Education, safety, belonging and the connection between: An insider view

20 Jan 2017

By Gareth Evans 

"To grow up in a world where you feel like the rules, and the benefits of following the rules, aren’t really meant for you, leads to not caring about the people you share this world with. It leads to you not ever considering that you could be a valuable part of the world."

With the recent media saturation regarding the ‘prison crisis’, there is hopefully a communal sense that this cannot go on. But how can we reverse the degradation of the institutions that are responsible for housing those that have hurt society? How can we make sure that, when they are released, ex-prisoners are rehabilitated and so useful to their communities? It is not enough to just hope that a ‘long-enough’ stint in a ‘bad-enough’ place is going to mean that the guy who stole your car last week will not do it again the moment he gets released. Something human has to happen in between.

People have to change.

For a long time, prisoners have been taking advantage of, or trying to cope with, the fact that the wings of our prisons are understaffed, overcrowded and increasingly dangerous. With a handful of staff expected to control and care for 120 guys who all have anger, trust, substance and psychological issues (to name a just a few), we are presented with great institutions that have been reduced to little more than warehouses for the damaged and damaging. So what can make the difference?

Education and safety are not values in an either/or equation. They go hand in hand. Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) research has found that those who engage in higher education courses are 25 percent less likely to reoffend. The trouble is, meaningful education gets side-lined in times of crisis. At times like this, prisoners spend more time behind doors and have less exposure to the sort of interactions that allow someone to find the reasons to turn their life around.

"It is not enough to just hope that a ‘long-enough’ stint in a ‘bad-enough’ place is going to mean that the guy who stole your car last week will not do it again the moment he gets released."

Prisons have the highest concentration of illiterate men in our country. So teaching how to read and write is a start, but this is only the start for the guys who cannot read. The next step is to understand their potential. Focus their minds on something that will ultimately benefit the entire community and we will see people in prison wanting to achieve something good, as opposed to trying to get away with whatever they can. We’ll see people leaving prisons with a goal in life - a reason to stay out of prison. What is more, we will see the transformation of prisons themselves. We will have more focussed places- ones in which people are kinder and more constructive.

I know this from personal experience. This is my second prison sentence and it has been tough. The first few years I spent wallowing in the IPP mess I found myself in. I had no qualifications and no idea of what my life looked like outside of committing crime. The mandatory Offending Behaviour Programs seemed to just gently tap on the outside of the hole I was in and did little more to impassion me into making something more of my life.

At a certain point of my sentence, it become clear I needed something to focus on. I was guided towards distance learning by someone who said Access courses with the Open University, funded by PET, would be a good place to start. Through all of my time being a tearaway, I always had an opinion on society and so I began studying society. With little more than a desire to do something different and not really knowing how, I became engrossed in learning about the world. It helped me to understand how so many different people can end up in places like these. The more I studied, the more I realised that my own life had a value outside of committing crime. With my experiences and the knowledge I was getting, I now had a reason to work towards being released.

"For people who have felt like they have been living on the fringes of society, felt like they have been living in darkness, further darkness will not convince them to be nicer to people when they are released."

The more I learned about society, the further I dived into my studies. I became more confident and now I am being released on temporary licence to go to university outside. I am looking forward to the next part of my life. Now, it matters what I do every day – how I hold myself, how I interact with people - because now I have important things that I don’t want to lose.

To grow up in a world where you feel like the rules, and the benefits of following the rules, aren’t really meant for you, leads to not caring about the people you share this world with. It leads to you not ever considering that you could be a valuable part of the world. When education is good, when it is meaningful, it has all the components someone needs to move away from crime. Engaging in subjects critically, understanding the complex nature of the world and realising that what you think and feel is important, are the very essence of education.

A quote from Martin Luther King highlights what needs to be done to right the wrongs: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Although there is an array of different people in our prisons, from all walks of life, the disillusioned and desperate make up the majority of its population. For people who have felt like they have been living on the fringes of society, felt like they have been living in darkness, further darkness will not convince them to be nicer to people when they are released. People who are forced to live in shadows can become adept at doing so. But higher is a way back into the light, a way of understanding what it means to be part of the world and a way of learning what is at stake when people are excluded.

Gareth Evans wrote this while on release on temporary licence. Post-release, he is building a career as a criminologist.