Moses discovers books and a world of learning

A letter from PET learner Moses highlights the challenges and opportunities for a young black man discovering education in prison:

"At the age of 12 my mother died, I was separated from my sisters and I was placed in care. There was a complete breakdown of my original family unity. I was excluded from school at 12 years old with only my primary school reading and counting ability to work with. After being expelled I went to various centres and projects aimed at facilitating my return back to formal education and many care homes.

Stock image of PET learner in cellAs a young black male, prison was always going to be a possible destination; good, wholesome role models are few and far between. By 2003 when I was 18, I was sentenced to a 3 year and 9 month sentence in a young offenders' institute where my learning journey began.

The media likes to portray prison, especially YOIs, as easy places. The reality is I was housed on wings with young people serving sentences from 1-25 year life tariffs; volatile is the best description I can give. Hard times either make or break your character, the stressful environment breaks a lot of young people and it nearly broke my soul too.

Most teachers do a job in prisons that is undervalued but serves the public’s interest on so many levels. Some prisoners don’t get access to education, but of those that do, many learn.

Education brings knowledge and learning which changes the lives of people like me. I have never witnessed an attack on a teacher by an inmate, for me this proves that teachers are respected by prisoners.

In YOIs education is available but comes at a risk. Within education there are increased opportunities for conflict. A person either has a strong mind or strong affiliations to properly engage in learning. My lack of affiliation put me at a disadvantage but I adapted because although I did not know it at the time, I was strong minded.

I had no qualifications but the little reading ability I had opened up the world of books. The first book I picked up was ‘The road less travelled’ and the title has always stayed with me. I perceived my lack of academic knowledge as a big weakness. People always said I was bright but I didn’t take the comments on board as positive; I thought they were patronising. I continued to read and use the dictionary to help me learn meanings to words. My understanding and knowledge came mainly from day to day interactions that began to plant and nurture my learning.

Encouragement and support from teachers

It was no surprise that I was back in prison in 2006, just after finishing my licence period with probation. This time I was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence. This was where the actual learning started; I began a journey of studying and developing like never before. I have received a lot of encouragement and support from teachers, without which I would not have been able to last as long as I have on this path to get myself educated. It is like I woke up in prison. For the first time I was thinking properly, working out and overcoming challenges in a positive way that I believed in. From simple beginnings I completed level 1 and 2 adult literacy.

Completing those first courses opened doors for me where I discovered students studying distance learning courses and a new world of learning behind these walls. The best thing was being encouraged by teachers who believed I could do it at a time when I had no self-belief.

I was shown how to apply to PET and wrote for the first time in 2008 to apply to do an Open University (OU) Business module. My first application was not successful because of the level of IT access needed for the course but my second application to study a social science module was granted. I was delighted and very nervous.

Fighting to learn

I have finished 20 education courses and am on my way to completing my third OU module. After receiving funding from PET my learning journey has led me to have a better and confident outlook on life in general. However, on numerous occasions I struggled along the way. For example, when I did not finish a maths course I enrolled on and barely scraped through to complete the business module I learned a lot about self-determination.

Every prison I have been to takes a different approach to managing distance learning students. With each move I have had lengthy battles involving basic access to computers and identifying who is available for practical assistance. Factors like battling to access computers and the lack of tutorials have had a significant impact on my results. At times I felt justified to stop studying, but I remember how much work has been put in by myself and supportive people and I cannot waste the time and effort that has been invested so far.

Lack of role models for young black males

For a young black male, good, wholesome role models are few and far between. I have found redemption in trying to do things differently by studying and looking beyond myself and what I think I know about everything. Studying at this level requires a significant amount of determination that I never had before. The journey is slow and sometimes painful but the sense of achievement has been proof that it is all worth the effort.

I will always be grateful to all the teachers and librarians that have listened to my endless questioning and given their time to help me. I am also very grateful to PET which funds so many courses that play a vital role in transforming the lives of people like me. I think the world owes me nothing, in fact it’s a place that keeps on giving, I can only learn from what I get and try to give back what I enjoy receiving. I sincerely hope that changes to how learning is provided in prison do not deprive other people like me from receiving the vital help that has fuelled my progress on this learning journey."