A rebirth for prison education

Written by Sean Parker (reproduced with permission from Sean’s blog)

Education Not Incarceration Conference – City University London – 23rd May 2024


DWRM – Do What Really Matters – is a prison/justice reform organisation run by academics Ruth MacFarlane and Dan Whyte. DWRM’s mission is to make education in prisons a truly meaningful experience, recognising that this traumatic time in anyone’s life needn’t be as empty as it currently is for many.

The Education Not Incarceration conference brought together justice reform professionals, academics, media and the justice-system-experienced in a fact-finding and ‘routes forward’ day-long brainstorm. Snazzy yellow notebooks were distributed, as well as delicious coffee, cakes and sandwiches from City University’s catering people, before introductory talks and initial networking.

There was a novel phone link-up with people studying for degrees inside, where they were able to talk to groups of participants and share their ideas. The groups themselves highlighted problems with consistency – i.e. how to progress academic work while inside into the community, and moreover have it taken seriously by non-justice related employers and universities.

‘Imposter Syndrome’ along the lines of class and race was discussed, with an underlying feeling that perceived middle-class institutional authorities still tended to ‘other’ those from non-conventional backgrounds and stories. Trying to get the Ministry of Justice to engage with meaningful education inside, possibly including dedicated ‘Study Wings’, were brought to the realpolitik observation that, according to at least one high-profile MP, ‘There is no political mileage in prisons’.

Kieron Bryan gave a witty and confident talk about going from street drug dealer to post-prison academic: ‘It was hard for me to think about the stuff I used to think about in the same way’. This comment highlighted the unique effect that concentrated, impassioned study can have on the mind and the soul – channelling often fierce intelligence in positive directions. Also, Kieron’s ‘It’s not in the officers’ interests for you to do a degree’ was followed by a heart-breaking anecdote of losing his cousin, and being told that due to his loss he was now a flight-risk, so would not be eligible for his planned, hallowed Cat-D (open) prison transfer.

Kevin George rounded out the day, pointing out an essential truth: ‘You cannot manufacture resilience’; before the always energetic Dan Whyte closed with a short speech, including the line ‘Love is a sustainable energy’. And he’s right, learning to love learning comes later for some than for others, but once it arrives its a nurturance that goes straight to the bone marrow and stays there, getting stronger with every word studied.

Well done DWRM, well done everyone who attended – on this one May Thursday in London, springtime at City felt like a rebirth for prison education.