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In Prison and You Visited Me

Anyone who believes the generalisation “Prison works” clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This slogan is especially wrong over putting young males in prison. Home Office statistics show that 76% of prisoners under 21 re-offend within 2 years of release. For 14-16 year olds the figure is 86%. Is that what you’d understand by “prison working”?

I’ve been going to prison one day a week since January 97. I’m a volunteer tutor, usually in basic maths, at Feltham Young Offenders Establishment. There, I frequently say “this place is a mad house” and no one contradicts me. I like things to be orderly and predictable, as they usually seemed to be in the Salesian schools I used to work in, a long time ago. At Feltham, no matter how carefully you make arrangements, things seem more likely than not to fail to happen as planned.

Nevertheless I still keep going back, and want to go on doing so for as long as I possibly can. There are so many lads there who need a helping hand – not just in maths but much more importantly to help them feel valuable and appreciated. Their experience of life so far has led them to believe that they are the refuse of society. They write themselves off as worthless, and have little or no hope of ever leading an ‘ordinary’ life. They find it almost incredible that the volunteer tutors at Feltham are giving them time and personal attention, and are not being paid for it. We are showing them we don’t accept that they are worthless. We appreciate all that they might be, if only they were given the right opportunities – and they took them.

The VSE (Volunteer Supported Education) Office works like this. First a name appears on a list. He is referred to us as wanting one-to-one help with literacy or numeracy. When a tutor is free, the inmate is interviewed and assessment form is filled in. As soon as an appropriate tutor can be matched to his needs, he gets his own tutor, who will see him once a week for one and a half to two hours. (Most volunteers do either a morning or an afternoon stint. I do both on the same day) Even if my only contact with an inmate is for an assessment interview, I always feel my time has been well spent. The helping hand I stretched out has been grasped by a lad in need, and what I had to offer in that short session has been warmly appreciated.

Here is what happened on a recent, not untypical, day for me at Feltham. I left home at 08.10 and about 09.30 arrived, after my 15 minute walk to the station, a rail journey, an uncertain wait, and then a bus journey. I was expecting to continue with the two lads I’d seen only last week, but my afternoon chap was back in court. I took the long walk out to the wing only to find my morning student had been taken, 10 minutes earlier, to IBIS, the former Segregation Unit for boys in trouble of some sort.

I phoned back to my office. They advised me to stay put for 5 minutes while they checked the availability of two other possible candidates. Neither was available so I returned back to the office. Eventually they did find someone needing maths whom I could assess. We had about one and a half hours at our first meeting. ’Steve’, aged 18, came from a Sussex village and in some ways seemed less self-confident and street-wise than most inmates. His favourite pastime, he told me, was to spend 4 or 5 hours sitting quietly with his mates in a pub. It had been a big deal for him when, a month before his 18th birthday, he told the publican he was now 18 and was served a pint of beer.

Mum had re-married when he was 14 and soon after he was ‘taken into care’. Since then, he said, things had gone steadily downhill. He’d been moved around, had attended a variety of schools, and received some home tuition. Entered only for Art and Maths GCSE’s he’d got F’s in both.

As usual, I began by sharing with him how to be certain he’d got the right   answer when adding up, and left him with some questions to practice on, while waiting to be assigned his own regular tutor. His body language, even more than his words, showed me he’d been glad we’d met. And so was I.

By chance, my morning student the following week said he was sick. Once again I was at a loose end! Finally it was sorted out I’d have another ‘one-off’ class with ‘Steve’ – he’d done the work from last week, nearly all correctly, but today was in a difficult mood. “Everyone hates maths!” “I don’t!….But you know you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to..” “I’ve got to get a GCSE or I’ll never get a proper job.” I struggled on, even though he seemed so distracted and unwilling to concentrate. I coaxed him through subtractions till he could do on his own 5005-2897. I knew he was pleased with himself. The comment he wrote on the report at the end of the class was ‘I learnt I must push myself!’ Teaching ‘Steve’ would always be a tussle. I felt relieved I was able to remind him I would be back next week with my regular student. He’d have to wait for another tutor to become free. His reply was, “Could I say the only tutor I’d work with is you?”!!

Two weeks later I DID become ‘Steve’s’ regular tutor! For how long he will be able to stick with me, as I try to help him gradually to learn to believe in himself, remains to be seen! Long journeys have small beginnings, with the train possibly having several initial stops and starts.

Things do sometimes work out as I like them to. In this, I have probably been luckier than perhaps any other tutor. For most of us, our students seem to be ‘shipped out’ to another establishment after, at most, six weeks or so. A few of my students have lasted very much longer. This year I had 31 sessions (nearly 60 hours!) together with a very intelligent, courteous and hardworking inmate from Eastern Europe. It was a real pleasure to work with him. He’s now been   deported   back to  his  own  Country  (as he very much wanted) carrying a GCSE equivalent certificate in Maths, and another ‘triple certificate’ in English. We were both very satisfied with what he’d achieved.

I have always enjoyed working with young people, and sharing with them anything I could as a teacher and guide. The young men imprisoned by the courts are some of the most necessitous in our Society. Unless they are helped to value themselves, to open up their minds and to obtain qualifications, they will never be able to break out of the cycle of ‘offending-prison-reoffending’ in which, at Feltham, we see they have already become trapped.

Out of 30 VSE tutors, mostly helping reading and writing, 25 will be women and of a wide range of ages. We are always needing new volunteers to enrol as trainees in Feltham. If you know of anyone who might become a volunteer, do urge them to join us. These lads desperately need help – and our Society needs to protect itself for the future.