Blog: Prison education – creating the foundations for change

Published: 21 Mar 2019

Author: Richard Wakelin
Blog: Prison education – creating the foundations for change

As Head of Education in a prison in England, I see the profound impact that education and training can have on the lives of prisoners every day. From the group of young prisoners who discovered their creative streak for writing and now have a published novel, to the prisoner who completed his waste management qualification and had his first day at work in that industry recently, education in prisons has the power to provide opportunities for prisoners that previously appeared to be beyond their reach.

In England, there is currently an air of change with regards to prison education. In 2016 Dame Sally Coates’ review of prison education described education as one of the “pillars of effective rehabilitation” and called for learning to be placed “at the heart” of the prison system. A recent change in policy enables offenders who move prisons to continue with the same awarding body, meaning they do not suffer unnecessary disruptions in their pursuit of qualifications. Equally welcome is a new requirement on prison education providers to cater to the needs of people with learning difficulties and disabilities, who are a significant group in our prisons.

In 2017 I visited Norway and the Netherlands on a Churchill Fellowship to find out what more we could be doing in the UK to improve our prison education and training.

Among the most inspiring projects I encountered were social enterprises based within Norwegian prisons. One impressive example I came across was a state-of-the-art car repair business, where local people could have their cars serviced. Other examples included farm shops, restaurants and production businesses. These types of social enterprises open prisons up to their local communities and bridge the gap between offenders and the rest of society.

At Krimpen prison in Norway, I learnt about a programme offering employment opportunities to prisoners on day release. Casper Langendoen, prison wing manager at Krimpen prison, talked to me about how these opportunities gave offenders an increased sense of responsibility. He summed up the idea behind the programme brilliantly, when he said: “Find the skills, give them trust, listen to their ideas, support them.”

What I learned from Casper, and others on my travels, is that we need to be more outward looking when we look at ways to rehabilitate offenders. We are committed to doing what we can to help offenders within the classroom, but it’s often the opportunities that arise for them on the outside than can be the most important tool for ensuring they do not fall into a cycle of reoffending.

At Halden prison in Norway, the environment is geared towards ensuring offenders can reintegrate back into their community once they are released. Prisoners perform everyday tasks and activities that help to keep them accustomed to life outside of prison. For example, they are able to do their grocery shopping at a store that is based within the prison, but which is laid out in the style of a regular high street shop.

Coming from my background as an educator within prisons, my focus will always be on the rehabilitation side of the prison system. My Fellowship travels offered me a wealth of ideas, not only for supporting offenders to lead positive, crime-free lives, but also for helping them to gain skills and experience that will make them an asset to their communities once they are released. This should matter to everyone. As one Norwegian prison governor asked, “Who do you want to be your neighbour?”

Read Richard’s report

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