"Bang on the money"- Wymott men respond to Coates

27 Jul 2016

In many ways, the Wymott student council operates like any other Board. Taking place around a long table, there is an agenda to be followed, a chair to be adhered to, and a secretary to capture every salient point. The difference of course is that the council members wear prison-issued clothing, and will be escorted back to their cells after the meeting is over.

HMP Wymott’s student councils are the brainchild of Vilma Smith-Yates, the impressive Personal and Social Development tutor who watches over each meeting. The councils – one for ‘mains’ or Category C prisoners, and another for Vulnerable Prisoners or ‘VPs’ – are made up of men who are engaged in education, and whose role as council members is to promote and improve learning within the prison and to act as peer mentors within lessons and on the wings.

The council, which was used as a case study in an 2014 Ofsted report, can be seen as one of Dame Sally Coates’ “pockets of good practice”, exemplifying the sort of creative initiative and prisoner-led learning that she praised in Unlocking Potential. Her review has been met with broad support from reformers outside prison, but what about those living, and learning, inside? The student councils at HMP Wymott agreed to include a discussion of the report in their monthly meeting, to which PET was kindly invited. Here are their assessments of some of Dame Sally’s key recommendations.

“Let there be no doubt. Education should be at the heart of the prison system.” – Unlocking Potential, Dame Sally Coates

Dame Sally’s conviction that education should be a key part of every prison system met with agreement from Wymott’s student council. “The whole report is a healthy dollop of common sense,” said the chair of one student council, while his co-councillor described it as “bang on the money”.

Many council members spoke of a poor experience of mainstream education. “At school I had dyslexia and I struggled. I had low concentration levels barely and scraped GCSEs,” said one. “It was just a task when I was younger - I didn’t see the point of it,” said another.

As men who have now actively chosen to promote learning within their establishment, it is unsurprising that they now see education as valuable tool in self-development within prison and ability to successfully re-join their communities in future. Learning and education were described by one man as “[A]bsolutely essential to putting your crime behind you and moving on” and “Probably one of the best ways to spend your time in here,” by another.

It was felt that the prison system as a whole could “learn so much from the education department in the way they go about things and the responses they get from the men”. Tutors “treat you with respect - even simple things like them calling you by your first name”.

“Education in prison should give individuals the skills they need to […] gain employment, and become assets to their communities” – Unlocking Potential

Finding employment on release was a key priority for the men at Wymott, and they were keen that education should offer a clear route towards this. “A lot of people come back to prison on recall because they don’t have enough education to get jobs. They come in without a job and they leave without the opportunity to get a job, which means they fall back on past behaviours, old peers, and become part of a vicious circle,” said one council member.

Courses on offer should therefore be geared towards employment, they said.

“Budgets should go towards a more usable, real-world set of courses – anything that will help you get a job or start your own business,” said one council member. “The education should be much more structured towards creating a meaningful existence once you get out of here rather than be about bums on seats.”

One council member suggested Governors should set up Trustee Boards, inviting people from businesses into prison so they could advise on what skills or qualifications were needed. “At the end of the day it’s about employment,” said one councillor. “We need to find out what’s useful in the current market place. It’s no use teaching us a load of things and then when we go outside employers are saying ‘that’s no good for us”.

“Prison Governors should be given new autonomy in the provision of education, and be held to account for the educational progress of all prisoners in their jails”Unlocking Potential

“Here at Wymott we’re fortunate in having a Governor who is proactive when it comes to education,” said one council member. Other institutions, however, might not be so lucky. As Governors are given more freedom, the men recognised that this would also affect the prominence given to education. “Some Governors might be brilliant and might want to push education while some might want to spend their money on new furniture,” said one of the men. Other council members were more optimistic. “The thing with Governor autonomy is that the Governor can then be held responsible if the education system is failing,” observed one.

However, some participants felt there were risks to Governors being ‘creative’ in a system where men will frequently find themselves transferred.

