Prison Education - A view from the US

30 Oct 2017

This year, PET's Head of Policy Nina Champion was the recipient of a Winston Churchill fellowship, awarding her the chance to travel across Europe and to the USA to research international prison/university partnerships. Here's an extract from her blog from the US part of her travels.

"The volume of people with such stories, showcasing their power to effect change at a local, state and national level, all in one place, was humbling and awe-inspiring."

Happy International Day of Education in Prison from LA!

12 October

This International Day of Education in Prison (IDEP) I am lucky to be in sunny California to begin a two-week trip exploring prison university partnerships as part of my Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship. This follows on from the first part of my trip earlier this year, when I traveled to Belgium, Denmark and Poland to visit partnerships there.

Prison/university partnerships are blossoming in the UK. At the start of 2017, we set up our PUPiL (Prison University Partnerships in Learning) network, to support existing partnerships across the country and help encourage new initiatives to form. I chose to apply for a Winston Churchill grant to investigate these collaborations outside the UK, to to gain a deeper understanding of the diverse ways these partnerships are run and the kind of benefits they can have. 

What have I learnt from my travels so far? That there are incredibly passionate people all over the world using the power of prison education to transform lives, prisons and communities. However we all face similar barriers and are often trying to achieve change against the odds. 

On my travels so far I have already seen the impact these aspirational education programmes have on individuals, and also importantly how it fuelled their desire to impact change in wider society.

In the USA, best known for its punitive penal system but also a long tradition of prison university collaboration, I hope to be inspired by the projects I will be visiting and in particular by formerly incarcerated people I will be meeting who are are now key players in the important and urgent movement to reduce mass incarceration in America.

Abolition or reform or both?

13 October

'Abolition or reform, or both?' This was the starting question for a panel of experts at the Beyond the Bars conference at UCLA today. It is a question I have grappled with as a reformer. Prof. Melina Abdullah, who was among the original group of organisers that convened Black Lives Matter, called for abolition arguing that "we can't tinker around the edges". However Shaka Sengor, author of New York Times bestselling book 'Writing my Wrongs', said: "I don't think it has to be either/or. After spending 19 years in prison, 17 in solitary, I left wanting to improve the lives of those men still inside. People with lived experience will say it needs to be both."

Kim Carter agreed with this. As someone who used her experience of being in prison to set up a non-profit organisation to support women who have been in prison, she described herself as not having a PhD, but having a PhDo! Melina added that doing abolitionist work doesn't mean ignoring reform and that she understood the need for "survival pending revolution".

This is an example of the stimulating discussion at the Beyond the Bars conference today. It was refreshing to have such a diverse audience and panel, with a significant number of former prisoners in both categories. Prof. Bryonn Bain, opening the conference with some beat boxing and spoken word, said this event is about bringing together "community, campus and corrections" to end mass incarceration. Many of those who organised the conference, and some who were speaking at the event, run prison university projects.

Like Shaka I like to think of myself as a solutions person and like Kim I'm also a 'do-er', so I look forward to the break out sessions and action work groups this weekend. Watch this space!

Hear my voice

15 October

"Who do you want as your neighbour, a scholar with dreams and who is active in the community, or the opposite?"

What an incredibly inspiring day. I have met so many people today who are influencing social change, most of whom have spent time in prison. When they asked for a show of hands of people in the conference audience who had been in prison, more than half of the audience raised their hands. 

The morning plenary session was a call to action by Jay Jordan, Project Director at Second Chances. He recalled his inability to find employment due to his conviction and powerfully illustrated this by bringing along a very big paper list of the 48,000 barriers there are post-release he calls ‘the wall’. Rather than giving up, Jay led a campaign to ‘Ban the [disclosure] Box’ in LA. Jay was also involved with the successful ‘Proposition 57’ campaign, which gives prisoners time off their sentences for completing education and colleges courses. This was recently passed by a majority of voters in California. He says it will help "institutionalise college programmes" and make the good work of universities and non-profits [in prisons] more sustainable.

