Does school prepare men for prison?

Karen Graham
Wednesday, 8 July 2015

How is education linked to prison? Research  (and perhaps common sense) tells us that a large percentage of inmates in UK prisons have below average levels of educational qualifications. They may also lack the communication skills, social networks and confidence that increase the chances of gaining and maintaining regular employment. They are therefore more likely to earn money through the alternative economies of illegal activity, which in turn increases the likelihood that they will spend time in prison. Prison reformers and prisoner advocates therefore call for better education opportunities in prisons, as an essential ingredient to reversing the very high rate of post-prison sentence recidivism (currently 45% of adults and 68.5% of juveniles released from prison are known to reoffend).

But… what if this high rate of recidivism is part of the complex failure of prison as a deterrent, and what if this failure is in some part born in the prisoners’ own schooling?

I worked as a teacher in two English adult male prisons. Part of my role involved briefly interviewing the newly arrived prisoners to find out about their prior education. I completed hundreds of these induction interviews with men of different ages, ethnicities and religious/cultural backgrounds. Given their diversity I was surprised by the consistent re-telling of the same school experiences. I began to consider whether these apparently shared experiences of school were in some way implicated in a trajectory to prison, or impacting on the high rate of recidivism? To explore this further I collected in-depth life history narratives from eleven former prisoners.

A number of striking similarities emerged across all of the narratives. Depending on the era and language used at the time, they had been identified as children with ‘behavioural problems’ or ‘disruptive’ or ‘maladjusted’ or ‘naughty’ very early on in their schooling. These labels were frequently placed on them following very minor behaviour infractions such as speaking when told to be silent (at age 5 years). These labels then tended to remain constant throughout their educational experiences and resulted in negative relationships with teaching staff.

The consistent response from the school was to ‘discipline’ the boys by separating them from their peers into spaces of isolation on the margins of the mainstream school population. This would range from sending them to sit in a different part of the classroom to be being placed in a locked ‘time-out’ room alone for the entire school day. The quantity and quality of educational content was poor in these spaces. The boys would often be relegated to low sets or ‘remedial’ groups regardless of their academic abilities. They would also be heavily monitored at all times, with their physical movements restricted to within school walls even when other pupils would be outside doing sports activities or playing during break times.

Violence in a number of forms was also frequently present. The older men in the cohort routinely received corporal punishment. As they inevitably began to fall behind educationally all of the boys faced the threat of teasing and physical bullying, so fighting with their peers became commonplace. This tendency to fight brought some benefits to their self-esteem, as they could at least be proud that they were respected as ‘tough’ among their peers. However, this added to their reputation as a child with behavioural problems and deepened their isolation from the mainstream school population.

All of the men in my research cohort had faced official school exclusions and many of the men I interviewed during professional practice reported the same. This ranged from being temporarily suspended from Secondary School to being removed from home and school to attend residential boarding schools for ‘naughty kids’.

So what did this group of men learn from their schooling? What skills had they amassed that could be useful in their adulthood?

They had been identified and labelled as ‘bad news’ and undeserving of education/deserving of punishment from a very young age. They had been separated from their mainstream peers and sometimes their family. They had been placed in physically isolated spaces with little meaningful activity to occupy them. They were not afforded the same freedom of movement around the school building and access to outside space and fresh air as their peers, instead being only permitted to move with staff escorts. They had learned to operate within a constant threat of imminent violence.

They had, in short, been prepared for the environment of prison.

I am not suggesting that their schooling caused them to go to prison, but it has been well established that these types of profoundly negative school outcomes (especially school exclusion) increase the likelihood of offending. What I am arguing however, is that if they become offenders, and should they become incarcerated, the shock and accompanying deterrent that may be expected from a custodial sentence is unlikely. The main features of imprisonment – segregation from the mainstream population, hours of restricted movement and physical isolation, a lack of stimulating activity, the threat of violence and a high level of scrutiny and supervision – are all features they had become all too familiar with through their schooling.

If we are serious about addressing the link between education and prison, we perhaps need to think more deeply than simply updating the courses offered in prison Education Departments. We should challenge the punitive ‘disciplinary’ practices routinely used in schools and ask how treating children as prisoners in training has come to be justified?

Dr Karen Graham is Lecturer In Working with Children, Young People and Families at Newman University