Beneficiary to Board member - Simon's Story
"As a trustee with lived and learned experience of prison education my goal is to encourage us to reach out, to strive to be both inclusive and diverse."
Sometimes I’ll make a big decision in life and attribute dutiful consideration, planning and even wisdom to it in hindsight. Like the decisions I made to study Open University courses in prison and then, 16 years later, the one to apply to be a trustee for Prisoners’ Education Trust.
Completing Open University courses inside gave me a place to be away from the madness of my own head and the environment I lived in. It gave me relief from idiotic and destructive coping mechanisms, it cultivated my sense of self-worth and allowed me to focus on a series of short term goals that added up to more than just qualifications – they came to constitute a worthwhile period of my life, living and learning behind a steel cell door.
But none of that is why I started studying. I was bored, I was in Belmarsh and we had no TV. I could only spend so many hours a day reading library books and there wasn’t a job in the workshops or a course in the Education Department that interested me. Besides, I got funding from PET (who were they?) so it didn’t cost me anything. What could I lose?
What I didn’t know is that education would also isolate me. It left me with questions to ponder and nobody to ask them of. It meant I didn’t know much about the weekend’s films or reality shows and that I didn’t take part in the shouted conversations between windows on some eviction or audition night. I spent a lot of time alone, studying during the long bang up hours and writing assignments on my dodgy typewriter and hoping the ribbon would last until I could buy another.
I also didn’t realise that I was at the beginning of a journey which would lead me through a Mathematics degree into one in English Literature, which would allow me to find a voice in creative writing, stand in front of college classes as a Mathematics Lecturer and become the first trustee of the Prisoners’ Education Trust with experience of studying whilst living in prison.
"I’d love to be able to represent the absent voice – that of the learner in prison - but I can’t. Each learner has a unique experience."
Being on the board of a charity has been a steep learning curve, but one that I have been helped climb by the PET staff team and my fellow trustees. The Board paperwork takes some getting used to and I’m blown away by the attention to detail and knowledge around the table. Sometimes it has felt like a difficult place to express myself, I’m not backwards at coming forwards but I know when there are smarter people than me sitting close by and that can shut me up. I was intimidated in Board meetings at first, but on reflection I have no doubt that says more about my view of myself than others’.
As a trustee I’d love to be able to represent the absent voice – that of the learner in prison - but I can’t. Each learner has a unique experience and I can’t express the views of more than 85,000 potential PET applicants. I also don’t know what any of them think, feel or need. I recall my own experiences and wonder: What don’t we know?
I think back to my time as a learner in prison and how isolated I felt. I think of the conversation with a man in prison recently who wants to complete a Masters in Philosophy and who was amazed to learn that another six people in custody in his region are planning to take the course at the same time as him. He knows he will most likely never meet them, exchange ideas or develop relationships with these fellow students. I also wonder at the struggle my contemporaries have as they try to translate an outstanding prison education into a career or position in academia on release.
Who can help us?
Prisoners’ Education Trust currently facilitate an Alumni Advisory Group of people who are expert in prison education, having lived and studied inside. Their expertise is broad and deep, it informs and challenges our staff team and the Board and they frequently ask difficult questions and work with us to develop answers. They assist brilliantly in imagining how we can support future learners and alumni in innovative ways, but to me it feels like a first step in collaborating with those with expertise.
I’d like to go further than consulting those who have lived through prison education. There is such a wealth of expertise, alongside everyone else working in the Criminal Justice System we need to consider how to coproduce services with the diverse people who access and support them – not only prisoners and alumni but also education staff, prison officers, governors, support staff and voluntary and charity organisations. We must also include the families and friends of learners who do so much to help and those people who would begin an education course in prison if only … I don’t know. Why don’t they?
As technology finally seeps into prisons, governors are given increased autonomy and new education contracts are agreed the world of prison education will change. Prisoners’ Education Trust have supported prisoners for over a quarter of a century, providing access to subjects and levels of education not otherwise available and building a community of learners both within and beyond prison walls. We must use this knowledge and ensure that future learners have access, support and community – a place to be as they grow and change.
As a trustee with lived and learned experience of prison education my goal is to encourage us to reach out, to strive to be both inclusive and diverse. By working with experts within prison and without I imagine us combining technology with our knowledge to create a vibrant community of interconnected students with access to shared expertise and support.
And I can picture them confounding and resetting society’s expectations of what a prisoner looks like, sounds like and is capable of.