“The world exists for the education of each man”, so wrote Ralph waldo Emerson. Now in the 21st century we can perhaps add women to that quote. The business of education in prisons is a rather different affair. It is a rare thing in prisons throughout England and Wales where education pays the same wages as work; it pays less, not more. The emphasis in these institutions is on work and it sad to say it always will be. But the brute says why complain? Inhabitants in these places get access to good facilities, to libraries, books and so on. Indeed it is interesting if we go back in history less than ten years after the death of Emerson himself, and he died in the 1880s. In 1892, alexander Berkman, the anarchist, was incarcerated and spent fourteen hard long years in one of America’s harshest prisons for shooting a repugnant fellow, Henry Clay Frick.
Berkman documented his struggles by writing a book based on his experiences called “the diary of an anarchist”, in it he describes the hideous conditions he was subjected to; in fact the conditions were so horrific that he expected to leave prison in a bodybag. During his time there, he was able, so he writes in his book, to read books in this prison. So this whole idea that British prisons are so advanced that you are given the chance to read books is false. These facilities have existed in gulag prisons for decades. But education in prisons abroad, including the United States puts the Prisons in England and Wales to shame.
So much emphasis is put on education in prisons, that, in some prisons the only study that exists is in a noisy environment on the wing, teaching maths and English that is taught to primary school children. Even when other prisons have better facilities, for example university equivalent degrees, Open University courses, doctorates and so on, the prisoner struggles to see people from the education department. Everything in prison is more strenuous that it need be and this is no exception. If the prisoner wishes to better themselves as human beings, as a humanitarian, as a valued member of the world they often desire to enter the classroom. To do this is not as simple as one may think.
Firstly the prisoner must put an application form into the education department. This can take weeks and weeks. When they do finally see someone another difficulty arises, often the prisoner has to pay for the education themselves, and for the majority this is money they do not have. Funding can be made available from various organisations and clearly this takes time, sometimes many months. Many give up the chance because they find it tiresome and frustrating. It is also the case prison officers, as they like to call themselves, are often negative when it comes to education and prisoners. They are uneducated so why on earth, so they think, should prisoners do anything that encourages them to develop an independent mind? This is a direct threat to authority and power. So they are very hostile to the very idea which makes it so much difficult for the prisoner
Even throughout all this hardship if the prisoner gets to study the subject they desire, it still has its disadvantages. In further education, or higher education, in colleges and universities, students attend many sessions a week. Such practices are not so common in punitive institutions. This retards the process of the students despite the best efforts of the educational staff in these prisons. Those who argue against education in prisons throughout the country ought to be ashamed of themselves. How dare they better themselves think the officers in these jails, how dare they try to attempt to better their own lives.
It is clear those in power wish to give a first class education to the privileged classes while the rest of the country receives a third-world education at best, and the hardships they reduce education to in prisons is an absolute abomination. Funds have been slashed, prisoners wishing to study in prison have limited options in what they may study. Short-term prisoners are even prevented from studying short courses even in prison; all they offer them is english and maths for children. This is education to end all education.
But consider the following: the colossal majority of those languishing in prisons throughout England and Wales are extremely uneducated and often uncultivated. If there was a chance to find the magic den; of Prospero’s new-found hidden world that will rid every individual of every poor man’s crimes, well it would be a struggle to even achieve this. There is great humanity to be found in literature of different varieties, music art and so on. It not only allows the prisoner to show empathy but for the rest of their lives they can develop their compassion in this cruel and dark world. For those whose release from prison is imminent and have no home to go to, and their friends and families have deserted them for a variety of reasons, what then? They have little to look forward to. That is why education is imperative to these unfortunate people. Such education helps to transform people’s lives.
There are an array of wonderful organisations which exist in British prisons and all of them are independent from the government. They offer prison support in these vile institutions which darken their lives, however this support is minimal as the government seeks to undermine all aspects of education in prison. Yet people resigned to these prisons have great spirit and resolve. What the authorities draw inimical attention to is the unity and organisation shown by the condemned “offenders”
The sort of menial work prisoners are subject to in prison does great harm to the human spirit. The labours are so repetitive that it has one regressing to mental retardation. This gives prisoners that experience they so desperately need, so we are told, and other idiocies. Everything is intended to turn the prisoner into an indoctrinated robot, where every movement is controlled from elsewhere.
The best education offered in prisons is seen on the library bookshelf. Another word for this is self-education or rather two words if we allow ourselves to be over methodical. While prisoners languish in their cells they can read the beautiful poetry of Keats to bloody terror of Poe. This is education of the most magnificent sort. Yet for those with reading problems, there are further dilemmas further afield which linger. But part of the prisoner’s journey is a literary one. If one, when he/she enters prison is illiterate and when they leave they are reading Balzac; what could be more remarkable than that? Considering the vast class war that has been fought against them, the prisoner can still seek their humanity through the liberal arts, now that is not only remarkable but awe-inspiring.
19th-21st February, 2014
For my other prison essays see previous posts. My sixth prison essay will be posted shortly.