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Prison education: why it matters?
Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report. Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic. The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.
In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage. At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated. We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners. Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue. Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas.
The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not. In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison. They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail. This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom. This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes. For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality. In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society. The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison. This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some. Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system.
This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education. We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right. Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle. From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate. Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s. People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie.
The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change. The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances. Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process. For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.
The final criminological issue is the prison itself. What do we want people to do in them? If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released. When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult. People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”. This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality. A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation. The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly. This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet. If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary. Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions. This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does. The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change.
Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice. This is perhaps a different topic of conversation. At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.
Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison
Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Review, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review
Originally published here
HMP Science Competition 2020: “Thank God”
The last few months have been challenging for all of us, in one form or another, regardless of personal circumstances. Many of us have faced loneliness, illness, bereavement, as well as a range of other challenges. Prisoners have particularly been hit hard, with the cessation of family visits as well as, an extremely restrictive regime. As a response to the Covid-19 lockdown, the Criminology team have created a range of different activities which can be undertaken in cell and which have hopefully helped to pass the long hours. Similarly, colleagues within Geography have created a number of different quizzes which have tested both staff and prisoners. As part of this initiative, Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of UoN kindly offered to run a writing competition focused on science. Along with the winning entry which can be read here, the following entry was highly commended by the judges as an imaginative response to the questions posed:
Thank God: Everything is not always as it seems when you are only three. A short story written by M. C. using subjects 4 and 5*
September the 22nd 1959, my third birthday. The day the Spirit of the universe, Divine Power greater than myself, Supreme Being, God made his presents [sic] known in my life.
I had just climbed to the top of a Wicksteed Park slide it was 33 feet high made of steel and iron set in a concrete base. It was in Castlefields Park at the bottom of Brook Street, Wellingborough.
My lovely mother was standing at the bottom, a beautiful 22yr old young woman. I fell from the top landing directly on my head onto the concrete base. My mother was horrified, she thought I was dead!! But I just stood up and shook my head without a tear. So that was my first experience of the power that does not live on this earth stepped in and saved me Thank God!!!
That when Dad came home from work. I remember him saying one of God’s favourites boy!!
I know that I am made in the image of God and God as [sic] manifested many miracles throughout my life, and blessed me with so many gifts. The gift of tongues which I can also translate, the gift of using the blood of Jesus for healing, I can look into the future through meditation allowing me to open my third eye. The holy spirit that is not in the form of man. It’s more of a magical being of the universe. I can call on the holy spirit any time that I want instantly and straight away achieve the spirits peace and happiness in my life. Plus in deep meditation the spirit great powers can transform me to heaven. I have been a few times and believe me it’s not a place on earth. Most of this can be proved, and is written down in the Chronicles of the Kingdom Life Church.
The universe can be measured by holy string. Which comes in three sizes Large Medium and Small. So the exact size of the universe is a large piece of holy string by a small and medium piece!! Not forgetting Heaven is 41.000 miles cubed in one corner of it.
*Question 4: How big is the universe and how is it measured? Question 5: Will humans ever met space aliens?
HMP Science Competition 2020: “Will humans ever meet space aliens?”
The last few months have been challenging for all of us, in one form or another, regardless of personal circumstances. Many of us have faced loneliness, illness, bereavement, as well as a range of other challenges. Prisoners have particularly been hit hard, with the cessation of family visits as well as, an extremely restrictive regime. As a response to the Covid-19 lockdown, the Criminology team have created a range of different activities which can be undertaken in cell and which have hopefully helped to pass the long hours. Similarly, colleagues within Geography have created a number of different quizzes which have tested both staff and prisoners. As part of this initiative, Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of UoN kindly offered to run a writing competition focused on science. The winning entry can be read below
There is a near 100% certainty that humans will indeed meet space aliens – and if not within our generation, then most likely within the lives of our children or grandchildren.
However, whilst generations built up on visions of Star Wars and Star Trek might envisage us clasping hands with humanesque visitors from outer space, Babel fish in their ears, the first and perhaps only encounter ever likely to happen is that of a scientist peering at the screen of an electron microscope, to study the truly spectacular and epoch-making vision of an alien self-replicating molecule, or single-celled proto organism, retrieved from a volcanic rent on volcanic vent on Io [moon of Jupiter], Mars or another near neighbour.
The mathematician von Neumann’s concept of the ‘von Neumann probe’, or self-replicating space vehicle capable of travelling interstellar distances, to replicate itself on other planets, from where it would then head off to further star systems, populating the entire Milky Way in less than a million years, does neatly encapsulate the question: If there is intelligent alien life out there, why haven’t we seen it? The only answer to which must be, to the extent it does exist, it must be a long, long way away, in remote galaxies, perhaps too distant to ever be reached by man, as the universe expands more rapidly than we could ever travel.
Initial results from the studies of now thousands of exo-planets have also failed to give chemical indications of oxygen, or other synthesised chemicals likely to indicate life in detectable quantities on our near neighbouring planets.
However, on the smaller scale, if scientists such as Langland are correct in their view that the evolutionary adaptation of self-replicating molecules, leading to early life forms, can be explained by the laws of thermodynamics, prior to any Darwinian pressures on replication, mutation and inheritance traits, life in its most basic forms is likely to be a common phenomenon. Rather than needing a primeval chemical soup struck by lightening to foster the creation of RNA-like molecules, any simple source of energy such as volcanic spark could, over time give rise to simple life forms. Indeed, this is seen here on earth, where a bewildering variety of non-oxygen based simple life forms exist in the plumes of deepwater volcanic rents.
