When thinking about teaching in prisons, it can be difficult to understand the real impact that you could have on someone’s life. That’s why Careers inJustice spoke to Simon.
Simon lived in prison for 16 years and spent a lot of it reading, learning and working in education. He now works as Head of Support for Coaching Inside and Out, is a trustee of The Prisoners’ Education Trust and tweets @SRefil about criminal justice, cancer and running with his dog. In his article, Simon explains the impact that studying and education had on him during his time in prison and how it helped him on release.
Prison is a strange place. It can be noisy, dangerous and terrifying and it can be lonely and boring. Mostly it’s the latter. Being locked in a cell isn’t inspiring, especially over long sunny weekends when the only freedom available is an hour on a tarmac yard surrounded by razor wire. Time can pass slowly and a lot of us would go to bed in the evening having achieved nothing but surviving one more day and being one closer to release.
Distraction from the tedium can be had from the TV, from sleeping the endless hours away or, for some, from drugs or alcohol. There is something fundamentally unsatisfying though with approaching a prison sentence as time to be endured or obliterated via intoxication. We all talked about ‘doing our bird’ and were eager for the end but some of us also thought that, in the meantime, we could live our lives and perhaps achieve something.
I spent a lot of my time in prison distracting myself through education courses. I started by revisiting maths via a course with the Open University (OU), courtesy of funding from the Prisoners’ Education Trust, and I loved it. Distance Learning gave me the freedom to study during the time in my cell - those dull evenings of bang-up became productive and when I did finish the week’s work and decide to watch a bit of trashy TV I felt like I deserved it.
It was tough completing assignments without a teacher and it was difficult to get access to IT, but pleading with the prison Education department meant I could occasionally get access to a PC. Sometimes OU tutors would visit and now and then there would be someone else in the prison doing the same course – this was fabulous as chatting about problems always helped me solved them. My cellmates were helpful too, they endured me talking about the maths of black holes or four-dimensional symmetries as I struggled to get my head around new concepts.
I spent time in education classes doing other subjects like Spanish, German, philosophy and politics and even tried my hand at pottery and painting. Changes to prison education meant these subjects disappeared as classes came to focus on literacy, numeracy and vocational skills. I was lucky though that, as a continuing OU student, I could access a wide variety of their courses. After I completed my maths degree I began another and immersed myself in the world of English Literature - books I had refused to read twenty years earlier at school. The more I challenged myself with new ideas, the harder I would work and the more satisfaction I’d feel. Learning helped life feel worthwhile and I was building up qualifications that would help me on release.
Towards the end of my sentence I worked as a Library and Education Orderly, helping others access distance learning courses and assisting them with research or getting access to study space. I’d had help at times during my learning, so giving even a little back felt satisfying and, besides, it challenged me and deepened my understanding. In open prison, I was fortunate enough to volunteer in a training company in the community and followed that with a stint as a Maths Lecturer in a Further Education College.
I look back on my prison education life and think I was lucky - lucky to have had support, lucky to be funded, lucky that I could choose courses which had no obvious vocational purpose. Things have changed over the years and although there is a major emphasis on education in prison it is focused on basic and vocational skills and remains inaccessible to many for a variety of reasons – mental health issues, violence, drugs and staff shortages amongst them.
The benefit to me of all those nights sitting scratching my head to understand a formula or hunched over an old typewriter producing an essay on Measure for Measure was not in the direct application of my learning. It was in the self-esteem it provided me with, a sense of purpose and a realisation that I could change and achieve what I had not been able to as a child. Education gave me pride, a focus and became part of my identity. I found freedom and self-determination through learning. It opened up opportunities and challenged me to step up and try to succeed where I had failed in the past.
If you have enjoyed reading Simon’s story and would like to help others like him, click here to explore the latest teaching opportunities in Offender Education.