I had an interesting day today at the Prisoner Learning Alliance’s ‘Smart Rehabilitation’ conference at the Open University. Their report of the same title is well worth reading (see link below).
My task was to connect debates about prisoner learning with those about desistance and rehabilitation. There are several obvious connections. The narrowest (and perhaps most common) connection is to see education as enhancing employability and to see work as related to desistance. More broadly, many prisoners and former prisoners say that education is or was their liberation; though they are usually referring not to work but to personal development, and to the deeper connections between education, identity and community. That said, I’m reminded of Raymond Lunn’s salutary account of his experience, related in ‘The Road from Crime’. He had made the personal changes and secured his degree, but his pathways to work and inclusion remained blocked by the problems of disclosure of his record.
In his case, as in so many others, the learning that was needed was not just personal. It wasn’t about his employability, or even his own sense of his identity and potential. Rather, the problem was with ignorance and/or rejection from employers (and perhaps communities). It was them not him that needed to be educated about their roles in and responsibilities for reintegration. Unless they learned and changed, his change could not be fulfilled or secured.
These were the core points in my conference address: education is about more than skills and more than employability – it is about human development and human dignity. As such, we need to make educational opportunities available to prisoners as a human right, not as an instrumental mechanism for reducing reoffending (though education may well play a major part in supporting that outcome). But equally, education needs to take place at the community, social and political levels; we need to better educate the polity and the state about their roles and responsibilities.
Maybe we need not just a Prisoner Learning Alliance, but a ‘Punishment and Rehabilitation Learning Alliance’ – one that creates, secures and sustains the human rights of prisoners to their education, but also one that reaches beyond the prison walls to educate all of us – politicians, policymakers, practitioners, academics, members of the public – about what it means to punish and to reintegrate justly. That sort of agenda wouldn’t just be about reducing reoffending; it would be about working for social integration and solidarity – and for a fairer, safer and more enlightened society for all.
My presentation is available here: Desistance, Rehabilitation and Learning (PowerPoint)