No bars on hope by Dr Ian Joseph

“Everyone make mistakes… I was desperate… but paid the price. I now have a real chance to get my life together. This has made it possible to start again.” The young man, 24-year-old father of a young child, was speaking about time spent behind bars and a new type of prison education programme. It was his first time in prison.

The conversation continued from comments that were made at the end of a learning session – his warm and friendly tone a contrast to the austere imposing walls surrounding the exercise yard we walked through on the walk back to the prison wing.

Anthony (not his true name) spoke at length of huge regrets about decisions at a younger age, but how the course was helping him focus on what was important for a better future. An obviously intelligent young man, who attended church as often as he could, described how he found himself struggling to make ends meet, but then getting involved in “things on road” that led to him getting in over his head. Now he wasn’t only looking forward to seeing his family but starting a life. With few formal qualifications, starting a new business was an important part of his plans.

Anthony’s story is found against a backdrop of wider prison and probation reform. Reported widespread use of drugs, deaths in prison, and increasing pressure on already stretched resources, helping individuals to better re-enter and re-settle after release from custody takes on greater importance. A new through-the-gate approach aims at achieving this. Anthony was included in a flagship initiative permitting prison governors for the first time to opt out of national contracts, and directly control their budgets. The Ministry of Justice pilot scheme allowed them to form partnerships, so as to create a diversity of provision in finding innovative ways for enhancing outcomes for prisoner rehabilitation and wellbeing.

As a result, community-based social enterprise can now provide a wider range of educational support. A social enterprise called Principles In Finance that, for the past 10 years, has worked with ex-offenders, using television’s ‘Dragons’ Den’ format in a programme that helps transform former criminal talents into legitimate business start-ups and enterprises.

The community now for the first time has unprecedented opportunity for helping prisoners rehabilitate and turn their lives around. Research carried out by the University of East London showed the approach as giving effective support that isn’t available under the previous regime. It was particularly helpful to young Black males from deprived backgrounds with a poor view and previous negative experience of formal education. Helping to improve a combination of practical skills, knowledge and problem-solving, it provided learners with self-confidence and a new positive attitude that many of them saw as important to keeping away from crime after release.

Speaking extensively with prisoners, and directly observing their teaching, allowed lead researcher Ian Joseph to observe that: ‘the study clearly showed that recognising life events before imprisonment and those after release allowed a “community-based approach” to use education in prison to link into a change process, in which new business and enterprise skills will directly support prisoner resettlement and efforts to desist from crime.’ There are plans for findings from the initial pilot to form part of a larger study covering four prisons, and is due to start later this year.

Dr Ian Joseph is a lecturer at the University of East London (UEL). He maintains an active interest in examining policy impact through service effectiveness, by linking his ongoing community-based research and teaching part-time both sociology and social 

policy plus applied criminology.

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