Danny Stone MBE is the Director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.
Thankfully, I’ve not been sent to prison. The closest I came was nearly being shut in a cell in Nuremberg, Germany which, it transpired, was self-locking and bereft of a key. If it were not for an astute guard, I would have suffered the indignity of having to be welded out.
If nothing else, the experience prompted me to reflect on what I would do, if stuck in a cell for days with just my thoughts for company.
If you know anyone that has spent time in prison, you’ll probably have heard about its differing impacts on people. For some, I’m told, it’s a deeply depressing and lonely place. For others, it’s a source of inspiration, a point of change on a road to civil redemption. For a few, it’s a source of resentment and deepening isolation from society.
It can be all of these things at different times during a sentence, I suppose. Of course, in theory, prison is not merely a place of punishment; it is a centre for rehabilitation, encouraging self-improvement and genuine reform. To this end, effective and engaging education within prisons is integral.
The present focus on prisoners obtaining formal certified qualifications, such as GCSEs and NVQs, makes sense. To boost chances of effective rehabilitation, and minimise reoffending, we encourage offenders to get jobs: a venture which tends to require formal qualifications.
But say a prisoner’s conviction has a hate crime element, wouldn’t true rehabilitation require anti-hate and equality education? While numerical, literacy, and trade skills have their place, surely in order to engender character change and guarantee proper reconnection to social life, guided reflection on one’s values is equally important.
Does a spent sentence address inherent prejudice? It is difficult to see how fulfilling a stint behind bars somehow organically eradicates the discriminatory beliefs which contributed to a hate motivated offence.
I was thinking about this when sat in court watching one of the far-right activists that had abused an MP friend of mine be ‘sent down’. He had an extensive history of hate and harassment twinned with a complex upbringing. Would sitting in prison, stewing about how ‘the Jews’ had put him there, really lead to his transformation and positive re-emersion into civilised society? Time will tell, but I suspect not.
The Ministry of Justice published its White Paper ‘Prison Safety and Reform’ at the end of 2016. Following recommendations from the Coates review, this suggested conferring on prison governors the full responsibility for the education services being delivered within their institutions. This move, subsequently implemented at the beginning of this academic year, is significant, allowing governors to tailor education programmes to prisoners’ specific needs.
Included in this new move is also the introduction of Personal Learning Plans for each prisoner on arrival. Theoretically, these plans could highlight those specifically in need of social education courses; for example, equality or tolerance teaching could be flagged as necessary in cases where individual charges have hate crime elements.
I was encouraged by the potential of PLP’s but (separately) both a former Justice Minister and a former inmate have cautioned me, using existing local induction programmes as a comparator. Local inductions are supposed to promote tolerance for protected characteristics and outline the internal process for reporting hate crimes. These are, at best, a general introduction to expectant behaviour.
As answers to parliamentary questions have shown, there are no specific sponsored programmes for educating prisoners on racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or homophobia and few, if any, external organisations delivering hate crime education in prisons. No guidance is issued on, for example, support for Black History Month, Interfaith Week, and so-on. It is unclear what effect, if any, Personal Learning Plans will have on effective hate crime education in this context.
Governors have been handed an invaluable opportunity to combat recurring hate crime and rehabilitate hate crime offenders. The truth is though, that if you are a prison governor with money to spend, sadly, anti-discrimination training is unlikely to be a priority unless you have a prison-wide problem. So what is the answer?
This decentralisation of education frameworks might allow for meaningful social education within prisons. Primarily, governors should be encouraged to direct a certain proportion of funding for specialist equality and non-discrimination courses. So too the cross-curricular embedding of Personal, Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education principals through existing English and maths education could and should be considered.
However, we can begin with an even lower bar. The power of education is immense. Just the classroom setup itself can heighten soft skills. As inmates at HMP Durham have said, the teaching rooms enabled them to “develop an understanding of concepts such as democracy and tolerance”. Outside the classroom, improvements can also be achieved. Why not establish a competitive approach to excellence in extra-curricular activities, specifically, to mark national commemorative dates in prisons? Shouldn’t all prisons be making efforts to mark Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) and simultaneously increase voluntary sector involvement in the delivery of probation services?
Notably, as the Anne Frank Trust’s prisons project has demonstrated, teaching about the Holocaust is deemed substantially transformative, enabling prisoners to consciously reflect on where severe hatred can lead. For example, prisoners from Magilligan Prison in County Londonderry developed ‘Empty Spaces’, an exhibition for schools which helped engage the local community and encouraged personal reflection. Surely projects like this, on HMD, Hate Crime Awareness Week, and other days could be transformative for some.
It isn’t just commemoration that can be improved though. Why can’t restorative models of engagement be considered where funding is not available for formal programmes? For example, could religious chaplains be called on to meet inmates that have engaged in discriminatory behaviour against a faith community? And once these basics have been addressed might novel education programmes, with appropriate restrictions, such as the innovative Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) be given further consideration?
As the Parliamentary Justice Select Committee continues its inquiry into transforming rehabilitation, and whilst Downing Street and Justice Ministers continue to look for ways to improve prison education without an accompanying uplift in costs, my feeling is it is the simple things that can make a difference. The thought of spending time on the inside, for me, makes me feel strongly that we need to think outside the box.