Easel does it

Last week I had the latest in my regular catch up meetings with Pat Jones of the Prisoners’ Education Trust. These meetings are always a pleasure. Pat shares her understanding of where education in prisons is going and I marvel at her calm demeanor in the face of multiple challenges. A particular prison came up in the conversation and it sparked a vague memory of something Kathy Petts here at the OCA had said to me. I couldn’t remember the details, but Pat said she would let me have copies of a number of letters she had received from one of our students who had received PET towards a table easel and study with the OCA. What follows is my very edited synopsis of the easel story. I have tried to retain the tone of the original letters while removing the details which identify the student and the prison.

In October 2009 I applied for and was granted Governors’ Permission to purchase and have in my possession a table easel so I could continue my art class work in my cell. PET kindly agreed to fund purchase of same from Argos.

So the easel was duly ordered and arrived. Although I had permission to have it, others didn’t agree and it was sent back. Then began a paper work tussle; permission was again confirmed and it was re-ordered. But during the tussle period Argos deleted said easel from their catalogue. So I had to inform PET that it would have to be sourced more expensively elsewhere but I was prepared to pay the difference. So the easel had to be re-ordered again from another supplier.

After a month or so with nowt happening I enquired and found it hadn’t actually been ordered. So it was then ordered . After a month I enquired with Finance Dept if the cheque had been sent. They didn’t know what I was talking about. More enquiries. I was told the paper work had gone astray in the pipeline (This was to occur twice more).

By now with letters and complaints flying around like confetti, the easel had become a cause celebre of silly proportions hereabouts. We’re now in July and I appealed to Head of Education for aid on this; I was assured that it would be ordered with the prison paying the difference between PET’s cheque and the new supplier’s increased price. I finally got the easel in September, almost 11 months to the day and several trees of paperwork since I first applied for it.

During this time I learnt other students that they were having problems trying to obtain their Open College of the Arts courses. On arrival they were being sent back to the College, the student often not knowing of this. One in particular I know of, as he was a pal in art class. His OCA course started being sent back in January 2010. He complained. It yo-yo’d back and forth a while, whilst he entered into a paperwork battle to get answers why. Then it was impounded and sat for months in reception. Mid-June, in desperation, he gave notice that if he did not receive his course within 14 days, he would instruct his solicitors to take the matter to court, as the prison was preventing him from pursuing further education without due cause.

I was not unduly surprised when he shipped out rapid to another prison shortly after this. I then began a paperchase battle that was to last 3 months to get permission to write to him in his location. His reply told me that the OCA course he’d fought for 7 months to get released to him here, was in his hands 2 weeks after he’d applied for it in his new location.

With all the hassle, irregularities and uncertainties that had transpired we students (and some staff) genuinely worried that OCA and to some extent Prisoners Education Trust might get to thinking “well we don’t have these runarounds and admin anomalies at other prisons we deal with”, and think “why bother” and wash your hands of us. It was a real concern.


Now I would like to be clear that this sort of experience is not universal in the UK prison system. Some institutions have enlightened leaderships which actively encourage prisoner learning and even in the institutions which do not fit this description there are dedicated staff struggling to support students. This said, the story is a level headed account of the Kafkaesque reality in parts of the system. While this remains the case however OCA staff are not going to say ‘why bother?’ – prisoner education is an important part of our charitable purpose and one the Trustees would not allow me to walk away from, even if I was minded to. There are a number of ways you can support the Prisoners’ Education Trust – click here to find out more.

Photograph by Keith Williamson – used under Creative Commons licence.

5 Comments

  1. marmalade 24 November 2011 at 1:12 pm

    I suppose it is not entirely surprising but when there clearly is genuine interest to learn, it is disappointing. I wonder how participating in such courses could influence the long-term well-being of inmates and whether such research exists. I suspect it is difficult to prove, but could it increase self-esteem, offer purpose and a possible vocation and reduce the chances of returning to crime in the future…or is this too idealistic?

    Reply
  2. Paul Vincent 24 November 2011 at 3:18 pm

    With all that we hear in the press of prisoners being given an easy time of it, it can be easy to forget that it is meant to be a process of reform which they’ve been entered in to, not just one of punishment. Gareth’s article reminded me of an open-minded Daily Mail article (!) about Norway’s controversial Bastoy island prison, which is worth a read: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1384308/Norways-controversial-cushy-prison-experiment–catch-UK.html

    If there’s only the slightest chance that education, whether that be in the arts or engineering, might reform a prisoner, it has to be worth the effort.

    [Paul]

    Reply
  3. Jean Baylis 24 November 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Many offenders have not received a decent education in the first place. Society suffers and pays the additional price created by locking offenders up. Education and therefore, improved employment prospects, must be key to reform, particularly for young offenders. Any prison authority who prevents education should be investigated, they are not helping society by creating obstacles and using such short sited methods.

    Reply
  4. Sue 24 November 2011 at 8:03 pm

    This interesting article and discussion reminded me of something I read recently, while visiting the website of one of my artist heroes: Lucy Willis.

    It includes Lucy’s account of her own experiences of teaching art in a prison. In the final paragraph she shares her own thoughts on the value of teaching art in prisons. The article is here

    Reply
    1. Gareth 25 November 2011 at 10:12 am

      Lucy’s account is fascinating Sue (and the flower pot anecdote is funny). A thing that particularly caught my attention was the fact that Lucy taught drawing from life. It might be that this was because she was in a category C prison, but there is a whole further article we could write about the challenges this can create. Possibly understandably, in higher security prisons there are bans on drawing other prisoners or prison staff.

      Reply

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