At lunch I spoke to Ryan Flaco, who told me he was diagnosed with ADHD at school and got addicted to pills. He said he used higher education to “break” his addiction studying through distance learning subjects including pharmacology. He said that following a big riot in Folsom prison in 2011 they locked everyone in their cells for two years. They gave prisoners the opportunity to do correspondence courses, so he took it up as an alternative to watching TV. “I totally woke up, before I had no vision, no dreams.” He is now part of Urban Scholars Union (USU) supporting students who are ‘justice affected’. Ryan told me when his friends who were still in prison saw it they contacted him to say, “Your homies are proud of you” which meant so much to him. He said there were a few negative comments from the public on online articles, however he just answers by saying: "Who do you want as your neighbour, a scholar with dreams and who is active in the community, or the opposite?" Ryan now has plans to study for a degree at Berkeley University researching the school to prison and prison to school pipelines.

The last person of the day I spoke to was a man who got his GED in juvenile hall and had been part of the Cal State University Prison Arts Collective while in Iowa prison. He now is a paid art teacher and drugs counsellor at the alternative provision school that he attended when he was younger! He described how he went back to his old school and spoke to the principal and said: "I want to give back to the community I destroyed", and the principal said: "We’d love to have you." 

There are other stories I have missed out, but needless to say the volume of people with such stories,showcasing their power to effect change at a local, state and national level, all in one place, was humbling and awe-inspiring.

Pieces of the puzzle

16 October

"I want to get as many prisoners out as possible and spend that money instead on schools and college places. Prisons are not a good return on investment.”

"Liberation is a puzzle, each piece of the puzzle is important. Abolition is a larger vision, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow. What will happen to our sisters getting out tomorrow? What about the conditions our brothers are living in, maggots coming through the walls in the county jail. It’s our people in there. We must all see ourselves as connected and work on our piece of the puzzle as we vision a new alternative to incarceration." 

These were the words of Dr. Melina Abdullah as she collected her award at the end of the conference.

The photo above was a piece of art done by a prisoner in solitary confinement, a massive issue in the US. Many of the formerly incarcerated speakers told how they were held in solitary, some for over a decade. I makes me think of how many of our UK prisoners are being held in their cells for 23 hours a day. The artwork spoke to a key message of the Beyond the Bars conference that combining and co-coordinating efforts, networking and sharing ideas can amplify voices, particularly of those with direct experience, in order to bring about social change and a reversal of the policy of mass incarceration.

At the end of the conference a local politician was given an award for his anti-recidivism work. When collecting the award he said, refreshingly: “Myself and two other politicians are going to make a commitment to close one juvenile facility and one adult facility. That has never been done before. I want to get as many prisoners out as possible and spend that money instead on schools and college places. Prisons are not a good return on investment.”

The second part of the day was a practical workshop on digital storytelling by Yale PhD student Job Sankofa, who was also formerly incarcerated. He has set up the Imagined Futures Lab to "take back control of how we tell and archive our own stories".

“Don’t have conversations about us, without us” he challenged. “I get the ‘Ban the Box’ campaign, but can we transform the conversation instead? Can we say I’m not going to be shamed and step into our stories instead?”

Job talked about the option of video CVs as a way of being able to tell that story in a powerful way. This is something he does in prisons and in ‘the hoods’. Teaching people how to turn their phone into a documentary production with some basic accessories and apps. “We need to control the story. The editor is a dangerous person. How about we conduct the interview?”

The Prisoners' Princess!

20 October


My English accent is a good ice-breaker in the States. At a Prison Education Project (PEP) study circle class at the juvenile home ‘Boys Republic’ last night they kept asking me to say the word aluminium! "I love your accent" everyone keeps saying.

Yesterday evening I was meant to be observing a career guidance class at California Institution for Women (CIW). However the regular teacher didn’t get her security clearance in time, so I was asked to cover the class with less than 24 hours notice. Eek! What a great opportunity though, so I said yes!


I was asked by one learner how I built my career. I shared my journey of moving from law, to rehabilitation, to working in parliament to eventually working in prison reform. One sweet, enthusiastic learner at the front responded that I was like Princess Diana!

I asked the students to use open questions to become each other’s career coach. I explained that coaching was different to advice or mentoring or guidance in that it is asking open ended questions to help their fellow learner to explore more deeply what they really want from a career. I suggested they ask questions such as:

  • What do you want your legacy to be?
  • What are your strengths, interests and skills?
  • What are your values?
  • What did you like to do as a child?

The last question is important as it can help you tap into the type of person you are and the career you will find most joy from. For example I told them that as a child I used to like writing letters of complaint if I saw something wasn’t right, I would get passionate about causes such as animal cruelty and once put my toy polar bear up for raffle to fund raise for a local children’s hospital. It’s not surprising then that I ended up with a career as a policy advocate for a charity!

