Ola | 24 November 2018
PET funded Ola to study for a Diploma in counselling while she was in prison. Now she helps other women in prison transform their lives through education.
In June 2013 the greatest thing I feared came upon me when I found myself incarcerated in HMP Peterborough.
A lot of the women there were vulnerable, having fallen victims of addiction, abuse, mental health disorders and poor education. I somehow leaned heavily on my faith to see me through; I kept a journal throughout my journey in custody which makes interesting reading I tell you.
I became a people watcher, finding myself seeking reasons why some women find solace in prison and keep coming through revolving doors. Believe it or not some prefer the prison environment – the certainty of three square meals, the regimented timetabling which takes away their need to reason independently and make choices.
My first job in custody was as a teaching assistant, helping to test new residents to ascertain their level of education before dispersing them to jobs and courses.
Education is the key that opens the golden door of freedom – emotional, psychological, financial and physical.
As a keen reader, I was always in the library. I read all available books and had to order books from other libraries. I therefore became friendly with the librarian, an officer who also acted as the Distance Learning coordinator. I explored the courses available and settled for a Diploma in counselling. I drafted a compelling letter in support of my application for funding from Prisoners’ Education Trust and they agreed to part fund the course. As a result I gained that valuable qualification which opened the door to many other things.
I became a connections worker – a peer advisor seeking to help my peers to better their lot in life, knowing that education is the key that opens the golden door of freedom – emotional, psychological, financial and physical. I encouraged many to educate themselves along the lines of their passion which will equip them to make a living.
‘Mandy’ was always into beauty and grooming; she did a distance learning beautician and Nail Art course (often using me as a guinea pig for her assignments!). Prior to her release, I helped explore funding streams for a business start-up grant. We drew up a business plan for a nail shop up in the north of England. I’m pleased to say that in her last letter, she stated that the revolving door to prison was now shut permanently in her mind. Her children showed her respect for the first time in their lives and she can now walk through the town centre with her head held high. She has even employed an assistant!
Give a woman a fish and you give her a meal, teach her to fish and you feed her for a lifetime as well as generations after her
Another example was ‘Kate’, who had a talent for improving other people’s writing – style and content. With my assistance, she made a compelling case for distance learning funding for a proof reading certificate course. The plan is for her to apply for a freelance proof-reader role upon release. I know she has now completed her course and has great prospects ahead of her.
The courses available in prison, especially for women, are basic courses chosen I feel with the wrong assumption that female prisoners are uneducated and unskilled. Courses like cleaning and basic catering are available but there are some female residents requiring higher level courses to keep them sufficiently engaged and reduce the risk of a lot things – from re-offending to self-harm.
I believe that more can be done if female prisoners can access funding to more courses. The funding streams appear to be shrinking gradually and the need is greater. Give a woman a fish and you give her a meal, teach her to fish and you feed her for a lifetime, as well as generations after her; because women are the greatest evangelists, you can be assured that she will in turn teach her children to fish and neighbours will also benefit.
I would like to see every woman with criminal justice involvement have access to the transformative power of education
Nelson Mandela said that “Education is the most powerful weapon with which to change the world”. I say it is the most effective weapon – the best investment that pays great interest especially with women in custody.
As a peer advisor, I assisted residents throughout their custody journey from reception to release. While it is sad to see fear on the faces of first-time prisoners as they come through the reception gates, when they can add value to their knowledge or skill, or can equip themselves for a more independent living, they leave with confidence and hope of a better life.
I would like to see every woman with criminal justice involvement have access to the transformative power of education. I implore you to dig deep and support the cause of education because you will not just be saving one woman, but a family and multiple generations.
© Prisoners' Education Trust 2023