Prison cookery teacher wins national award

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A cookery teacher at Leicester’s HMP Gartree has won a national prison education award, presented by local prison officer turned X-factor winner Sam Bailey.

Geoff Sykes, 48, has run the ‘Flavours’ restaurant at HMP Gartree for six years, teaching prisoners culinary skills and helping them gain work experience and valuable qualifications.

The Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) were held on Thursday 14 September at De Montfort University and were presented by Sam Bailey, who herself worked as a prison officer at HMP Gartree before becoming a singer/songwriter.  Geoff was one of 16 winners from prisons across England and Wales.

Geoff said: “I decided to work in prisons as a route into mainstream education, but after a couple of years of seeing the difference you can make to people’s lives, and the personal rewards I gained from their achievements, it was not a hard decision to stay.

“I feel very humbled and privileged to help my learners engage in employability and life skills that will help them on their release.”

The awards are unique in that all of the 400-plus nominations came from serving prisoners, who write handwritten letters to Prisoners’ Education Trust, the charity behind the PLA.

One prisoner wrote in his letter nominating Geoff:

“Many people come here ‘broken’ with no previous work experience, but Geoff spends so much time and effort into each individual. The confidence these students exhibit as a result of their journey is all down to Geoff. He takes on many roles to show his students that it is possible to achieve, if people are willing to work.”

Presenting the awards, Sam Bailey said: “Working in a prison is a tough gig, and one that, since my time, has only become harder. One thing stays the same though: outstanding people can make that harsh environment better. 

“Outstanding staff and mentors have the power to encourage people to take up education; to stop self-harming; to stop taking drugs and to start to see themselves as someone who is more than just a prisoner. They have the power to help someone rehabilitate, so they don’t commit future crimes but instead end up giving back to their families and communities.”

There was a second prize-winner from HMP Gartree in the peer mentor category. David was nominated by other prisoners for his work helping other prisoners in maths and English. Through patience and dedication, he has helped countless men gain new skills and qualifications that will be essential in helping them to build a crime-free life after release.

In a letter nominating David, one prisoner wrote: “He helps me when I get stressed out and want to pack it all in. He makes me see the big-picture.”

PLA Chair Alexandra Marks CBE, said: “Those who work in the prison sector are at the coal face of the acute difficulties facing the system. But despite rising violence and other pressures, the PLA award winners go the extra mile to promote learning, provide role models and form positive relationships with prisoners. They are so deserving of the recognition these awards give.”

The PLA is currently working with the prison service to incorporate lessons learned from the awards into the recruitment and training of future prison officers, particularly in terms of the qualities prisoners most value in prison staff. The most-mentioned qualities in nomination letters were: “inspiring”, “motivational”, “helpful” and “supportive”. 

The awards, now in their third year, were held as part of the Annual PLA conference, which brings together sector experts to discuss the challenges and opportunities of prison education.  

Source: Milton Keynes College OLASS