Knowledge, skills and employability: The power of role models and the limits of statistics

26 Apr 2017

A lecturer at the University of Westminster has stressed the importance of having people like himself, who have served time in prison, acting as real-life examples building a route out of crime. 

Dr Andy Aresti, who addressed an audience at PET’s Academic Symposium, is a key figure in the British Convict Criminology movement, which aims to increase the role that prisoner and ex-prisoner ‘insider’ perspectives play in critiquing and reforming the criminal justice sector.

“I know what it’s like to study in prison - it’s a lonely process, especially when you’re doing high-level education,” said Aresti. “But for people in prison one of the fundamental things they get from seeing you is that they think: ‘this guy has done it’. That element of hope is one of the most important factors.”

Aresti has just finished running the second instalment of a prison/university partnership between Westminster and HMP Pentonville. Aresti said that while he tends to be very critical of the prison service, he “had to applaud” them for being so welcoming of project like this. 

Topics in the 12-week criminology course have included ‘pains of imprisonment’ and ‘desistence and crime’.

“The personal experience comes from inside learners and theoretical knowledge comes from outside students – it’s a complimentary process,” said Aresti.

He said while both sets of students had been “very apprehensive” at the beginning of the course after the first session they “really gelled” by the end.

“For the Westminster students, it opened their eyes to the barriers some people have to negotiate - sometimes even 20 years on, regardless of the fact you’ve got doctor in front of your name,” said Aresti. “And prison learners said things to me like how interesting it had been to see how people who don’t commit crime view the world.”

But Aresti said that while it was “all well and good” to provide opportunities that broadened people’s horizons, the biggest problem was ‘ticking the box’: the disclosure rules that can impede the chances of someone with a criminal record gaining employment or getting into university.

Reform on this should be led by example from the top, said Aresti. “The MoJ and NOMs should be employing former prisoners who’ve done their time and can contribute and give another perspective.”

Aresti was joined on the panel by a Ministry of Justice employee - Nick Mavron, who heads Prison, Probation and Reoffending statistics section. Mavron said his department has been attempting to streamline the data it collects – up until recently there were five different measures used to record reoffending but they have recently cut it down to a single measure, which it will apply from October 2017 onwards.

MoJ statisticians have to battle against the expectations of Ministers, said Mavron, who often expect a “running update” on reoffending rates. In reality this information takes a long time to compile, he said, as it involves linking a number of data sets including the Police National Computer and prison release data; waiting 12 months after a cohort’s release from prison, a further six months for sentencing, and then two months for analysis to be completed. “That’s quite a significant lag,” said Mavron. 

Reoffending rates may appear to have remained the same for the last few years, but, “it’s when we start to unpick that that we begin to see what’s really happening”. This is part of the role of the MoJ’s Justice Data Lab, which examines the impact of individual programmes, and whose research topics have included the impact of distance-learning courses provided by Prisoners’ Education Trust. Future plans include joining up with the Department for Work and Pensions to get a richer picture of employment opportunities for people after leaving prison.

Kirstine Szifris, who lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University, was critical at the absence of specific data related to the impact of prison education on reoffending.

In collaboration with education provider Novus, Szifris has undertaken two systematic literature reviews in an attempt to “drill down” on high-level statistics to understand the relationship between prison education, reoffending and employment.

But while her research reached the “unsurprising conclusion” that people who engaged in prison education were more likely to find employment and less likely to reoffend, it did not reveal much more about the type or level of education was most helpful or how different parts of the population benefited differently.

“There is plenty to of evidence to say [prison education] is good but not much to say how it works and who it works for,” said Szifris. “We need to develop a strong theory of prison education but we also need the time and space to do research into what is effective and meaningful for people in prison. That involves rigorous research that is quantitative and qualitative, and access to prison to do it.”

Szifris said she had reservations about the “overwhelming focus” on reoffending as a measurement. “This quantitative approach instrumentalises everything,” said Szifris. “I find that a little bit troubling - learning and education are about desistance but also about what you’re doing with people and the social impact you have. There are other ways to take a robust statistical analysis rather than just look at reoffending.”  

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