Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a tutor in prison? For Longford Blog, a former tutor (and now mentor) reflects….
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. Maya Angelou
What a powerful quote, it catches me every time. These inspiring words from the late, great thinker and civil rights activist Maya Angelou hung in my classroom at the men’s prison where I worked in education for seven years. A group of university degree students made the sign for me which gave it even more meaning.
Up until Christmas 2018, I was a Tutor in prison, firstly teaching Social Skills and in the last couple of years overseeing Distance Learning.
I really enjoyed my work, feeling privileged to have worked with hundreds of students during that time. Although, as far as I was concerned, I was just doing my job, the men I worked with constantly told me I was different from most staff they had come across in the system… that it was obvious I believed in what I was doing. I’m not sure if they were right about others. I do know what I believe. Education has the power to rehabilitate and steer people away from crime into lawful, productive lives where they can reach their personal potential. Every day I saw that and every day that’s what I strove for.
It still makes me smile, proud to think of the many men who started their transformation by learning in our department. The journey often began because they had to study a course as part of their sentence plan. Then some – many more than you might think but not all, being honest – just got the education bug. After that they couldn’t get enough, completing every course on offer.
On a mission for every individual to achieve their potential….
So how was my unshakeable core belief in the power of education and the human capacity to change reflected in how I did my job? First things first, I tried to be student focussed in my approach. In addition, I was always solution- focussed. A ‘problem’ was something to be tackled. Perhaps most importantly though, I held every man I worked with in positive regard. What this meant is that they rewarded with confidence and respect for me.
Overcoming barriers to education in prison were part and parcel of my working life. From downloading post-graduate students’ academic texts from their online OU accounts, to allowing new students who had arrived from other prisons to access the Distance Learning room promptly so they didn’t fall behind. I was always trying to find practical solutions within the regime’s rules. If anyone had been a fly on the wall, they would have seen me running around the corridors delivering learning materials, mail and email messages from tutors to students. I’ve heard too many stories of Higher Education students in custody held back by lack of access to course materials and resources. It can be as basic as receiving materials late – due to the slow progress through the prison system to the student. It always struck me that students in prison are often doubly disadvantaged before they even start a course. If I could do my bit to make the basics of learning in prison better, then I would.
So yes, my mission was to ensure every student had the best possible chance of fulfilling their academic potential.
As well as the practical side of things, I saw my role as helping to keep students positively motivated – especially when they were locked in their cells during evenings and at weekends. I am a firm believer that motivation in studying translates, without doubt, into people’s long-term positive change in behaviour. Judging by my leaving cards the men noticed, writing things like,
‘Many people walk in and out of our lives. Yet few make an imprint. You are one of those people to make an impression that motivates and encourages without judgement.’
‘I’ve realised I am actually quite smart.’
Another talked of me never stopping for breath to help encourage and support.
Going above and beyond didn’t feel like a choice. It was particularly exciting when men started to look for education which they could access from outside prison to quench their thirst for knowledge. That was a brilliant moment. I can’t describe the joy a teacher feels when you see a student grow, develop and change. I don’t just mean their behaviour, but their attitude and sometimes their whole world view. It is nothing short of a privilege to witness them transforming into happier, healthier and more positive human beings than they first set foot in a prison education department.
I honestly believe and feel proud to say that my role as tutor – and my former prison tutor colleagues – was pivotal in the students’ ability not just to succeed in their educational quest, but also for their own longterm change and rehabilitation.
Bringing the outside in….
Looking back on my time as prison tutor possibly my proudest achievement is bringing educational groups from outside into prison, breaking down the ‘us and them’ divide that prison walls too often impose. For instance, facilitating a Post-Graduate Reading Group in partnership with University of Westminster where incarcerated men study alongside university students. Welcoming mentors – including Longford mentors who offered valuable belief in and support of several scholars – was also a legacy I am proud of, knowing that our scholars really appreciated the time their mentors took to visit and write to them. Working with the Open University, Prison Reform Trust and the Prisoner’s Education Trust is also a major achievement. These external organisations facilitated student forums, focus groups and workshops to ensure people in the criminal justice system are involved in the decision-making process. I’m very proud of the contribution the Distance Learners at the prison where I worked has made to improve not only the educational experience but also the whole custody experience for their peers and prisoners nationwide. Their educational journey has allowed the students to grow and develop so they can articulate well to decision makers about changes to improve the experience of imprisonment.
My hopes: remaining open to new ideas and change ….
Although, just at the moment I am not directly involved in the education and rehabilitation of prisoners, I found my seven years teaching in the education department the most rewarding work I have ever done. I was always busy, happy to support the men to make more positive choices and decisions. I’m privileged to have been part of my learners’ journey through a spiritually oppressive system. I always rooted for them to succeed, doing my bit to help them carve out a brighter, more fulfilling present and future. I hope that my encouragement and support to the men that passed through our class, has enabled them to achieve, remain open to new ideas and change, continue learning, and achieve more. I plan to become a Longford Trust mentor and hope to support another student in a secure environment later this year.
I will forever hold Maya Angelou’s inspiration dear, because they know better, they do better and will continue to do so.