“People get moved about from prison to prison so much. If you’re somewhere and you’re doing GCSE maths or English and you go to another prison and they don’t offer it, that’s a complete waste of time,” said one councillor. “There needs to be a structure at the base, so if someone gets moved from here to halfway up the country they have the chance to carry on with their studies.”

The men felt the Governor would need a lot of support from the prison as a whole to implement change. “A Governor may have the right motives but does he have the backup and resources and information? Things will go on in the prison that I’m sure will take his attention away from education – that’s why it’s vital he has enough support from the outside and inside.”

The men said they hoped Governors would use their budgets to fund high-level courses, with more variety rather than what one called the “meat and potatoes we’re used to at the moment”.

“Governors should be free to design a framework of incentives that encourage attendance and progression in education.” – Unlocking Potential

Council members felt that the current prison pay structure acted as a disincentive to pursuing education rather than taking on manual work.

“If you go in a workshop you might earn £15 or £16 a week – this could go towards extra food, stamps, a lot more. If you go into education you’ll only be earning about a tenner a week, so you’re taking a big hit wage wise,” said one council member. “We need to reward people who are trying to rehabilitate themselves rather than just treading water in a workshop,” said another.

“Here at Wymott we’re fortunate in having a Governor who is proactive when it comes to education,”

Talking with men on the wings, said the council, it was obvious how important a rewards-based system was. “There has to be incentive to do anything,” said one councillor. Men they spoke to, for example, were encouraged to take on Personal and Social Development courses because of the prospect of being downgraded to open conditions, or having a chance to see their families. Another suggestion was introducing a pay structure to education, offering higher pay for completing a higher-level qualification.

The council members believed it was important to offer sufficient incentives first, and hope that motivations changed later. “If you’ve never experienced education you’re not going to be looking at furthering yourself in that way,” said one council member. “But once you get a taste of it you change your motives, you do it for the right reasons.”

“Prisoners […] must be given the opportunity to use and improve their digital skills while in prison.” – Unlocking Potential

“When it comes to technology, I think there needs to be a change in culture in the prison system,” said one council member. Some of the men said that lack of access to technology had prevented them from accessing certain courses. One council member, who was completing a distance-learning digital bookkeeping course, said he was held back by the fact that he could not study independently. And, when he did have the chance to use the prison’s Virtual Campus, he was using software that was so old it might be redundant when he left custody.

One prisoner’s wing, which houses older men, had recently got rid of its computer centre. “We desperately need these computers to come back,” an older council member said. “When these old men leave prison they will need to use computers but will have no idea how to.”

The council chair suggested the prison might start streaming an in-house TV channel, so that prisoners could learn in their cells. This would be easily monitored by the prison, and could also advertise courses and learning opportunities.

Conclusion

“It’s an utterly fantastic report and absolutely spot on, with the slight caveat of ‘is it actually going to happen?’”

This response to the Coates review, from one council member, may strike a chord with many working towards reform outside prison walls. Since PET’s visit to HMP Wymott, there has been a change in Justice Secretary, and, following the EU referendum, a shift in the political attention away from prisons. If these represent potential political obstacles to implementing reform, there are clearly also challenges on a local prison level. Even in prisons like Wymott, which does not face the level of violence of some prisons (it was judged “reasonably safe” at its last inspection) there are serious problems with overcrowding and under-staffing. “Prisons,” observed one council member, “often struggle to implement tiny regime changes; tiny tasks like escorting someone to the library for half an hour a week. How can a prison manage to offer this great new world of education, when it can’t even offer the basics?”

In some senses, Wymott’s student councils, which utilise the energy and influence of prisoners themselves, provide examples of how over-burdened prisons might navigate low supplies of staff time and prison budget. “If you give someone a trusted position, you give them a chance to prove themselves,” observed one council member. It is clear that this was a chance the learners of Wymott were fully embracing.