Mark Humphries is A life sentenced prisoner now living and studying in the community. He studies with the Open University and also writes and comments on prison matters.
I was released on 14 February 2018 after spending four years behind the high walls, and razor-topped fences on a licence recall; I had committed no further offences and was only recalled due to an argument. But the issue for me was what I was going to do about it. I had to be there and did not want to waste time. I decided that this time it was time to concentrate on me, and so I studied.
I had studied in my original prison sentence, and I had realised that there was something special about kicking the cell door shut and reading the next chapter of the study book. Writing essays and complete assignments was always a challenge for me; my handwriting was never the best, no matter how hard I tried. I am not going to say that I have completely changed that because I have not. But the issue is that study changes a person, and I am not only talking about academically.
Studying behind bars changes people, as I am sure it changes people in the community. The real issue is that changing a person in prison if you have to change the community that they come from or the one that they are going to be released to. The prisoners that have spent time in the education classes, and maybe, if they are lucky, going on to Further or Higher Education will have a renewed outlook. There is evidence that says many prisoners come into the system with a poor education record, and with a negative outlook on life in general. For them there was no choice, crime was a job that brought in the money to feed the family; crime might have been what they parents were involved in, and it was an easy step to make.
The change of outlook means a change in prospects. Prisoners that have studied can see that there should be a future for them, and by this, I mean a future away from crime. To enhance prison education, the Prison Service (HMPPS) has to move forward. Recently I have been involved in a project that takes learning away from the traditional classroom and into the cells of the prisons. Prisoners have access to televisions in their cells and one education provider has launched a series of courses that are broadcast on the Prison TV channel. Wayout TV offers courses at various levels on the Way2Learn channel. The videos are broken down into episodes, and the prisoners watch each episode and then complete exercises and activities in a workbook. The participants are then awarded certificates that employers will accept as a show of commitment to change. This way of learning should go across the Prison estate. It should not, however, become the mainstream education, but remain an ‘add-on’ as an optional extra for prisoners to sign up to.
I believe that there should be a furtherance of this new way of learning, and that would be with internet access in a classroom. There must be a way that prisoners can be allowed access to secure educational sites via the education department’s IT system. HMPPS have started this with the Virtual Campus site, and that seems to be working well. The question has to be asked if some educational material can be sourced in this manner then why can’t more be done?
The education system in prison is already behind the rest of the world. Primary school-children now have controlled access to the internet at school, and at home where they are expected to submit their homework. Distance learning establishments, including the Open University, have been teaching using this method for many years. HMPPS are failing the tax-payers by not allowing prisoners to educate themselves in how to use the internet properly.
I understand that there will be a public reaction to this, after all, there are those who hold the outraged view of ‘lock them up and throw away the key’. The question that raises is who benefits from imprisonment if this was to happen? We need a prison system that is fit for purpose; prison system that employs all the rehabilitative programs available. My rehabilitation was progressed by my involvement in education through to the point where I am now able to study with the Open University and work towards my degree.
On a personal note I want to add a piece about my Distance Leraning journey. When I came into prison in 1993 I had a limited educational history, and was already involved with a vocational training course at Bible college. In prison I wanted to carry on that learning and enhance what I was studying. Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) funded me a Diploma in Clinical and Pastoral Counselling and this fulfilled my needs. Studying through Distance Learning was new to me, but it was an experience that made prison life easier to cope with, and aided my own personal progression. Since then PET have funded me a further course in Freelance Writing, which has furthered my career as a writer.
In 2016 I commenced an Open University degree course which is not PET funded, but it is still an important route for my progression. This time I am doing English Literature and Creative Writing which enhance the fictional and poetry writing that I am involved in. These course are my pathway to a crime free life outside of jail; they are the key to my rehabilitation and freedom. It has been said by others that freedom is a state of mind, and it is.
It is my hope that this simple words will encourage the decisions makers to act and work out the best way of moving forward with both the in-cell learning, and the secure internet access so that rehabilitation can be progressed and encouraged. Prisoners being released with o self-worth or confidence is not in the public interest.