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Prison Education in focus….

In thinking about the role of prison education it is useful to take stock of the current focus of the research. Prison education as a field of research suffers from a lack of direction due, in part, to a failure to articulate the purpose of educating prisoners in the first place. It is interesting to note that education seems to be universally accepted as something a prison regime provides. Even Nelson Mandela, when not allowed visitors and being restricted in the number of letters he could write, was allowed to undertake a correspondence course through Wolsey Hall, Oxford. Although I support the assumption that prisoners ought to be allowed to study, the question remains around the purpose of education. Is it to occupy time? For correction and rehabilitation? To help prisoners get a job upon release? Or, as I would argue, for personal fulfilment and human development? 

The Prison Service Journal has published several articles recently relating to prison education.  In particular, they published an interview between Helen Nichols, prison education researcher at Leeds Beckett, and Ed Cornmell, the Governor of HMP Full Sutton. He highlights the role of the general environment of a prison in developing a ‘rehabilitative culture’ stating that education “can be that medium for personal growth….can create hope and can be a catalyst for change.” (PSJ, No. 223 p. 52). He argues for a broad range of educational provision at different levels as well as the need for basic skills and flexibility to allow the prison to “taylor the provision to the prisoner group and the person” (p. 53). 

In the same publication, Clare Taylor of the Prison Education Trust points out the lack of a “universal theory of change” when it come to prison education. As such, it is unclear what the purpose of educating prisoners actually is; is it about employment, changing attitudes and behaviours, promoting desistance, or just about occupying prisoners’ time? Or is it all of the above? They also point out that in discussing the purpose of prison, the true educational levels of prisoners need to be understood; it is widely accepted that they are lower than the general population but PET question whether they are quite as low as accepted statistics state. 

Taylor’s (2016) paper also presents the findings of an evaluation they commissioned of their pilot project to improve ‘learner voice’. This promoted the use of Prisoner Information Desks (PIDs), Skills Mentors, and other schemes to raise the profile of education across the prison and encourage hard-to-reach prisoners into work and education programmes. Findings suggest that such activities can promote a rehabilitation culture providing there are good levels of both prisoner and staff involvement in the process. Taylor concludes by pointing out the need to develop tools for educational development in prison and improved understanding of the mechanisms of how education relates to post-release outcomes. 

Going beyond the context of prison education in England and Wales, the final recent article of interest considers the role of creativity within prison education. Bustillo and Garaizar (2016) present findings of an investigation into the use of Scratch which they describe as a “programming language designed to fun, educational, and easy to learn” (p.60).  This type of education aims to develop creative thinking to allow learners to imagine, create, learn and share. Through this educational pedagogy learners in their study developed their “logical and sequential thinking skills” (p.69) and a significant improvement in creative intelligence. This type of learning provided prisoners with opportunity to take control of their own progress and created a positive environment characterised by trust “where development of the capabilities of participants was encouraged”. (p.70). 

From this small selection of recent articles, it is becomes apparent that education plays a different role in varying prison contexts. The type of education delivered (basic skills, degree level qualifications, arts-based activities) effects the role it plays. Most importantly, prisoners are not one homogenous group. They are people with varying needs, interests, and skillsets. As such, education needs to have a broad base, able to respond to the different people residing within our prisons. 


Kirstine Szifris MPhil MMath
Research Associate
Policy Evaluation and Research Unit
Manchester Metropolitan University

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