The following post was originally published on the EPALE (Electronic Platform for Electronic Learning) Blog.
Jamie Grundy, Community Engagement Officer from the Widening Access team at Cardiff Metropolitan University, shares learned experiences gained in the field of prison education as part of EPALE February focus on the benefits of Adult Education.
At a recent education and training event in a prison I asked the wrong question to a prisoner who was interested in attending a course we are going to be running shortly for a substance misuse education programme. I meant to ask if he was serving a sentence involving drugs or substance misuse. Instead I asked him what he was sentenced for. He told me:
“Murder. Joint enterprise.”
I was with colleagues from my university and we all were stopped in our tracks. You don’t often hear those words from a person’s mouth.
The reason I tell you this story is not to sensationalise prison education, but instead to raise two issues. Firstly, with prison education you will meet people who have been sentenced for the mistakes and choices made in their life that have led them down a path to this point. And while the above example really did ram home this point in a particularly unsubtle fashion, what was heartening was that the experience did not dissuade my colleagues from continuing to be involved. Instead we talked about it, what Joint Enterprise meant, and I took responsibility for a simple inarticulate mistake that effected us all.
The second issue is about learning from your experiences – something prisoners are doing everyday as a result of their incarceration. To me the above example introduces the importance of recognising one’s learning style, it relates directly to my own experience of facilitating prison education. Kolb’s theory on Experiential Learning talks about learning from experience. The example above is something we all learnt from because, with the prisoners I have met, I am careful not to exercise any morbid curiosity and search for them and their crimes online. I put faith in the system that yes they’ve done something wrong, but I try to offer an opportunity around higher education for when they leave prison or are released on licence (ROTL ). I have dealt with prejudices from colleagues (not those above) who look instead only at the crime: not the time served, the journey since the offence, the education taken or the person behind the prisoner label. They are a long way from understanding the societal benefits of adult education with offenders and ex-offenders.
Exploration of Kolb presents four learning styles of Experiential Learning and one is particularly relevant here: Accommodators.
Whilst there are three other types of learning style, each equally valid, that will no doubt be present amongst learners, Accommodators are those ones who learn best when they are fully involved, are intuitive problem solvers, get their information from others, and are the strongest when they are actively doing or participating in an activity. Most tutors will be aware either formally or informally of different learners learning best in different ways, however I would argue that education in prison, is one big example of an Accommodator Experiential Learning style.
In terms of my own learning style I also recognise in myself the attributes of the Accommodator. I’m practically minded looking to solve problems rather than give up. I learn best by having a go and if it doesn’t work out, reflecting and learning from that experience for next time. I didn’t study education, social sciences or criminology. I’m a sports graduate working in a non-sports field, so I’m using the transferable skills that particularly team sports gives you, to create a support network around the students I mentor. But I do this not necessarily following a model of good practice, but instead responding to needs as they are occur, because for Cardiff Met this is relatively unchartered waters. That said, and reflecting on the team analogy, we draw upon expert advice such as the Prison Education Trust (PET), PRisoN Network, student finance experts and, crucially, the Education and Resettlement staff in HMP Prescoed, our closest Category D prison with whom we have signed an agreement to admit students on license with us. The close links with experts in the field such as PET has been invaluable and with them we have completed a number of projects, such as a Learner Handbook; a Product Design student project to design a study resource and emerging plans to host a best practice sharing event with Goldsmiths Open Book project.
Moodboard example from third year Cardiff Met Cardiff Product Design students who transform the study materials box from Prisoners Education Trust into something with more than one function.
All the current and former prisoners I’ve got to know have had to navigate a path through Prison Service Instructions, general prison applications, education and / or resettlement issues, UCAS applications, student finance, lack of access to IT and more to get into higher education. And that’s not even mentioning negative comments and attitudes from fellow prisoners, prison staff, admissions tutors, etc. which is more common than we’d like to think. There’s no guide that I’ve found yet on how to do things, although we are in the early stages of developing one with PET’s pilot Welsh project. They progress despite of, not necessarily because of, the system. They’ve all learnt as they’ve gone along and in most cases, their desire to proceed into higher education following prison was a seed that blossomed only while serving their sentence and experienced positive experiences from the programmes they pursued inside – a clear measure of success.
EPALE’s thematic week on Prison Education in 2016 was about evaluating success and the different measures that providers use. Progression opportunities and the qualitative impact that further education can provide is one such measure; especially case studies to show others that they can do it too. Recidivism is also a measure and in my role I currently support a small cohort of students who include serving prisoners attending university on ROTL and former prisoners who have studied at Cardiff Met following their release. In our discussions with them I stress they are here on merit and are students first and foremost. I ensure they are treated the same as other students with the same rights, responsibilities and freedoms that this comes with. The only difference (not withstanding any specific restrictions on their individual ROTL conditions) is their unique halls of residence which they go back to each night. They all understand that to me success is in their ability not to reoffend. Education plays a part in this but so too does their ability to form good relationships with their tutors and their student cohort. Students do drop out of university for valid reasons, and although this hasn’t happened yet with those I support, if one dropped out for personal reasons I’d support them.
There are still difficulties along the way but slowly we are knocking the hurdles over one by one, which will only help future learners coming along this path to Cardiff Met or any other university. We’ve done it linking with partners and experts in their field and crucially by learning from our experience.