So I went to Wandsworth Prison yesterday. It wasn’t an impulse visit – I was doing a face to face tutorial which is part of the work at the Open University. Some tutors choose not to actually go to the prison to see their students – his previous tutor hadn’t even given him her name! ‘How did you sign off with your marking?’ I asked. ‘Your Tutor,’ she replied sounding oddly like an educational stalker. I wanted to meet my prisoner, especially as he had gained a distinction on the previous OU course he was doing. ‘Suicide was a recurring theme on his work,’ said his previous tutor.
So as I drove the car through lush, peaceful Wandsworth and turned into the road, I wasn’t surprised to see trees almost but not quite, obscuring high wire fences with bundles of razor wire looped at the top. The air smelled damp and fresh and there were people standing outside the visitor centre chatting. I went up the steps into the visitors area which reminded me of the post office where you go to collect your too big parcels. I handed over my driver licence, my mobile and my ipod. Then I went through a sliding door into another waiting area. A prison officer wandered through with a massive bunch of keys dangling from his waist. The sound of jangling keys is a constant backdrop in prison, just like the opening credits in Porridge. I sat and waited. Several people jangled through the waiting area, so used to the routine they didn’t even have to look down at their key bundles. They would reach for the right one without breaking their stride and step through into the looking glass world.
Then the door opened and in came the education officer, Siobhan*. We walked across a prison exercise yard – wide and bare, topped with razor wire. In the corner was an aviary full of loudly shrieking canaries – doing their bird. I asked her how long she’d been working in prison. She said she’d been doing it for ten years and loved it but like everything else, the prison service were experiencing huge cutbacks. ‘And the illiteracy rate is about 50%’ she sighed. ‘And now we have a for profit company bidding to take over the education programme.’ ‘Which company?’ I asked. ‘A building firm,’ said Siobhan stoically. I looked at her and she shrugged. Yes – what possible reason could a building company have to take over the education programme in prison – except to make money? I expressed naïve amazement. ‘Yes’ she said sadly. ‘A for profit company is bidding to educate prisoners.' We discussed the shockingly high illiteracy rate in prison - (nearly 50% of all prisoners have a reading age of an 11 year old) and how this is going to go up and up. And how the rate for reoffending drops from 90% to 10% (yes!) if the prisoner has a job to go to. And how can they have a job if they have the reading ability of a child of 11? And how will they learn to read if for-profit companies take over the education sector of a prison? As we talked Siobbhan was briskly opening gates. The clatter of keys mingled with the chorus of canaries. A couple of prisoners swept the yard. We walked past a well kept garden. ‘That’s for the visitors,’ said Niamh as we went through yet another locked door and into the education centre. Gloom swept over me.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. A faintly unwashed sour smell. My prisoner, a small Glaswegian, neat and brisk, shook my hand. He and I and Siobhan sat in an office. We talked easily for a couple of hours, going over any issues he had with the course. I read a very good piece he had typed out. It was funny and well written. There were no typos and not a single spelling mistake. We discussed ideas for one of his assignments. He wanted to write about loneliness. I congratulated him on getting a distinction from his previous course. He had a pallid prison look about him but was obviously highly intelligent and genial. I remembered his previous tutor telling me that much of his work with her had a suicide theme. And just as I was wondering whether this recurring theme would be insensitive to bring up, he said that he was particularly surprised to get a distinction. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because I was going through a sex offender treatment programme,’ he said. I nodded I think – my face didn’t change. I hope it didn’t suddenly register: ‘you Nonce!’
He said that he was getting out in December and was counting down the days. I thought of those who (knowing nothing about a treatment programme for sex offenders) like to say it’s a ‘soft option’ but I can’t imagine anything harder than facing your behaviour squarely. I liked him. I admired the effort it must have taken to get through a degree course. I thought of how manipulative sex offenders are too.
As I walked back across the yard with Siobhan she asked if he was any good and I said he was. She said that she was surprised – as ‘most sex offenders though intelligent have a very narrow emotional range.’ I considered this and we talked briefly about the treatment programme. ‘Do you think he’s cured?’ ‘No’ said Siobhan. ‘They’re never cured.’
I left the prison and just walked for a long time feeling glad to be able to walk where I wanted and look up at the richly hued trees.
The Evening Standard have started a campaign to Get London Reading and it involves donating a few hours of your time to help a struggling child to read.
*Not her real name