The Bridge Programme helps women learn about themselves

Media and Public Affairs Manager Susannah Henty describes a visit to a women’s prison filming The Bridge Programme, with Prison Learning TV in March 2014:

"Two days before International Women’s Day I met Debbie, a mother of nine, a survivor of domestic violence, who is now training to be a beautician and dreams of opening a salon with her daughters when she leaves prison.

Debbie has come a long way. She hardly attended secondary school because she had to look after her younger siblings; she says she educated herself through books but was scared when she had to re-enter a classroom at Low Newton prison in Durham.

During a week on the prison education department’s innovative induction programme ‘The Bridge’ Debbie learned what she was good at. She gained emotional support from Di, one of the tutors; they talked about Debbie’s life, her fears and concern for her children at home. During the process, Debbie began to feel confident and ready to learn something new, able to change her life and make positive plans for her future.

Stock image of woman filmingMonths after taking part in the programme, during our interview Debbie flicks through her individual learning plan, a folder she started in that first week, and proudly shows of the certificates she has since added to it. Keen to keep learning, when Debbie finishes her current course in the prison’s fully equipped beauty salon she plans to study business courses.

Sitting in one of the classes observing the current group of women engaging in lively discussions with the other course tutor Mary Lax, it is clear Debbie’s experience is not a one-off and many are benefitting from the intensive induction. Mary says: “I look at the whole person; these women are individuals and qualifications is only part of it, we need to challenge their thinking process. After one day you see a significant change, they are more engaged, more motivated to learn.

“I tell them: ‘This is about thinking about you, giving you time for you. Learning isn’t just about the classroom; it’s about every day life.”

Everyone we interviewed whilst making this film for the Prisoner Learning Alliance, all said despite feeling terrified on their first day they now didn’t want to leave and they wanted the Bridge Programme to be longer.

One woman compared it to another prison where she was given a sheet of paper and asked to tick boxes to assess her skills, she said: “I’m a 50 year old woman, I found that [sheet] quite insulting, here I’ve actually learnt something, I didn’t think I could be taught anything new but now I know how to use computers and I’m on my second level for IT.”

The idea of an intensive, week-long induction to prepare them for study and introduce them fully to the courses available in the prison is innovative enough, but through speaking to the women it seems there are even more benefits to The Bridge Programme – this is learning as therapy.

“It is therapeutic being here. You can always learn something new about yourself. I’ve done a lot of courses before, but this one is different, you’re here because you want to be” says Kadine.

The women we met certainly have their share of issues to work through, many are single mums worrying about their families at home, others have a history of abusive relationships, self-harm, have mental healthcare needs and are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.

During the classes, the tutors give the women the tools and support to recognise what their problems are so they can begin the process of dealing with them. This work then prepares them to make plans and goals for their future, whether that involves further education, training or work. 

One woman told us she felt motivated her to write a letter to the magistrate who sentenced her. She said: “I can see now why I’ve offended and I wanted them to know that.”

This film highlights some of success stories for the women who’ve recently taken part in the programme but there were many, many more stories of women who have surpassed what they believed they were capable of. We were told the story of one woman who refused to do anything on her first day because she thought she was thick. She had some special educational needs but during the Bridge, she began to believe in herself and ended up doing lots of courses, helped her fellow learners as an IT mentor and was supported by Prisoners' Education Trust to study an Open University degree in Maths.

To find out more about the Bridge Programme at Low Newton, watch our film, read PLA report Smart Rehabilitation. The film, produced by Antonio Ferrara, Prison Learning TV, premiered at the PLA spring conference."