a lot from running a boarding school!

I was unusual in that I came into prison with Bachelors and Masters Degrees. Even so, while I was waiting to get a prison job, I enrolled in some classes run by the education department - creative writing money management, IT, arts and crafts, for example. The tutors did their best to deliver the courses but the problem was that you had ladies of all ages, from different socio-economic, cultural and educational backgrounds, all lumped together in one class. Because of the size of the groups, and because a number of the ladies had been disaffected by their school experience or lack of opportunities, there was a lot of disruption, which made it really difficult to focus and get anything out of the courses.

Further on into my sentence, I became a reading mentor for the Shannon Trust, but was then headhunted by the prison education department to work as the in-cell mentor. This role required me to construct individual learning packages for the ladies who were unable to come up to education department for either health or behaviour reasons, giving these ladies the opportunity to fill their time with a purposeful activity. I also assisted the tutors with their lesson plans and presentations.

There was a distinct divide in the ladies’ attitude towards education. Those who already had a good foundation and positive experience of education outside custody had a more positive attitude when they came in and wanted to continue to learn new skills. But those who came into custody disillusioned by their previous educational experience struggled to see the relevance of any educational course. Of course, there were also some from disadvantaged backgrounds who took advantage of the opportunities offered to them in custody but because of the high turnover at Bronzefield, it was hard for them to really commit to a course beyond those offered by the education department.

I wanted to carry on studying when I was in prison - I’m 60 now but I believe in life-long learning. I hold an MA in Educational Leadership and Management, and I know that my strengths are planning and managing. However, I wanted to take the opportunity to extend my management skills and so I was advised to apply for a PET Level 3 Diploma in Project Management. I thought this would allow me to build on my existing knowledge and experience and give me skills that I would be able to utilise on release.

Learning from your cell definitely comes with challenges. Trying to get information is a big issue – I had to create and design four projects without any internet, using a library that simply didn’t stock any books on management. I was very reliant on people outside to help me find information and this proved to be very unreliable! Recognising these difficulties, I started to help other ladies who were enrolled in PET courses, helping them with assignments – giving them basic advice on study skills and proofreading their work.

While I was taking the course, one of the house blocks at Bronzefield was working towards the enabling environment accreditation. I began to help with this – working with prison staff to put together a ‘portfolio’ of evidence which needs to be submitted to gain the accreditation. In so doing, I was applying the skills I had developed during my course to ‘project manage’ an ‘enabling environment’.

There are lots of factors that go into creating and sustaining an enabling environment – a sense of belonging, establishing boundaries, supportive communication, etc. However, you can put in place all the policies and procedures that you like but in the end but really it comes down to human relations. If you believe that someone is really concerned about your wellbeing, you’re more likely to develop on a personal level. It is a two-way process, so it is equally important for both parties to take responsibility for the wellbeing of the other. On a human level, even though I’m an ex-offender and you might not be, the fact I ask ‘are you ok?’ and show interest and concern about you as a fellow human being is important.

At the moment, I don’t think either prison staff or the ladies are making the most of their environment. The staff need to buy into the idea of an enabling environment being as much for them as it is for those in custody. Equally, if the ladies see that the staff are genuinely trying to support them, they will be are prepared to work with them. For those in custody, being part of an establishment with a supportive, enabling environment means they carry a positive mind set with them after custody.   

I was released on licence in December 2015. The following month, I was invited to a conference organised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and I delivered my presentation entitled “From Bronzefield, to Bedford and… Beyond”. I talked about how a seemingly adverse environment - a closed prison - had still enabled me to be standing in front of them. But I left my audience with a question: “What’s going to happen to me now I’m now at the “Beyond” stage?”

It’s all very well receiving an education in prison, but we also have to think about “How is this going to help those coming out of custody?” Otherwise, what’s the point? Now, I see my role as explaining to organisations that are prepared to work with ex-offenders how they can support these people by becoming an enabling environment. Organisations and businesses are crucial at the ‘beyond’ stage: they have the power to help ex-offenders on the next stage of their journey. Enabling organisations can assist in reintegration, helping former prisoners to earn money, become useful members of society and not reoffend.

You can read more about the Enabling Environment Award here.