Human Capital in Prisons: Personalisation, Philosophy & Ignoring the Red-Tops

26 Apr 2017

Speaking just a week after his release from prison, criminology student Gareth told an audience at PET’s academic symposium that how we teach, and not what we teach is much more important in helping people move away from crime.

“Imagine if someone came to you and made it quite obvious that the reason they were speaking to you was because of the worst thing you’ve ever done; they then go on to say that they’ve decided what you’re going to be worth on the outside world, and that’s why you have to take Level 1 and 2. It’s both invasive and offensive.”

He went on: “But what if the same person asked: ‘What are you really interested in?’”

In this way, said Gareth, "the power of education - good or bad - is felt long before a certificate given out”.

Gareth, who received PET funding in prison and is now taking a degree in social policy and criminology, is planning to conduct research into what helps people to stay out of prison, with the view that traditional metrics - such as employment - are insufficient.

“Official measurements are used to exhaustion but you’re still looking at around a 50/50 chance of someone staying out of prison,” he said. “I think we’re focusing on the wrong things when we are trying to measure success.”

In prison, education should offer someone in prison the chance to try new ways of thinking, explore new interests and also to get things wrong, said Gareth.

“If there’s not one type of person in prison, why would there be one type of education?” he asked. “Hard work and paying a debt to society can look like many things, and people in prison need to feel valued beyond what they can contribute to the labour market.”

Gareth, who took part in one of the first Learning Together programmes at HMP Grendon, said education could also be a tool to connect someone with society.

“People are so far removed from society, prison offers little more than a distance from which to resent it,” he said. “If people have no interaction with the world they have damaged then how can they contribute anything positive to it, and how can anything positive be contributed to them?”

Vicky Robinson, deputy director at women’s prison HMP Bronzefield, said her prison was developing an approach that fostered this type of positive reintegration, as it strived to place education “at the heart of prison culture and at the heart of our women”.

Innovation within the women’s estate faced particular challenges, said Robinson, because of the lack of research into the area and the complex paths that led women into, and away from, crime.

Despite this, Bronzefield was “pushing boundaries and challenging norms”, making outcomes for the women rather than security of the prison central to all its changes. In doing so, Robinson said, she and her team had begun to preface any suggested change with ‘why can’t we?’

“You tend to hear ‘because it’s a prison’. And next - ‘because of the potential security implications’, and then - ‘what will the red-top newspapers say about that?’” But overcoming these boundaries should drive all organisations, she said. “After all, how can we motivate people to change if we can’t motivate ourselves to do so?”

Many of these changes are laid out in the prison’s new strategy, which, which encourages front-line staff to take Level 2 qualifications, expands the use of technology in classrooms and cells, increases higher education opportunities, and expands the use of learner voice forums so that women can influence how the prison runs. But Robinson challenged the fact that women were not allowed access tablets in their cells, and that they did not have internet access in prison, despite this being an “essential part” of the outside world.

Kirstine Szifris, who completed a PhD in philosophy in prisons, discussed how education can be used to foster trust and build positive relationships in prisons, particularly when not conducted with a traditional approach or structure.

Szifris, who taught philosophy classes in three prisons, said prison can force people to create a ‘survival identity’ - often involving the construction of a macho ‘mask’ or front. But education,  and specifically philosophy education, can cultivate a “distinct environment” that can lead to what she calls a ‘growth identity’.

“Because of the dialogic nature of the environment there is a space to communicate with each other, to overcome complex inter-personal relationships and to ‘drop the mask’ and engage in conversation,” said Szifris. “By the end of the course learners were more willing to listen to others’ points of view, express their own point of view and learn to trust the environment of philosophical inquiry as a safe space for open and honest dialogue.”

Some of her class began to define themselves using philosophical terms, said Szifris - as a stoic or a syncretist for example. “Having a language of alternative self-definition was fundamental to seeing themselves as more than a number or a prisoner,” she added.

But while Szifris welcomed what she saw as the “elevation” of the role of prison education in the reform agenda she said we should be cautious about using education as an “interventionist tool”. “The trust I cultivated came from an appreciation that [the men] were not there because they had to engage as part of sentence plan or for a qualification,” she said. “I was there simply to engage them in philosophical conversation.”

She went on: “We do not engage children in education to intervene into their otherwise inevitable decline into criminality. Instead it is to allow them develop as individuals, to find out what interests them and to empower them to find own paths in life. We should remember this when thinking about role of in education in prisons as well.”

Read the rest of the panels from PET's 2017 Academic Symposium here.