Such life forms may be simple, and their environmental conditions not far extensive enough or long-lived enough for complex life to form, or spread from the immediate vicinity. Even here on earth, life may have existed for two billion years or more before that fateful day when two became one, and complex cellular life came into being.
Sometimes in the near future, life will no doubt be discovered elsewhere than just on earth – with all the implications that will doubtless bring to the monotheistic religions placing God and Man at the centre of creation. But one thing is certain, our first encounter with alien life will be through a microscope, not a spaceship.
Out early on good behaviour
Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton
The other week I had the opportunity to visit one of our local prisons with academic colleagues from our Criminology team within the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. The prison in question is a category C closed facility and it was my very first visit to such an institution. The context for my visit was to follow up and review the work completed by students, prisoners and staff in the joint delivery of an academic module which forms part of our undergraduate Criminology course. The module entitled “Beyond Justice” explores key philosophical, social and political issues associated with the concept of justice and the journeys that individuals travel within the criminal justice system in the UK. This innovative approach to collaborative education involving the delivery of the module to students of the university and prisoners was long in its gestation. The module itself had been delivered over several weeks in the Autumn term of 2017. What was very apparent from the start of this planned visit was how successful the venture had been; ground-breaking in many respects with clear impact for all involved. Indeed, it has been way more successful than anyone could have imagined when the staff embarked on the planning process. The project is an excellent example of the University’s Changemaker agenda with its emphasis upon mobilising University assets to address real life social challenges.
My particular visit was more than a simple review and celebration of good Changemaker work well done. It was to advance the working relationship with the Prison in the signing of a memorandum of understanding which outlined further work that would be developed on the back of this successful project. This will include; future classes for university/prison students, academic advancement of prison staff, the use of prison staff expertise in the university, research and consultancy. My visit was therefore a fruitful one. In the run up to the visit I had to endure all the usual jokes one would expect. Would they let me in? More importantly would they let me out? Clearly there was an absolute need to be on my best behaviour, keep my nose clean and certainly mind my Ps and Qs especially if I was to be “released”. Despite this ribbing I approached the visit with anticipation and an open mind. To be honest I was unsure what to expect. My only previous conceptual experience of this aspect of the criminal justice system was many years ago when I was working as a mental health nurse in a traditional NHS psychiatric hospital. This was in the early 1980s with its throwback to a period of mental health care based on primarily protecting the public from the mad in society. Whilst there had been some shifts in thinking there was still a strong element of the “custodial” in the treatment and care regimen adopted. Public safety was paramount and many patients had been in the hospital for tens of years with an ensuing sense of incarceration and institutionalisation. These concepts are well described in the seminal work of Barton (1976) who described the consequences of long term incarceration as a form of neurosis; a psychiatric disorder in which a person confined for a long period in a hospital, mental hospital, or prison assumes a dependent role, passively accepts the paternalist approach of those in charge, and develops symptoms and signs associated with restricted horizons, such as increasing passivity and lack of motivation. To be fair mental health services had been transitioning slowly since the 1960s with a move from the custodial to the therapeutic. The associated strategy of rehabilitation and the decant of patients from what was an old asylum to a more community based services were well underway. In many respects the speed of this change was proving problematic with community support struggling to catch up and cope with the numbers moving out of the institutions.
My only other personal experience was when I spent a night in the cells of my local police station following an “incident” in the town centre. This was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I know everyone says that, but in this case it is a genuine explanation). However, this did give me a sense of what being locked up felt like albeit for a few hours one night. When being shown one of the single occupancy cells at the prison those feelings came flooding back. However, the thought of being there for several months or years would have considerably more impact. The accommodation was in fact worse than I had imagined. I reflected on this afterwards in light of what can sometimes be the prevailing narrative that prison is in some way a cushy number. The roof over your head, access to a TV and a warm bed along with three square meals a day is often dressed up as a comfortable daily life. The reality of incarceration is far from this view. A few days later I watched Trevor MacDonald report from Indiana State Prison in the USA as part of ITV’s crime and punishment season. In comparison to that you could argue the UK version is comfortable but I have no doubt either experience would be, for me, an extreme challenge.
There were further echoes of my mental health experiences as I was shown the rehabilitation facilities with opportunities for prisoners to experience real world work as part of their transition back into society. I was impressed with the community engagement and the foresight of some big high street companies to get involved in retraining and education. This aspect of the visit was much better than I imagined and there is evidence that this is working. It is a strict rehabilitation regime where any poor behaviour or departure from the planned activity results in failure and loss of the opportunity. This did make me reflect on our own project and its contribution to prisoner rehabilitation. In education, success and failure are norms and the process engenders much more tolerance of what we see as mistakes along the way. The great thing about this project is the achievement of all in terms of both the learning process and outcome. Those outcomes will be celebrated later this month when we return to the prison for a special celebration event. That will be the moment not only to celebrate success but to look to the future and the further work the University and the Prison can do together. On that occasion as on this I do expect to be released early for good behaviour.
Barton, R., (1976) Institutional Neurosis: 3rd edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, London.