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On release why does punishment continue?

Sentencing removes many from society and places them in Prison.

But what happens when they are released back?

With their belongings in a bag and a small grant off they go back to the society that removed them in the first place.

Then what?

Due to the nature of the crime or the often-complex background many face the prospect of no real home and no job.

I speak at every opportunity of my frustration that skills acquired in prison are seemingly just worthless on release. The skills need to match the work available. However, I have seen excellent examples of tutors training those in prison and encouraging them to reach standards that they never thought possible. I have read letters and cards sent to these tutors in thanks for believing in them and helping to achieve qualifications that have led to decent jobs on release.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen enough.

What about those with existing skills that have had to lay dormant whilst they serve their sentence?

How can they re-join the workplace?

Should they be able to go back into their old job or field?

For some picking up where they left off is not an option due to the nature of the crime, family circumstances or health.

But if we build a barrier to those who pose no threat to society which prevents them from re-joining their work sector then are we continuing to punish?

One perfect example is a man I have known for over 4 years. He is articulate, polite, intelligent, well dressed, always encouraging, constantly pushing for prison reform, and has a network that most would be grateful for. He has been known to take into prisons celebrities such as Russell Brand and Derek Martin and MP’s to encourage those on their journey in life.

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He has written two books on his experiences whilst in prison and the challenges he faced on release.

His name is Jonathan Robinson, a former helicopter instructor.

After helping an MP with content for a book, he asked for a reference to get back to the job he loved so that he could once again use the skills which he had acquired over many years. You would think that was a simple enough request. He asked and was told YES.

But then was told NO and was hit by deafening silence that I have personally witnessed on many occasions from MP’s.

His story can be found this morning as a guest blog on www.prisonerben.blogspot.co.uk please read it as one day it may be someone you know facing the same stigma.

If Jonathan was prevented from working what hope have others?

Insidetime: not just for prisoners!

social-logo-it_400x400 inside time

On 2nd November I was pleased to attend the Prisoners Education Trust, annual lecture celebrating 25 year of ‘Inside Time’ the prison newspaper, at Clifford Chance. There were many people there I have either met face to face before or communicated with via twitter! Some said “Hello Faith” as they recognised me from twitter, maybe I tweet too often?

Eric McGraw was very entertaining whilst giving us insight into the initial trials and tribulations of producing and distributing Insidetime.

For the first-timer in prison it offers help, support, an inroad into the complexities of prison life, but most of all it can be a lifeline in some of the darkest days. A lot of it is written by prisoners for prisoners but don’t be put off by that.

I believe Insidetime is an excellent tool for other organisations working within the prison estate. It can be used to show the bigger picture of what really goes on in prison. Yes we all read the often media hype, the stories that sell papers which increases the gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’. But what picture do they paint reality? Probably not!

If you have never read it I recommend it as it’s not just for prisoners!

Cat B visited

Well I have now visited Cat A, B, C, D and a YOI just leaving women’s estate which is on the agenda and an IRC.

Cat B yesterday, I must say it was not what I expected, Razor wire yes, heightened security yes, but not what I would call a “typical” prison environment.

I accompanied an actor and an ex-prisoner who campaigns for prison reform; Derek Martin an Eastenders actor and Jonathan Robinson, who I nick-named the “Dynamic Duo”.

From left:  Jonathan Robinson and Derek Martin. Photo: Faith Spear

From left: Jonathan Robinson and Derek Martin.
Photo: Faith Spear

My reason for visiting this prison was that after hearing good things about staff and their attitude towards prisoners with encouragement and motivation, I wanted to see for myself and not rely on the accounts of others.

This planned event started around 12.30, where the three of us met in the prison car park. I had met Jonathan before at various events but it was a first with Derek who came across as such a likeable character I was sure it was going to be a memorable afternoon!

On the inside

Fast tracked through security we waited in a through room for our host the Librarian and Learning Leader. Wow was he tall (well most people are tall to me)

Our first port of call was the library, what a vibrant organised room, a place where you would just want to learn in. Education was encouraged. There were colourful posters covering the walls, some of which showed previous guest appearances and reading schemes. You might say “a library is a library” what’s so special about a library?

But this was in a Cat B prison! I would have been quite happy to curl up on their sofa with a good book for a couple of hours.

I then expected just to go to the room for the talk given by Derek, instead we had a cuppa in the visits hall, a large bright modern room, laid out in small seating areas, well stocked kids play area and a purpose built coffee bar. Although I didn’t see it, the staff raved about the new baby unit just off the main hall.

It was good to chat with staff about the ways that families are supported with one member in prison. There was such a relaxed atmosphere which reflected the staff’s willingness to engage with the inmates. I believe maintaining family ties are such an important element in the rehabilitation programme. They even had incentives to enable inmates to earn extra time with their loved ones.

Our visit included Tesco express well the store for prisoner’s canteen, a wing, cell, laundry and the impressive gym. I started talking with a very enthusiastic member of staff who I immediately warmed to. Her determination to work with the prisoners to achieve was remarkable. As with my work, I meet many in prison that have never achieved anything positive in their lives. This was not something that this staff member was going to accept, she explained when faced with barriers there was always a solution even to the point of condensing courses, providing material in Braille and help with dyslexia.

Yet again education was encouraged at what ever age and what ever ability.

Oi, Charlie!

Sure, the celebrity guest was Derek, but we all were treated so well. Walking towards the multi-faith room. cheers went up from inmates and staff alike as they recognised Charlie (Derek).

On finally reaching the room, Derek and Jonathan sat at the front and Derek addressed the audience. Then the entertainment began with Derek’s sense of humour being displayed as he recounted story after story. Then it was time for the questions from “where can you buy pie and mash?” to “how can you be an extra on a television show?”

I enjoyed the chatting afterwards with the inmates; many wanted a signed poster from Derek or a copy of Jonathan’s book IN_IT.

Key takeaways

So what effect did the day have on me?

Today I have been going over and over in my mind the experiences of yesterday:

  • I met inspirational staff who enjoyed their job
  • I saw respect from staff and inmates
  • There was no heaviness in the air that I have experienced at other prisons
  • There was a hunger to learn
  • At no point did I feel vulnerable
  • There was a sense that the staff were all singing from the same hymn sheet
  • Rehabilitation in prison can and should start from day one
  • Even short sentences can be filled with purposeful activity
  • Prisoners taking responsibility
  • Education is a key to rehabilitation

Now I’m not saying this prison is perfect, there are issues facing the whole of the prison estate. But good practice needs to be shared.

We cannot sit by and see wasted lives within a prison environment, rehabilitation is the key to breaking the cycle of reoffending and yet its not about money, its more about attitude.