Our learner focus groups have concluded with a couple of visits to prisons, which have been particularly interesting. Shotts prison near Glasgow is a Category A, high security establishment, while Channings Wood in Devon is a Category C: not remotely open but perhaps a bit more relaxed in terms of security. We were struck by the inconsistencies in prisoner learning, varying by category, by governor and by the organisations that run them – HM Prisons, Serco and Sodexo.
The prisoners at Shotts impressed on us that they do not like the term ‘offender learning’ or being called ‘offenders’. They explained that they had indeed been offenders when they had committed a crime, but that they are no longer offending. They therefore prefer the term ‘prisoner learning’ and were very keen that our research should make this point. Shotts makes no use of Virtual Campus, a VLE available in many prisons, yet prisoners seemed to have plenty of access to IT, using it to produce 2 magazines: Snapshotts (relating to Shotts alone) and Stir (http://stirmagazine.org/), a really impressive creative arts magazine with features contributed from 7 different Scottish prisons.
Before we met the learner group, we spoke to the teachers in the staff room, where morale seemed high. They were, however, concerned that too many of the cards in our card sort exercise had no relevance for the internet-deprived prison environment. While there was some truth in this, the prisoners took it in their stride and did not let it inhibit our discussions at all. It was clear, however, that self-directed learning is difficult without access to the internet, so teachers are thrown into a more traditional style as the sole source or conduit of information. One teacher felt staff themselves were less comfortable with mobile phone use because they rarely carry them round, for fear of accidentally bringing one into prison (a criminal offence leading to instant dismissal). The one area where students felt able to use their own initiative in learning was ICT and magazine design.
In contrast to Shotts, Channings Wood uses Virtual Campus (http://testvc2.meganexus.com/portal/index/) although there was frustration that it’s only available when prisoners are working on specific courses. Informal learning did not seem to be an option. Filling out the learner profile prior to the card sort exercise started discussion early, since the short term inmates wanted to document that they used technology widely outside of prison. The issue of being prepared for employment after their sentence came up frequently and this was linked to the lack of appropriate technology in the prison, “because if you’ve been in 10 or 15 years, you’re not going to know what technology is out there.” This prompted the retort: “After 2 years, 3 years, 4 years you’re definitely out of touch” while another commented: “You get out of touch with new apps even more.” The feelings were summed up by another comment: “I do think we’re being deskilled in prison” with a further comment: “It’s done purposely, you know.”
There was a strong sense that their entire lives were on hold while in prison, deskilling them and making reoffending more likely because when released they will lack the skills needed to thrive or be useful members of the community. Two comments were particularly striking: “The government can’t agree what prison is for: are we punishing these people or are we helping them not to come back to prison?” It seems clear that there is huge potential for technology to improve the situation but this will only be implemented when the focus is on preventing reoffending. There is no lack of motivation among the inmates we spoke to: “I would rather go and work on a chain gang, do something useful, than sit in my cell watching TV all day. I want to do something useful to build infrastructure, not just sit behind a door.”
Addition to the original posting from Nick Jeans:
I’ve just been watching ‘Her Majesty’s Prison: Norwich’ on ITV, where it was mentioned that “Prisoners who maintain contact with family are 6 times less likely to reoffend.” It struck me that the suggestion made at our focus group in Channings Wood about using Skype to maintain family contact could be an effective way of tackling this problem.
Looking up the (very striking) claim via Google, this statement seems to come from a report by the Prison Reform Trust called ‘Keeping in Touch’, (http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/KEEPING_IN_TOUCH.pdf)which states: “prisoners who were able to maintain good family ties were almost six times less likely to reoffend.”
A further paragraph in the report reads:
“A report by the Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing re offending by ex-prisoners (SEU 2002), noted that 43 per cent of sentenced prisoners and 48 per cent of remand prisoners lost contact with their families when they entered prison. A number of barriers hindered contact. For example, average figures for distance from home were 56 miles for sentenced prisoners, 66 miles for women, and 6 1 miles for young offenders, with return journeys taking at least five hours. The Prison Reform Trust reported that 62 per cent of prisoners in England and Wales who were not receiving visits said that someone would probably visit if travelling to the prison were easier (Farrant 2001). Prisoners in the most recent Prison Survey in Scotland (SPS 2004a) most commonly cited distance as one of the difficulties their visitors experienced (67%), followed by cost of visiting (58%) and lack of transport (46%). Lack of information about visits and visiting procedures, inconvenient visiting times and inefficient booking systems, poor staff attitudes, the unpleasant prison environment, and drug detection procedures, provided further disincentives (Loucks 2002).”
I’m conscious that these are rather dated reports, but further searching turned up ‘Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group held on 1st April 2014 at 5.00 pm in Committee Room 5, House of Commons’, where ‘Gillian’, a member of the Family Members Advisory Group that meets regularly to advise Action for Prisoners’ Families, said:
“technology offers huge opportunities, both for easier phone calls and the possibilities of video calls. We know there have been successful trials of putting phones in cells. Prisoners, their families, and even officers agree that it has been beneficial, so it would be a good idea to roll it out. Prisoners want to phone home in the evening when families are in. In many prisons, prisoners are locked in their cells in the evenings and pressure on the few ‘wing’ phones is enormous. There are terrible queues, leading to short conversations.
I have been thinking about the idea of establishing video links, which would be brilliant for allowing prisoners contact with older or disabled relatives, or those at a distance. It would also be a way to keep in touch with their children, so that children might be spared both the long journeys and the realities of prison visiting. It isn’t very nice for children visiting prison, and I worry a lot about the children I see. Video links would be amazing in that way, and for those prisoners who don’t get visits too, of course.”