Education is still the key

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In 1989, October 13th was designated by the Council of Europe as ‘International Day of Education in Prison’. The purpose for selecting such a day was to promote and raise awareness of prison education. It was also intended to encourage appreciation of the role played by educators (both paid and voluntary), passing their acquired skills onto inmates. So, it’s a day deserving to be considered as a valued occasion by tutors and inmates alike. But very few UK prisoners are even aware of this memorable date. I know that I NEVER was aware, despite completing a distance learning diploma during my time inside!

This country is typically grouped together with the USA, Australia and South Africa, as having a so-called ‘law and order’ approach to imprisonment. This means that education is proffered begrudgingly, as if constituting a privilege. However, prison education is in fact a protected universal human right, stated not only in the UNESCO charter but in the 2015 Mandela Rules. The Council of Europe’s own charter protecting prisoners’ rights to education remains in force, despite what hardcore Brexiteers would have us believe, and despite the Government’s recent flawed attempt to replace it with a discriminatory substitute, the so-called ‘Bill of Rights’. Brexit had no impact upon the authority of the 47-member Council of Europe to judge standards in UK prisons.

Education was introduced with the intention to benefit British inmates in 1866. This was thanks entirely to the efforts of a committed few individuals campaigning during the early 19th Century for prison reform, namely, Florence Nightingale, John Howard, Joseph John Gurney, and his sister Elizabeth Fry. These influential few travelled abroad, meeting with high-ranking foreign dignitaries to promote their proposals for a revolution in the treatment of prisoners. Later, some of Europe’s highest leaders actually visited England to meet these visionary campaigners, inspired to discuss their education-centric proposals for prison reform. Various Prison Reform Acts and Bills passed into legislation between 1865 and 1898. This legislation was destined to spread, having major influence on Scotland and other European nations.

Since when, education-based prison reform has evolved apace elsewhere across Europe, while the UK has stagnated, resisting complying or learning. Despite hypocritical finger-pointing at other nations accused of breaching human rights, the UK has a lamentable record when it comes to respecting rulings on prisoners’ rights to education and basic dignity made in the 20th century by the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Because of the UK’s unfocused approach to education inside, any prisoner will find it’s a right requiring a struggle. Just the simple issue of receiving books remains a recurring issue in the Inside Time Mailbag pages. A RIGHT that when initially refused was a BLATANT disregard for a Council of Europe ruling.

In this country it’s the Prisoners’ Education Trust providing much of the means of access to such a mind-expanding variety of courses (and providing the bulk of the course fees for serious applicants). Many of the study options are vocational, with a view to being applicable in a future workplace. But the best aspect of the time devoted to the course I completed while incarcerated, was the freedom to concentrate on something so utterly unconnected to my surroundings. While studying Level 2 Horticulture (regularly rated one of PET’s most popular courses), I was able to detach from the pettiness and deadness of everyday limited prison thinking, and was put into a liberatingly Zen-like zone by learning the wonders of nature. It’s unfortunate if some long-term prisoners prefer to collaborate with the enemy and actively resist improving themselves via involvement in prison education. All they’re achieving is reinforcing the stereotypical populist press attitude towards those comprising the prison population. So, if your place of incarceration is supportive of education, make the most of the opportunity and be appreciative of the staff who provide it, both inside and through such voluntary organisations as PET!

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