Wandsworth governor: I’ll consider yoga, scaffolding and a tattoo parlour in my prison

16 Sep 2016

The governor of Wandsworth prison said today he would take advantages of his new freedoms to push the boundaries of what is possible in prison.

Speaking at the Prisoner Learning Alliance conference in Cardiff today, Ian Bickers said he was in discussions to build a scaffolding tower, offer yoga classes and even instal a tattoo parlour within Wandsworth, which is the UK’s biggest jail.

“My principle is pushing boundaries,” he said. “I do it to engage prisoners, to make a change and see a difference.”

Wandsworth was named as one of the government’s six ‘reform’ prisons in the last Queen’s speech, meaning Bickers has an unusual amount of autonomy for a goveIan Bickersrnor, including control over his own budget.

“When they asked me if I wanted to be a reform governor, I didn’t ask what they meant, I just said ‘yes - I’ll do it’,” he said. “I had understood enough - that they were going to give me the money and let me get on with it.”

Bickers said he sees education as the best way to rehabiliate the men within his prison.

“I was really keen that as a reform prison we put education at the centre of everything we do,” he said. “Whether they are with us for a week, a month or a year, we want every single person to learn something every single day.”

Before Wandsworth was named a reform prison, Bickers said he felt had “hugely constrained by an organisation that had centralised itself”. As a reform governor however, he said he is “shocked” by the degree of freedom afforded him.

His plans include opening up access to IT and the internet in his prison. To do this, he said he will follow the examples from mainstream education, looking at how schools use firewalls to limit and monitor what websites students have access to.“If schools can do it, why can’t prisons?” he asked.

Bickers said he had a raft of businesses, schools and colleges “falling over themselves” to get involved in Wandsworth. He plans, for example, to team up with London restaurants to open a cookery school within the grounds.

Bickers admitted that his discussion of a tattoo parlour was likely to unnerve people at the government’s National Offender Management Service, but assured the audience that prisoners would not practice on each other.

“Anyone who’s been inside a prison will meet men who are excellent artists,” he said. “It makes sense to find a way to use and develop that skill. After all, you can earn more running a tattoo parlour than you do as a prison governor!”

As the sector waits for the government to enact legislation on prison reform, he urged other governors to follow his radical approach. “Don’t wait for someone to knock on your door and say ‘Ta-ra! Reforms are here!” said. “Push forward, and a lot of times you’ll find you’re pushing against an open door.”

Education, said Bickers had “changed his life”. At 14, he said, he “preferred messing around to learning” and was pulled aside by a PE teacher who told him “You, Mr Bickers, are going the wrong way,” and encouraged him to take up running to keep him out of trouble.

Since then, he said, he had had an unwavering belief in the ability of education to transform identities and lives, and is determined to pass this on to the men in his care.

Bickers was one of 150 sector experts at today’s PLA conference, who included prison staff, policy makers, charity workers and former prisoners. Panellists discussed the sweeping changes to prison education that Dame Sally Coates called for last year, and their future under a new Justice Secretary.

The day also featured the Prisoner Learning Alliance awards, which recognised people working in prisons who make an exceptional contribution to education. There were 22 winners, including teachers, officers, librarians and prisoner peer mentors, all of whom were nominated by prisoners themselves.

Jo Stevens, Shadow Prisons Minister and MP for Cardiff Central, distributed the awards.

She said:

“Being able to recognise the achievements of people in prison is a great privilege. Prisoner education is a critical part of every prisoner’s rehabilitation journey. It provides a chance to re-enter society with new or improved skills, to find employment and the opportunity to lead a fulfilling, law abiding life after sentence.”

Stevens said there was an  “unusual amount of consensus” between political parties about the value of education in prison. But she added that this needed to be combined with a focus on safety.

“For there to be effective rehabilitation, prisons need to be safe places,” she said. “In today’s volatile and unsafe conditions, achieving consistency of opportunities and quality of outcome is going to be challenging.”

The conference also heard from Bodil Isakden, programme director at Unlocked Graduates, the government’s new scheme to attract university leavers to become prison officers.

Isakden called officers “unsung hereos”, who do an incredibly difficult and important jobs “without the recognition that doctors or lawyers would get”.

In such a role, said Isakden, even a “tiny conversation could make a huge difference”.

“Graduates should be thinking ‘I want to be a prison officer because I could be able to change lives’,” she said. “It can be an amazing career, and what we need are enthused and motivated people to make a difference.”

Like the Teach First scheme, graduates would receive training as they go along and would be expected to stay in the profession for two years. They would start as basic grade prison officers and would earn a Masters at the same time.

After this, said Isakden, they might continue in the prison service, might join the Ministry of Justice, or might go into the private sector.  In this way, she said, the Unlocked scheme could help to create “more Timpsons” - businesses that were open to employing former prisoners.

The PLA conference was kindly hosted by Cardiff Metropolitan University, where the Widening Access team are committed to encouraging and supporting former prisoners to study degrees.

For information on these or other speakers, more photographs or case studies, please contact Katy Oglethorpe - katy@prisonerseducation.org.uk, 0791 2163 536.

Editor's Notes

  • ‘The Future of Prison Education. Personalised and Peer-Enabled Approaches’, is the third annual PLA conference, held at Cardiff Metropolitan University on 16 September. See a full agenda and details here.
  • The Prisoner Learning Alliance was formed in 2012 by the charity Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) to provide expertise and vision to inform future priorities, policies and practices relating to prison education, learning and skills. It now 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 over 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.
  • A report by the MoJ shows that prisoners helped by PET reoffend 6 to 8 percentage points less than a matched control group. Analysis by Pro Bono Economics shows that it would only take a one percentage point reduction in reoffending to be the result of that support for the benefits to outweigh the costs of the investment.