The power of education to transform lives is the focus of a new book created by prisoners at HMP Pentonville, featuring their stories, artwork and poetry.
Inmates at the north London men’s prison played a central role in the creation of the book, released to mark the 20-year anniversary of Pentonville’s partnership wth the Prisoner’s Education Trust (PET).
The charity provides courses to people in prison across England and Wales, from GCSEs and vocational courses through to the start of university degrees. The aim is to help transform prisoners lives through education.
The book — which also coincides with PET’s 30th anniversary — additionally includes insights from those working alongside and supporting prisoners as they study, including prison officers, teachers and the prison librarian.
But it is the words of the men themselves – and their incredible artworks, some of which are featured here — that make for the most poignant insights.
A common theme is previous difficulties with learning, be it due to behavioural problems, school exclusion or struggles within a pupil referral unit — often leading to further troubles.
One contributor, CC, explains: “Being expelled from school doesn’t leave you with many options: it will be either learning in a PRU or getting homeschooled.
“Both leave you vulnerable to getting involved with people you shouldn’t, things you shouldn’t, maybe even the police.”
In prison, however, the men have discovered a love of learning, with PET’s course helping them to unlock their potential — and give them hope for the future.
As Carl, one prisoner involved in the project, writes: “Learning in prison has been like a duvet on a winter night; it is something comforting when everything appears bleak.””
Another contributor, Russell, was expelled from school aged 13, but is now studying for an art degree – a subject he loved as a boy.
He writes: “I had not picked up a pencil in 15 years, but, in Pentonville, I have fallen back in love with art.”
He adds: “This degree I am starting will help me to achieve my goals in life, and to find work involving art, after being released.”
Meanwhile, plumbing student Ali reveals: “This education class has shown me there’s more to me than just getting into trouble and coming to jail, and that I have far more potential than I have ever known before.”
The book also celebrates educational successes, including the story of David Breakspear, a former rough sleeper who had been in the criminal justice system since he was a child.
Having spent his sentence studying, he’s now a passionate campaigner for criminal justice and social reform who took part in the TEDx Open University event in November.
Describing his prison education journey as “life-changing”, he writes: “Something that I said in my TEDx talk is: how can we expect people in prison to change their lives around if there is no hope at the end of it?
“I want my journey to give others hope. To think, wow this guy has been kicked out of the education system at 14, went through all of these systems, and there he is at the end with a degree and a book.
“I love using my stories and experiences, both negative and positive, to inspire and influence others. I think it goes to show that the prison system can work.”
Project lead Jose Aguiar told The Big Issue: “The production of the booklet was innovative in the sense that, for the first time, a five-month project involved two classes, and the wider prison community, collaborating and contributing in equal terms. It proved that when different stakeholders come together, success happens.”
Rod Clark, Prisoners’ Education Trust chief executive, added: “We are delighted with the commemorative book made by the Creative Arts students at HMP Pentonville marking the prison’s 20-year partnership with PET. The project really demonstrates the power of working together. We hope this book goes on to inspire the next generation of learners and shows just how life-changing prison education can be.”
Since its conception, PET has given over 40,000 educational awards to prison learners.
At Pentonville, some 30 courses are on offer in conjunction with 40 educational institutions, including the Open University. The most popular course is plumbing installation theory, but options range from accounting and journalism to counselling and social care.