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No two prisons are alike, any more than two prisoners are the same. But virtually all closed prisons have one thing in common, they are noisy places. Wherever you go, at most times of day and evening, there’s a cacophony of sounds. The jangling of keys, slamming of metal doors, alarm bells and loudspeaker announcements, and prisoners and staff shouting to be heard above the din. The noise increases dramatically whenever prisoners are on the move.
Little wonder that it requires commitment and effort to shut out those distractions and study. Education budgets in prisons have been cut by almost a quarter since 2010, accentuated under former justice secretary Chris Grayling. And until the decision was reversed after a court ruled it unlawful, his ban on sending books to prisoners also hindered education.
Since former education secretary Michael Gove moved to the Justice Department, however, things have improved. In October 2015, he announced a review of prison education, and this month the prime minister promised to protect the £130m prison education budget.
Already, a new project at HMP Swaleside, Kent – one of a cluster of three jails on the Isle of Sheppey – aims to revolutionise prison education. Swaleside, with 1,100 inmates, is the first prison to create a university-like campus, the Open Academy, which opened last September. Unlike most jails, where classrooms are separate from cells and living areas, student prisoners live and learn on A-wing. In addition to 85 single-occupancy cells, the academy has three classrooms. Two are study libraries, while the third – the IT suite – contains a “virtual campus” where students can type up assignments and send them off electronically.
All 85 students have access to tutors – through Skype, email, and some visits – and hundreds of courses are available, from accounting to zoology. Eight prisoners have been recruited as skills advisers to encourage inmates to join the project. The advisers are paid £30 a week, a more than decent wage in prison. One, Anton, is studying for a degree in social sciences; another, Matt, is doing a business and management course; while a third, Ohene, plans to study psychology and wants to be a youth worker when he is released. He says it’s “a blessing” to be on A-wing.
Any prisoner is eligible for the scheme as long as they have had security clearance, and successful candidates are selected by the prisoner skills advisers. Uniquely, the academy is intended to enable inmates and prison staff to study together, with the aim of enhancing staff-prisoner relationships and creating a harmonious environment. No member of staff is studying at present, but some will be in due course.
The Open Academy was the idea of Malcolm Whitelaw, head of learning and skills at Swaleside. Whitelaw secured approval for the scheme from the former governor of the prison, Sarah Coccia, whom, he says, wanted to bring a new dimension to prison education and backed him all the way. Costs were minimal: £12,000 was spent on fibre-optic cabling and he “begged, borrowed, or stole the rest”, Whitelaw says.
The current governor, Paul Newton, is equally enthusiastic about the project. There is a high level of violence and use of legal highs at Swaleside and Newton calls the academy a “chink of light”. Although many inmates initially don’t want to engage in education, he says the enthusiasm of the skills advisers is starting to rub off.
Newton is particularly keen on staff learning alongside prisoners. He says he wants to identify gaps in their skills, along with those of the prisoners. “The end game is not to produce better prisoners, but better citizens,” he says.
The project is proving popular, with a waiting list of 45 prisoners. One adviser, Marcus, who is serving a long sentence, tells me his job is to “find the gaps” in applicants’ learning. For some it may be basic literacy. Others will strive for Open University degrees. All that is needed to study, says Marcus, is that prisoners want “to be involved in their own programmes and will embrace the learning culture of the wing”.
Gemma Phillips, a senior officer at Swaleside, agrees. “Prisoners really want to be on this wing, and that’s the difference – it’s a real pleasure to come to work,” she says.
Swaleside now has plans to convert another wing to enable more student prisoners to take part. Meanwhile, the Open Academy is taking part in the Inside-Out prison exchange programme, founded in the US in 1997. The scheme sees prisoners study alongside undergraduates in a prison setting. The UK version was pioneered by Durham University in 2014. Durham is now running the scheme with its criminology students, twice a year, in Frankland, Durham and Low Newton prisons. Last year 50 inmates took part; so far this year 75 have.
In January, 15 students from the University of Kent began a 10-week course, Issues in Criminal Justice, alongside 15 prisoners at Swaleside, covering topics relevant to criminal justice, such as prisons, drugs and the causes of crime. Attendees will gain credits towards their degrees on completion of the course.
Caroline Chatwin, senior lecturer in criminology at Kent, says: “Kent students have a chance to place their academic learning in a real-life context and are finding that many of their assumptions about the criminal justice system are being challenged. Swaleside students are enjoying the opportunity to place their first-hand experiences in a more academic context, and to study alongside students from outside the prison walls. We have received the first assessed assignments and they are generally very strong.”
Rod Clark, chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, which supports prisoners studying for degrees and on other distance learning courses, hopes Swaleside’s model will be replicated. “At a time when the government is reviewing prison education, the academy at Swaleside could serve as a model for other jails,” he says. “The Open Academy is not only providing a great resource to prisoners – their enthusiasm and that of the staff is attracting more learners to take part in what we know can change lives.” He adds: “It is therefore all the more important that managers and governors have the freedom to use the limited budgets in these creative ways, as Swaleside are doing so well.”
Back at the prison, Anton says that before the academy began he was merely serving out his 20-year sentence. “Years done and more to do. I was going nowhere. Now I feel so much a part of this project and am thinking, if I can do this in here, how much more can I do when I am free?”
Prison education has suffered in the 21st century. Nearly three-quarters of prisons inspected by Ofsted in 2014‑15 were rated inadequate or requiring improvement in the education they provided. Earlier, there was government funding for prisoner’s degrees, now they have to take out a loan. Former justice secretary Chris Grayling banned books, but the new justice secretary, Michael Gove, has changed tack, arguing that all prisoners should gain literacy and numeracy skills to make them employable. He appointed Sally Coates, a director of 16 academy schools, to review prison education. This month, David Cameron announced reforms that would see inmates as “potential assets to be harnessed”, promising the prison education budget would be protected and quality teachers recruited. Coates’s review is due to be published in spring.
Allison, E. (2016). Prison no bar to higher education as university ‘campus’ opens in Kent jail. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/feb/22/prison-education-university-kent-jail-swaleside?utm_content=buffer40255&utm_medium=social&utm_source=linkedin.com&utm_campaign=buffer. Last accessed 22nd Feb 2016.