The women interviewed each other and fed back to the class. I was impressed with the depth of their answers. Family was a strong value for many and several women mentioned wanting to contribute to family businesses or to set up their own business in order to provide for family. Another strong theme was linking careers to their passions such as cooking or caring for others. Many of the students said they wanted to work to help other others in their position or to prevent people from coming into prison. Most of all they wanted to find a career which would enable them never to come back to prison themselves.

Several women raised the issue of the impact of disclosure and were aware some careers would be unavailable to them due to their conviction. Given this reality, understanding the key values they want from career is even more important. If they can’t be a teacher, doctor or a barber, it is important to understand what it is about the job that attracts them and then look to see if there are alternatives which tap into those same values of, for example, caring for others or creativity.

I want to thank the women of CIW for making me feel so welcome and for getting involved in the class discussions with such enthusiasm and dedication. I am sure they will learn a lot over the next few weeks with PEP and will succeed in whatever they set their minds to. Good luck!

Hotel California

October 22, 2017

 “I took classes to become a man. I wake up happy now."

California Rehabilitation Centre (CRC) was the first U.S. prison I visited on this trip and certainly left a lasting impression. One of its buildings is said to be the inspiration for the song Hotel California. It was built in 1929 as a hotel which hosted many Hollywood celebrities. It then became a naval hospital and in 1962 it became a prison facility focused on drug rehabilitation, before becoming a maximum security prison for lifers. Following an escape it was moved from a Level 4 maximum security to a Level 2, housing prisoners with sentences of around three-five years or long-sentenced prisoners who are coming to the end of the sentences. It is a large prison in British terms, with a population of 2762, and has previously been seriously overcrowded with 3443 prisoners being held there in 2012. I am told Proposition 57, giving people early release due to education credits, has resulted in 46 people being paroled early just this week.

As I entered through security I was amused to be picked up by a golf buggy! The prison site is large and so this is how staff get from one side of the prison estate to the other. The prison is on high ground and so as you drive there are incredible views over Los Angeles. I was shown around by an incredible woman called Vickie, who is the prison’s Community Resources Manager - a great title! In the UK Clinks have been promoting the need to have a member of staff in prisons responsible for coordinating voluntary and community sector involvement. This is essentially Vickie’s role. Vickie tells me that the driving force of community involvement is the Warden (Governor) who is a “great support” and is committed to as much involvement from the community as possible. The other great advantage Vickie has, which we don’t have in English prisons, is the availability to use evenings and weekends to bring in the community.  I was at the prison until 9.30pm that night and many classes were only just packing up. The evenings are used for enrichment activities to complement the education or work the men do during the day.

At CRC I am told education is compulsory if you don’t have your GED school qualification.If you have your high school diploma you can engage in work but can also study to higher levels through correspondence courses supported by Saturday distance-learning study groups and tutoring. The men can also engage in the Prison Education Project (PEP) classes such as Introduction to Physics which had been due to run that evening, classes run by Northcolt Community College and also ‘Inside Out’ university classes.

I was taken to the ‘Education Compound’ which was a single level building housing 50 men who were all engaged in education and higher education.  As we walked in on the left there was a classroom with computers and desks, followed by a larger room with a large TV screen and more study space. Walking down the corridor there were works of art and information notice boards, before a wide open space with 50 metal bunk beds lined up along each wall. Only the bottom bunks were slept on so the top bunks became a storage area for family photographs and piles of books. It was a light space, despite being full of so many beds. The windows had mesh on them rather than bars.

One by one I shook hands with many of the men and chatted to them about their studies. The message was the same from them all, that this space enabled them to focus on education and there was a strong sense of hope from many I talked to. “There is no reason for failure here. There are no distractions; everyone supports each other.” said one student. “It is easy to study in here” said another, “we all go to bed early and get up early. We can use the study areas which helps concentration.”

As well as books on their bunks, they also all had access to a digital tablet containing up to 500 books including all the reading materials they needed for their correspondence courses which can be downloaded onto a single device in see-through plastic casing.

I asked one man about the impact of being housed in the Education Compound with other learners.  He told me “the culture here is completely different, it is a growth culture. We motivate each other.” He was fascinated when I told him my colleague was doing her PhD on the learning culture of a similar education wing in the UK. I loved his expression of a ‘growth culture’ and told him I would pass it on to my colleague!

