What It's Like to Be a Teacher in Prison
A comprehensive analysis of my 30 months teaching in Her Majesty's Prison Service.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
I am given a teaching mentor named Ellen, who's in her mid 40s. Ellen is the fourth generation of her family to have a position at the prison, jobs ranging from officer and governor to chef and teacher. The first thing she says to me is:
"Don't ever think you can change any of them."
I grin and say, "OK."
The morning session is three and a half hours long. Research suggests that the optimal concentration span for an adult educated to a reasonable standard is between 20 and 25 minutes. Few prisoners here will have any formal academic qualifications and many will have effectively left school at some point between the ages of eight and 11.
Within five minutes of the first session, Ellen has warned a prisoner named Kris that unless he finishes his addition and subtraction worksheet he will be given a written warning. All prisoners coming to the education department have to sign a document that, among other things, states they must make an effort to complete all work or they could face disciplinary sanctions.
Other offenses you can be given a written warning for might include smoking in the education department toilet, swearing in class, taking lined paper from a classroom back to your cell, and drawing an erect and ejaculating penis on the Smartboard. It's a flexible system open to interpretation. A teacher named Tracy gave a written warning to a prisoner for confrontational burping. It's probably worth noting that receiving a single written warning can delay a prisoner being transferred to an open prison for up to three months until the warning expires.
Having finished his addition and subtraction worksheet, Kris is throwing a small eraser at a prisoner named Scratchy, who sleeps for the first hour and a half of each session because he is on prison-issued medication that can only be given and ingested at set times of the day. Ellen tells Kris that if he throws the eraser at Scratchy's head again, she will give him a written warning. Ellen turns away and walks back to her desk. Kris looks at me and grins. I look at Kris and grin.
I'm lucky to have Kris in my class when I first begin teaching. He's six feet tall with a wiry, muscular frame and has a bald head with barely visible blond eyebrows and eyelashes. Kris is well-known on the wings, and the other prisoners are both influenced and intimidated by him. As he's on remand, Kris can wear his own clothes: tight-fit rugby franchise jersey tucked into light blue denim straight-cut jeans, all-black Air Max. On my first day teaching solo, with Ellen observing, Kris bounces in his chair and smiles manically as I state the aims and objectives of the lesson. He says, "Oi, Tricky Dicky—"
I say, "Yes, Crispin?"
He says, "Crispin? You're fucking mad you are, Dicky."
The morning goes OK and once everyone has finished, Kris collects their worksheets and brings them to my desk and we all take turns playing hangman on the Smartboard.
After the prisoners have left, Ellen looks at me and says:
"You should have given him a written warning."
Learn 2 Live 4 Life* is a motivational course. Prisoners are allocated to this class if they refuse to sign up for either prison jobs or other educational programs—or if they have been sacked from either/both.
I'm co-teaching the course with someone named Charlotte; her facial expression is normally one of permanent disappointment and resentment, and the prisoners often pick up on this and attempt to play us off against each other. A prisoner called Nicholas speaks privately with Charlotte and states that he feels victimized due to my refusal to call him by his nickname. Nicholas is a white man whose nickname is "Paki." Charlotte approaches me with an angry facial expression and explains that I don't understand working-class culture and should show more empathy towards "Paki." I grin and say:
"Seems problematic maybe."
I cover for sick and absent teachers on several different courses during this period.
At first I don't mind this because I get to experience other classes, but pretty soon I begin to feel undervalued and bored. It's more useful at this point to analyze some of the other teachers:
Nigel: Believes in the death penalty for pedophiles and murderers and eats microwave vindaloo for lunch three times a week. He talks a lot about his children in mostly positive terms, but makes a point of referring to his daughter-in-law as a "Jap" on many separate occasions. Does not speak to me for approximately five months after I express my support for devolution.
Davina: Throws major passive aggressive shade at me for an admittedly rank fart I let off during a staff meeting. She's one of the few teachers with a degree and a discernible "passion" for her subject, but is off sick a lot and takes redundancy.
Philippa: Files a written complaint against another teacher for a "work-related" Facebook status. Files a written complaint against another teacher for giving prisoners more than the one allocated tea bag, dairy substitute, and sugar per tea break. Files a written complaint against another teacher for fist-bumping a student. Likes traveling and experiencing new cultures.
David: Enjoys talking to me, and only me, about conspiracy theories. Asks me how to set up a Twitter. Files a written complaint against Philippa for making a joke about his haircut, then takes redundancy.
There are changes to the prison regime and also new policies and targets relating to class attendance. In my class there are enough tables for ten prisoners and enough chairs for eight. I look at the register and see that 15 prisoners have been allocated to the course.
Arron is waiting to be tried for murder but is confident that a deal can be reached to downgrade to manslaughter. I think, Seems honest, seems good to accept responsibility.
In the week leading up to his trial, I catch Arron stealing some neon highlighters, but let him off with a verbal warning. I sit in Pret at lunch and find him online. His bio reads, "Hard Style Mother Fucker To The Max."
When the jury finds Arron guilty of murder, the judge, very deliberately and at length, explains that manslaughter was never an option, and considering the degree of attempted manipulation from arrest right through to conviction, that while he will serve a minimum life sentence of 20 years, Arron must accept that he may never be released.
I see Arron on his wing landing a couple of days later. He is leaning on the stair railing, and waves at me as he talks quietly and calmly to another prisoner. Remembering his post—"Life is like a box of chocolates, it's all good till you get the fucking coffee bastard!!!111"—I wave back and think, Seems zen, seems chill.
The prison policy has changed again. There is less emphasis on class numbers. Several members of staff have left since I started, teachers with degrees and teaching qualifications have been replaced by former admin staff and ICT workers. The department is generally quiet, the prisoners mostly happy as long as they get their tea makings.
Philippa stands outside my classroom door and is shouting very loudly to another teacher, a former governor's secretary, about how I can't control my class. I think, Seems insane, disturbing somehow.
A prisoner named Tommy, released on license the previous Thursday and re-arrested and returned to my class by the following Monday, says, "Rich, what do you call a penguin in Trafalgar Square? Lost! I don't get it..."
"Well, a penguin probably wouldn't have a reason to go to Trafalgar Square, and if he was there, you'd probably assume he'd taken a wrong turn and was lost," I say.
"Oh, hmm. That's a bit of a stupid one, isn't it? Anyone could have made that up. Ever seen the Family Guy episode [with] Bird is the word?"
Tommy starts singing "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen and some of the class join in, some carry on with their work, some look at me, grinning.
I look over to the door and Philippa is still there, her face now pressed against the glass pane, angrily mouthing something I can't quite make out.
*Not the course's real name