University conference highlights how education can change prisoners’ lives

Education experts working in prisons have been urged to boost learning behind bars and to promote just how it can transform lives – by prisoners who have used it.

Addressing a conference held at Swansea University, one serving prisoner said: “Show people like us what they can do with education.”

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David Hagendyk, Director for Wales of Learning and Work Institute, poet Zoe Murphy, PET Head of Service Delivery Clare Lloyd, Head of DACE Mark Jones and Cabinet Secretary for Local Government Alun Davies.

‌He went on to call for education opportunities to be shared with prisoners as soon as they arrive in prison to motivate them to make a change in their lives as quickly as possible.

The Education for Life conference was organised by Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) and the University’s Department for Adult Continuing Education (DACE) to explore the transformative powers of education within the prison environment.

Alun Davies

The conference was opened by Alun Davies, Cabinet Secretary for Local Government, who said: “It is only by taking positive steps that we can reduce reoffending and give those who may have lost their way a second chance to lead rewarding and meaningful lives.”

As the minister responsible for crime and justice matters in Wales, Mr Davies called for a more holistic approach – from prisoners’ education inside to better support and understanding once they finished their sentences.

He said: “We need a fundamental rethink in how we do justice. We need facilities rooted in respect for people.”

The conference was attended by educators in colleges, universities and prisons who heard from people with direct experience of learning in prison.

In a powerful workshop, one successful student explained that he started his foundation course in journalism before he left prison and was able to complete it following his release.

“It was something for me to focus on after prison and gave me a sense of achievement.”

Other speakers included David Hagendyk, Director for Wales of Learning and Work Institute, which is involved in promoting the value of adult learning to government and service providers, while poet Zoe Murphy, from the University of Trinity Saint David, recorded the event through live verse.

Head of DACE Mark Jones said the conference highlighted that the impact of education on learners cannot be underestimated.

“When students from stigmatised backgrounds have access to appropriate and quality education they can transform their lives,” he said.

DACE offers part-time education for adult learners across South Wales and, with PET and the UWTSD, is currently developing provision for learners within prisons including Swansea.

Hearing what the prisoners gained - and needed from education – would help shape the kind of learning they can offer in future, said Mr Jones.

“We understand and support the importance of such work and the need to ensure there is opportunity and choice in quality education for all people from all backgrounds. DACE is proud to be a partner in this work.”

One female prisoner told the audience she is now hoping to become a teacher following her success at education courses.

“I want to give something back and education does empower women.  I have seen that the amount of talent is prison is massive, it just needs to be nurtured,” she said.

Another prisoner added that studying for a master’s degree had helped speed up time during his six-year sentence.

“It gave me a lift, it has been a comfort blanket - and I have been astounded at how proud my sons have been,” he said.

Prisoners' Education Trust works across every prison in England and Wales to support prisoners achieve their potential through learning. Offering access to distance learning, materials and advice, PET helps around 3,000 prisoners, every year.

PET Head of Service Delivery Clare Lloyd, who is based in Cardiff, said: “We hope the event shed light on learning experiences – and types of students – that are often overlooked, and will inspire staff to develop new, meaningful ways of delivering education at their places of work.”

Mr Jones added: “The conference was a huge success and we now aim to take forward what we learned to support the development of educational opportunities for prisoners in Swansea so they can use education to transform their lives.”