International lessons in prison education

At our Annual Lecture on Monday 4 June, visionary prison leaders from Denmark, the US and the UK shared their perspectives on how a learning culture can blossom in the toughest environments. From co-produced activity to gaining credibility with staff and prisoners, the ambition of the night was to share these global ideas and inspire governors in England as they take greater control of education budgets.

Introducing the event, chair and PET Trustee Simon Scott set the tone for the evening, saying: “We need to start thinking about how the values of the governor are translated into education provision in prison.”

Read on for excerpts from the talks on the night.

In the illuminating Q&A session that followed, a former prison learner shared his thoughts on how a culture of respect can foster a learning environment.  “Being called by my first name meant I felt comfortable and welcome doing education,” he said.

The evening also touched on opening up the use of technology in prisons. While some of the panel raised doubts as to whether people committing certain offences would ever be allowed access to the internet, Criminal Justice Alliance Director and former PET Head of Policy Nina Champion said monitored access to the technology, was essential in preparing people for release.  “We need to look at the risk of not doing it, as much as the risk of doing it,” she said.

Click here to watch the whole event on our Facebook page.

Governor of HMP Whitemoor Will Styles, who has worked in eight English prisons and governed three, focussed on building hope among life-sentenced prisoners.

I didn’t have to defend the Prison Service or even respond to what they said. That completely changed the nature of the conversation from anything I had experienced before, and it reminded me that we don’t just need to give prisoners a voice, but we need to give care and thought in how we hear it.   

There’s a long established belief that in order to build a positive culture in a prison, we have to have solid foundations of safety, order and control. And I’m sure that’s right, but I also think that at times we’ve failed to recognise that in prisons where there is an absence of hope, it just isn’t possible to uphold safety, order, or a sense of meaning and purpose. So, our prisons must become places of hope.

I’ve been in the prison service for 26 years and a governor for the last 12. I thought I’d developed a pretty high level of resilience in looking after people experiencing the pains of imprisonment. But that was tested in 2016 when I took up post as governor at HMP Whitemoor, one of five maximum-security dispersal prisons, holding high-risk men, serving very long sentences.

In my first week, as I walked around talking to the residents, they told me of their sentences, and in many cases, they expect to serve a minimum of 20, 30 or even 40 years in prisons. Until relatively recently, such sentences were considered barely survivable. I’m not going to express opinions on the rights and wrongs of UK sentencing guidelines, that’s definitely not my place, but I can say that when I tried to empathise with them, and I thought about being forcibly separated from my wife and children for 30 years, I felt a little bit sick.

At the same time, I was in the middle of a Criminology Masters, so choosing a topic for my thesis was easy. I chose to research hope for Category A prisoners: if it exists, how it’s defined, and how it’s generated and extinguished. In the process I carried out group and one-to-one interviews with Category A men across three dispersal prisons. I was able to sit down with men in my ‘student mode’ rather than as a governor, and ask them what they think. I didn’t have to defend the Prison Service or even respond to what they said. That completely changed the nature of the conversation from anything I had experienced before, and it reminded me that we don’t just need to give prisoners a voice, but we need to give care and thought in how we hear it.      

So what is hope? Well according to Dufrane & Leclair, “Hope can be defined as an inner confidence that an expected and desired outcome will occur.”

But I prefer the description Adam, a prisoner at Whitemoor, gave me. He said, “It’s the day after the night for me; it’s the dawn; it’s not seeing a wall in front of you; it’s seeing a road that you can walk down and having a target and reaching the end. I don’t know how to explain it; it’s just that glimmer of light, that beacon that things can be better one day.”

When a man serving a 30 year IPP sentence tells you what hope is, it’s well worth paying attention to I think.

Rosemary Ndoh talked about rising up from prison teacher to Warden of Avenal State Prison in California.

You can’t change people when you have a social distance, when you have a mental distance, when you have a psychological distance.

