My work as a prisoner education mentor

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Piers, HMP Pentonville | 31 July 2019

Piers wrote to us from HMP Pentonville to tell us about his new position as a distance learning mentor – supporting other prisoners to access the education that he believes is a lifeline.

Instead of just writing this job off as me ‘working for the opposition’ they accept that I am, in fact, helping the system to help them.

Sometimes in-cell studying can be really tough – a long list of potential disruptions and distractions all day every day – but plenty of people meet the challenge head on. I assist guys to work towards their distance learning goals, and I like helping. For people already on their further/higher education journey, or who are thinking about crossing the start line, I’m available to keep things moving forward. I think pretty soon other prisons are likely to follow suit – mentors like me will be popping up everywhere.

I’ve done enough time myself to be in tune with the general direction of HMPPS, and right now I’m sensing they are seeing what has been clear to independent observers for a while: people can change, and they can genuinely boost their chances of living crime-free if they are given access to qualifications that employers are looking for. Good people at this jail are dismantling barriers between potential students and their academic/vocational targets. I’m glad to help with it because I also believe that if you have made a mistake in your past – albeit a relatively serious one that resulted in a custodial sentence – you can still offer much to the wider world.

I think it’s fair to say the general perception is that incarcerated people are selfish and born to be criminals and to stay criminals, but I assure you that this is not true. Prison is the same as outside life: there are good people, some are not-so-good and many are somewhere in between. I am by no means the only prisoner who gives time almost every day to helping others. There was a time when lots of others would have labelled me a ‘screw boy’ – a turncoat – for taking this job, but things have changed. Now other inmates generally tend to think things out a bit more: instead of just writing this job off as me ‘working for the opposition’ they accept that I am, in fact, helping the system to help them.

Good people at this jail are dismantling barriers between potential students and their academic/vocational targets.

I’m grateful that I was asked to do this new job because I really believe in the value of distance learning for everybody. Over the years I have done plenty of in-cell studies myself, and I’m currently working on a Level 3 journalism qualification funded by Prisoners’ Education Trust. I plan to finish this course then move on to two others (related to personal training) that I’ve already chosen!

Of course, job prospects are just one of many reasons to study, and I like to learn what motivates other people. Some are like me, and are thinking about future employment prospects. Others see the value in keeping the mind – which can start to stagnate during a sentence – ticking over. Some see further education as a chance to make up for a relatively unproductive time at school, to confirm that they are capable and can do it. Or it could be a case of ‘riding tandem’ with the children as they also work hard at school. Everyone has their personal reasons and motivations.

I have a friend – Michael, in his sixties, first and no doubt last time in jail. He’s now halfway through his Open University BA (Hons) in Classical Studies. Why? For no other reason than he felt he’d really enjoy it! He writes to me regularly, and he loves his course – loves what he’s learning! Right now he’s doing it for himself, but who can say where it might take him in the end? Sometimes in life it’s an idea to just put your shoes on and start walking.

 

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