Back on the golf buggy (!) and first stop was the Canine Support Programme (CSP). The men involved in the programme are matched to a dog who they train over a seven-month period. During that time they live with the dog in their cells and they even have a dog bed! The dog goes everywhere with them, as it would do their owner in the community. The new owners might be someone with disabilities or who suffers from anxiety, for example a war veteran. Once the men have trained two dogs they become a certified dog trainer and can find work on the outside in this field. 

Next stop is a public speaking class called ‘Toastmasters’. I enter the back of a large classroom lined with 35 men sat in chairs with small desks attached. At the front is a lectern. “Lights, camera, action” begins the speaker. He goes on to give an animated and informative five-minute speech about making movies. After he is finished, prompted by the time keeper, all the students fill out small pieces of paper which are evaluation forms and hand them to him to read. Vickie then introduces me and I go up to give my own short speech! I encourage the learners to ask me questions after. One question led to a discussion about prisoner voting. I told them about working in parliament the night when only 12 politicians voted in favour of giving prisoners the vote, which had made me realise the challenge I faced in a career based on prison reform and promoting prisoner citizenship (I do love a challenge!) I then asked them about the benefits of the Toastmasters programme. There were many, including communication, leadership skills and confidence, but my favourite comment from a learner was that it had given him “enthusiasm and zeal again”. You can’t ask for more than that!

Next up was a classroom with about 20 young adult prisoners. I was told it was the inaugural night of a new programme called ‘Gang Members Anonymous’ led by a Danish tutor, who had spent the past few weeks training four young men to become peer facilitators. It is based on the famous 12 step Alcoholics Anonymous / Narcotics Anonymous model. I sat and listened to a 22-year-old peer facilitator sharing his story with the other students, who were all, like me, captivated. He shared his childhood plagued by witnessing violence and drug use by both his parents. He described how neither of his own parents had ever told him they were proud of him. He sought out family on the streets instead and got involved in serious criminality to earn and keep his place in the gang, who he thought “had his back”. “I was stupid. They didn’t love me. When I had nowhere to live they didn’t help, so I slept on the streets. But I kept going back to them." He said being exposed to that sort of violence was normalised to him by that point and it continued when he went to prison as he had been tried and sentenced as an adult, despite being under 18.

[A turning point came when one day he woke up in his cell to find his older cellmate, who had been trying to mentor him, had died of cancer.]

The experience was a life changing one for the young man. Also at that time he began to listen to his wife when she visited, who was the mother of his young son. He said he “saw the helplessness in her eyes every time he went to a visit with black eyes and cuts.” He went on to describe how he focused on his education and got his GED and was now enrolled in college courses. 

He told his peers: “I took classes to become a man. I wake up happy now. It has been through self-help. If you continue with a gang mentality you will spend your life in prison. Your girl gonna replace you, she wants to get married and have kids. If you have a kid that kid gonna grow up with another Dad. If pride gets the better of you then you gonna sign your life to the state. You will miss out. Your parents gonna pass away and you gonna hear the news in a message. I’ve seen it happen and break people. When I put myself in a man’s shoes things changed. There is always room for improvement but change starts in the heart and mind. There are guys I’ve met who are 40 and still childish as they are stuck in their ways. Be a man. Don’t take the quick way to get money by robbing, but build a path slowly and surely to getting a job. I hope you can open your head and your heart to change. I don’t like to talk about emotions, but if it helps someone out then I’ll do it.”

What an incredibly wise and brave young man. With someone like him facilitating the group, I have a good feeling about what it can achieve and am inspired to take the idea back to the UK. 

Vickie told me about a huge range of 'enrichment activities' available at CRC, including yoga, drumming and a concert performed by the UCLA orchestra.

The other thing I noticed on my visit were the opportunities to connect with family, which can be such an important motivator and support system. In the visits hall there was a ticket machine where for $2 prisoners could buy a photograph with their family sitting in front of a jungle mural. They also have a ‘holiday photo’ opportunity for prisoners to have a professional photograph taken and they can select a backdrop of their choice from a range of holiday specific images, for example Christmas. 

The impact of all these initiatives is so vital. I hope the new way of commissioning education in English prisons will enable governors, like this warden, to bring such opportunities into prisons to give people tasters, experiences and connections to the outside world that can help inspire and build a new life.

You can read Nina's blogs in full on her Linkedin page. Or follow her on Twitter @NinaChampionPET