In 2016, I became a warden at Avenal State Prison. I remember during the Inspector General’s review, he asked me, “What do you bring to the table? I need you to write a report of what you bring.” I had just three paragraphs. One: I was going to make sure my officers had a safe environment to work in, nurture them and provide all they needed to be good people and good officers. Two: excellent customer service for everybody who walks through that door. And three: that the conditions of confinement would improve for inmates, so when they’re paroled they’re ready to reintegrate with society. That was it. And he accepted it. And so there came my challenge.

In California we train correctional officers to create a distance, not just socially, but physically and mentally from the inmates. You can’t change people when you have a social distance, when you have a mental distance, when you have a psychological distance.

You have to make a change. But there is no change without the correction officer being involved. It will never work. They are the ones who are directly involved with inmates on a daily basis. So what did I do? I did the same thing I did with my teachers. I said, I’m going to nurture them, I’m going to train them, I’m going to give them every tool they need to be successful and they’re going to know beyond a reasonable doubt that I care for them.

You can change the culture of the prison if you invest in your staff first, then your inmates. I can give you all these amazing programmes, I can hire the best professors in the world to come and work in my prison, but it will never work as long as the officers are not supported.

The programmes you establish in your prison have to be valid, credible and have value. Valid in the sense that, if you come in to teach, that’s what you’re doing – you’re not playing games with the inmates, you’re not taking messages out to the public. It has to be credible: that means whoever your volunteer is they have to observe security measures and the staff can’t feel threatened by the volunteers. When you lose credibility, the correction officers will make it clear that they don’t want to work with you. And it has to have value: “What’s in it for me?” The staff have to see the inmate change, and the inmates have to be agents of change, they have to be peace makers. You have to bring all this together to form a cohesive group.

And restorative justice works. When the inmate begins to recognise that “I need to apologise to my victims; I need to make amends.” That’s what we do, that’s what prisons should do. And I can tell you 80 per cent of my staff have come around, because you have to love them, you have to care for your staff first, because that’s the only thing that works.

William Rentzmann, the former head of Denmark’s Prison and Probation service spoke about normalisation and shaping a system that leads by example.

Unless we organise the everyday life in prisons in a way that will support and motivate inmates themselves to make efforts to put crime behind them, then even all the treatment programmes in the world will be of no use.

For more than 20 years the basic principle of the Nordic prison services has been the Principle of Normalisation.

In fact it is a way of thinking which is fundamentally different from the conventional prison approach. The idea of it is that every time we have to make a rule in a prison, every time we have to make a decision, our first thought should be: ‘How would they have done things in the community at large?’ Only the next thought should be: ‘Is there any particular reason to do things differently because they have to work in a prison?’

This fundamental idea means as a point of departure that prisoners have the same civil rights as all other citizens, e.g. the right to vote at elections, to medical treatment, drug-and alcohol treatment (within 14 days from a request for treatment) and not least the right to education at the same professional level as outside in society.

In the Danish prison service normalisation also means that the prisoners are expected, to the extent possible, to take responsibility for their own life in prison, to make use of the opportunities for treatment and education and to take care of the daily life requirements like people do outside  –  that is to say to buy what they need for food, to cook their own meals, do their laundry, to repair their clothes.

The Normalisation Principle has nowadays been acknowledged as a basic idea both in Europe and worldwide. This means that it appears both in the latest version of The European Prison Rules (“Life in prison shall approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community”) and in United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules (“The prison regime should seek to minimise any differences between prison life and life at liberty that tend to lessen the responsibility of prisoners or the respect due to their dignity as human beings”).

The problems arise when we look into the practical implications of this principle – when we look at the everyday prison reality, all the details that characterise the ordinary everyday life for the ordinary inmate.

But even the most modern facilities and the availability of the most fancy treatment programmes will hardly suffice in leading us to the ultimate destination: less recidivism and a more safe society. Because unless we organise the everyday life in prisons in a way that will support and motivate inmates themselves to make efforts to put crime behind them, then even all the treatment programmes in the world will be of no use. What is the good of placing inmates in ever so fancy new buildings if they are still addressed as second-rate human beings and are deprived of all self-determination? How can we be role models if they consider us to be oppressors and enemies?