Inspiring prison staff celebrated by learners inside

29 Sep 2017

Prison officers, teachers, librarians and a prison governor were yesterday recognised for their outstanding contributions to education in prison, after being nominated by prisoners themselves.

The Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) held its national awards for ‘Outstanding Educators’ in the prison system. The prize-giving was presented by Sam Bailey, who herself worked as a prison officer at nearby HMP Gartree before auditioning for X-factor. 

Winners included staff members and prisoner mentors from across England and Wales. The awards are unique in that all 400-plus nominations came from serving prisoners.

A winner in the youth estate category was prison officer Jack Peters, at Werrington HMYOI in Staffordshire, who was named in ten nomination letters from young people in custody, all of whom are aged between 15 and 18.

Jack joined the prison service after serving three years in the army.

He said: 

“I wanted a job that would challenge me day in and day out. The prison service, especially the young people’s estate, does that and more. There are a lot of highs and lows about working in a prison. When it's a bad day it's a really bad day, but sometimes you will go home after your shift and know you have made a change.”

Jack was described as “very understanding” by one young prisoner. Another said: “He’s a rock in all young people’s lives; we need more officers like Jack Peters.” Another said he nominated Jack: “because if I need help he’s always there”.

Roxy Ball was the overall winner in the Teacher category, for her work teaching English at HMP Ranby in Nottinghamshire.

She said:

“I decided I wanted to work in a prison because I wanted to make a difference. From a young age, I knew I wanted to help people who hadn’t had the same opportunities I had.”

Nominating her for the award, one prisoner wrote: “She makes learning fun; she brightens everyone’s day up.” Another noted: “I would never have been able to write this letter a month ago.”

Roxy said her role goes beyond teaching basic skills.

“The most enjoyable part of my role is watching prisoners develop their confidence. I have found that often it is a lack of self-belief which is more of a hindrance than their skill level, and that prisoners often mask their lack of confidence in other behaviours. I enjoy the challenge of overcoming these obstacles.”

Presenting the awards, Sam Bailey said:

“Working in a prison is a tough gig, and one that, since my time, has only become harder. One thing stays the same though: outstanding people can make that harsh environment better. 

“Outstanding staff and mentors have the power to encourage people to take up education; to stop self-harming; to stop taking drugs and to start to see themselves as someone who is more than just a prisoner. They have the power to help someone rehabilitate, so they don’t commit future crimes but instead end up giving back to their families and communities.”

Nina Champion, Head of Policy at Prisoners’ Education Trust – the charity that set up the PLA and organised the awards – said this year’s prize giving was particularly timely.

“Those who work in the prison sector are at the coal face of the acute difficulties facing the system. But despite rising violence and other pressures, the PLA award winners go the extra mile to promote learning, provide role models and form positive relationships with prisoners – ultimately helping people to build crime-free lives and contribute to their communities. These staff and mentors are so deserving of the recognition these awards give.”

The PLA is currently working with the prison service to incorporate lessons learned from the awards into the recruitment and training of future prison officers, particularly in terms of what qualities prisoners most value in prison staff. The leading qualities mentioned in letters were: “motivational”, “inspirational”, “helpful” and “supportive”.

There were 16 winners overall, across five categories. The awards, now in their third year, were held as part of the Annual PLA conference, which brought together sector experts and practitioners to discuss the challenges and opportunities of prison education.  

Editor's Notes:

  • A full list of winners is available in the attached document. More photos from the event, including of Jack and Roxy, are available at this link.
  • For more information, including case studies, photos and interview opportunities, please contact Media Manager Katy Oglethorpe: / 020 3752 5676 / 0791 2161 536
  • The awards are held during: ‘Doing Things Differently: A New Era for Prison Education’ - the fourth annual PLA conference, held at De Montfort University in Leicester on 14 September. See a full agenda and details here.
  • The PLA was formed in 2012 by the charity Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET). It brings together 23 expert organisations who work to champion learning for people in prison. For the full list of members see here.
  • Since 1989, PET has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by providing advice and funding for around 2,500 people per year for courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.
  • Research by the MoJ shows that prisoners helped by PET are 25% less likely to reoffend than a matched control group.