Event explores the prisoner's learning journey

29 Jun 2013

What is it realistic to train or educate prisoners for?

A quality education giving prisoners the skills and training employers are looking for is what is really needed in prisons, according to a former PET funded student, Junior Smart. His comments came in response to a question put to the panel at a Cass foundation funded event at the Institute of Education, on 28 June 2013. Chair and ITV journalist Ronke Phillips asked: ‘Is learning and skills useful in times of austerity when there are fewer jobs for everyone?’

Junior Smart, who now works at the St Giles Trust while studying for a MA, said: “I don’t know why there is the idea Level 2 will get you a job, when the odds are really stacked against them. Level 3 and above is what they need. I’m so grateful to Prisoners Education Trust and other organisations which supported me.

"When I was in custody I was moved around a lot and it was like a lottery where I ended up and what courses were available. But I was lucky to have time with a tutor who believed in me and I was able to do a degree and employment upon release." 

“Now education bodies in prisons are faced with so many cuts, gone is the personal support. What we’re trying to do is reduce the number of victims and that revolving door of crime. We need to use offenders as a resource, fund charities to provide training and be willing to adapt.”

The importance of a learning journey

Junior went on to talk about the need for people’s underlying problems to be addressed such as addiction, homelessness, a lack of money to prevent the risk of people being recalled to prison. He also felt there should be more joined up working between the prison, Government departments and the community so that prisoners have a good plan to help them adjust into society. These were all important issues to consider at a day of lectures and workshops on Education in the Criminal Justice System: The offender learning journey where to, how far?

Through the Prisoner Learning Alliance, (PLA), PET and other organisations have been calling for prisoners to have a clear learning plan so that throughout their sentence and post-release they have had the support to progress.

This idea was also supported by PET patron Lord David Ramsbotham, who opened the event, and said: “Education has got to be properly planned and structured, the foremost important thing is to motivate prisoners to want to learn.”

Attendees, who included prison and education practitioners, academics and charities were able to choose from a variety of workshops and listen to two lectures during the day’s activities.

Diversity challenges

During a break-out workshop Angela Christopher, NOMS, and Mark Blake, from the Black Training and Enterprise Group focused on the disadvantages faced by black and minority ethnic (BAME) prisoners. As part of a research project analysing a small group, Angela considered the challenges and the opportunities for BAME prisoners in gaining employment. She found that they were extremely unlikely to get a job but has put together an offender qualification manual to show people potential career avenues they could consider. As part of this Angela said she worked with the ‘stereotypes’ of what black men are interested in so for music she looked at all the different roles someone could consider such as management, promotion and producer.  

Angela Christopher said: “We can also offer support for individuals. I hope my IECR model, identity, esteem, competence and resilience will give people a positive sense of who they are. We need to start talking about people as citizens rather than just prisoners.”

Mark Blake spoke about the opportunities for engaging BME people through business and enterprise. As part of BTEG’s response to the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Rehabilitation consultation, the organisation argued that the government needs to start talking about race again.

Mark Blake said: “Race permeates across lots of issues. We need to think about how changes to the bill can produce outcomes for BME offenders. If you don’t talk race you’re not going to get to the crux of so many of the issues that are there at the moment.”

Joining up learning with employment

The challenges facing ex-prisoners in the job market were brought up throughout the day and National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was there to talk about what they were doing in response.

Elaine O’Connor, The Offender Learning Skills development manager, spoke about the potential of Virtual Campus, an intranet system which allows prisoners to apply for jobs directly via the Job Centre. NOMS are currently approaching employers to find out what skills they are looking for, working with the national apprenticeship service and piloting the ‘Working Prisons’ model to help people gain skills and competencies for employment.

“The Government is preparing people for learning for employment. Education providers curriculum development is linked to employment opportunities in the areas where the offender will be released. We want to motivate them to develop further education and further training to place themselves as strongly as they possibly can given they are so disadvantaged,” says Elaine O'Connor.

Global perspective

To gain some global perspective, Professor Michael Jacobson, who recently worked at the Vera Institute, gave an excellent lecture on punitive justice in the USA while Christina Teroc, Deputy Director for Education at Jilava prison, Romania, discussed their recently established credit system.

Michael talked about the history of the hugely expensive, failing prison system in America and about the opportunities for reform through education. He said: “The more education you have in prison, the less recidivism you’ll have when you get out.”

Other workshops included evidence of the pilot project on delivering intensive English and maths; addressing the needs of women and young people in prison; progress through film at Scotland’s national female prison; prison education: professionalism and practice; managing risk and learning to serve time.