"Support comes in many different ways in this type of environment, from a simple hello to a newcomer to helping someone write a letter.” – Oluseun, Peer Mentor Winner 2017
Since 2015, the PLA awards have recognised outstanding educators in the prison system - be they officers, teachers, librarians, governors or peer mentors. The awards are unique in that every single nomination comes from a serving prisoner. In 2017, the PLA received over 400 nominations.
Lord John Bird with prison librarian Fiona Hodgson
On 13 September, the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) held its fourth annual awards for staff and mentors making a real difference in prison education. Held at Manchester Metropolitan University as part of the PLA annual conference, the awards are unique with all nominations coming from people in prison.
This year the PLA received a record 1300 nominations, over three times more than in 2017. There were fifteen winners on the night across five categories, including outstanding teachers and education staff, officers, peer mentors, individuals, and staff working in the young people’s estate.
Lord Bird MBE, a crossbench peer in the House of Lords and founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue, was on hand to congratulate the winners. Presenting the awards, Lord Bird said, “It's brilliant to celebrate world-class people changing thinking inside the prison box. PLA members appreciate the enormous value of education in transforming prisoners' lives. The power of prison learning should be rooted at the heart of penal reform.”
“He made me realise my true potential."
This year marked the introduction of the Prison Educator of the Year award, presented by the Worshipful Company of Educators’ Trust. Representatives from the organisation had the tough task of choosing the winner, who would not only receive a cash prize but also attend an Annual Awards dinner in a prestigious London livery hall.
The inaugural award went to Stephen Rogers, one of the three winners in the Teacher category. Stephen has taught at long-term, high-security prison HMP Whitemoor for 15 years, running the successful ‘Fathers Inside’ programme which teaches men parenting skills. He was nominated by 15 different prisoners, who noted that he visits men in segregation every day to make sure they don’t miss out on education. One wrote, “He made me realise my true potential and helped me set goals for my future life. What a great inspiration he is for all.”
On receiving the award, Stephen said: “Just getting the odd thank you from guys makes it worthwhile. For me personally that's a very good feeling; letting them know they've got someone looking out for them."
Fiona Hodgson, a librarian at local prison HMP Birmingham, was one of the winners of the Other Individual category. Nominators wrote about her response to the library being damaged during riots. She “worked overtime” to clean glass and building debris from the books, so the library could re-open. Fiona said she was “amazed and gobsmacked” to have won. “It's nice to know that what you're doing makes a difference and that people are getting something out it, that it's appreciated.”
“He’s got the skills that would make an ideal candidate for working with ex-offenders. I would employ him in a heartbeat if I were allowed!”
The three winners of the young people’s estate category included Louiza Nener, an employability teacher at HMP/YOI Feltham, who shows the young men there how to apply for a job, write a CV and communicate effectively. She told us: “At family days we speak to parents and show what their son has been doing. It's always positive. The wider effect education can have on family relationships, motivating the boys, is huge.”
Among the 15 winners were three serving prisoners, who won in the Peer Mentor category. Josh is HMP Ranby's only education red band, meaning he can move around the prison to talk to someone who hasn’t attended a class, or isn’t able to leave their wing. He chairs the prison’s council of mentors and promotes education in induction sessions. Karen Carr, Ranby’s Head of Education, confirmed Josh as a worthy winner: “He’s got the skills that would make an ideal candidate for working with ex-offenders. I would employ him in a heartbeat if I were allowed!”
“I look up to him as a good role model and like a father figure.”
20 separate prisoners wrote in to nominate Kevin, an education orderly at foreign national prison HMP Maidstone. Kevin helps prisoners at every stage of their learning journey – from learning to read to completing a degree. His aim after release is to set up a social enterprise that helps tackle gang-related violence.
Stephen, the third and final Peer Mentor winner, works with men in catering at HMP Portland and helps support people with substance misuse issues. The words of one nominator summed up Stephen’s inspiring work: “I look up to him as a good role model and like a father figure.” Speaking to the Manchester conference, Stephen said the awards were like the “prison Oscars” and thanked staff and the PLA for their support.
Congratulations to all this year’s winners who are going the extra mile to promote learning in prison and a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to nominate.