This week’s blog is written by Learning Together community member John Hogan. John shared his experiences of education in prison at the Learning Together conference in July 2018. Day one of the conference took place in HMP Hull. Ahead of this year’s conference in HMP Brixton we asked John to share his experiences of taking part last year.
In July 2018, I attended the Learning Together Conference in HMP Hull. At the time, I wrote about my experience of the day, and wanted to share my reflections with you ahead of this year’s conference in HMP Brixton.
What was my experience of the learning together conference held in Hull prison? For me it was an adventure and I was delighted to be invited to the conference. I had only recently heard about the Learning Together programme, through a chance meeting with Amy and Ruth at a conference held in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, Ireland. I arrived there that day mistakenly thinking that I was meeting a group of long-term prisoners, so I was surprised to learn about the conference. While sitting in the audience that day I heard a number of speakers discussing various aspects of education in prisons. To be honest, I hadn’t found it particularly interesting until I heard Amy and Ruth give their presentation. I was amazed and thought good God; these people actually know what they’re talking about.
Maybe I should pause here and rewind a bit to explain what my connection is with education and prisons. My name is John, I was sentenced to life in prison in 2000 and served almost 18 years before being released on the 13th of June 2017. Before I went to prison, I had no educational qualifications of any kind. While in custody, I began my educational journey studying with the Open University and I am now the proud holder of a BSC in Social Policy & Criminology (Hon). Since my release just over a year ago, I have used my OU qualification to gain advanced entry into the final year of the social care course and have achieved a BSC in social care. Over that same period I have also been invited back to visit various prisons in Ireland to speak to prisoners about education. It was on one such visit that I was fortunate enough to have met Amy and Ruth, after which I became a firm believer in the Learning Together programme.
Some months later I was delighted to have been invited to attend the Learning Together conference in Hull prison. The last time I was on a plane must have been over 30 years ago, so for me travelling to England was an exciting adventure and one that was totally worthwhile.
Arriving at Hull prison the following morning and being escorted into the prison, it was a pleasure to be in a room filled with likeminded forward thinking individuals attending that day to help progress the Learning Together programme into the future. With all the positive discussions going on at the conference, I could actually feel a kind of electrical buzz in the air. It is safe to say I was excited. Having been invited to speak on a panel, I had prepared a talk with the intention of outlining a number of points during the conference but it became apparent as the day progressed that a lot of the points I was hoping to make had already been discussed by previous speakers. This filled me with joy because again I knew I was in the company of people who really knew what they were talking about. There was an authentic ring to their words that cannot be obtained from books, but only lived experience. Without detracting from the contributions of all those present on the day, I found David Honeywell’s talk provided a comprehensive account of the transformative power of education in prison and the ways in which it can lead individuals to desist from crime and become valued members of their society.This particularly resonates with my own experiences.
I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to address those present but decided to abandon my prepared talk; I just went off the cuff. I had a number of points I thought would be pertinent to the day’s discussions and began by outlining how it was my belief that every interaction or connection made with those in custody counts if we are to facilitate them desisting from crime. In this regard, I view desistence as a process, something akin to sowing seeds in a garden and watching the flower grow. To achieve this growth, prisoners have to be supported and encouraged to adopt pro-social ways at every stage of their sentence. In my experience throughout my time in custody it was the people that I came in contact with and their belief in me that had the most profound effect.
Using the analogy of the person sitting in a car that had broken down, but without knowledge of what was wrong, the car couldn’t be fixed. I was once like that person sitting in the car, I was searching for fulfilment and it could only come through education. Books I read helped me to see aspects of my own life being described, as if they were actually talking about me. I began to understand the negative influences that had impacted on my life. I could see how my environment, life style, peers and lack of education had shaped my outlook and my life.
On the plane journey back to Ireland, I was happy to have contributed to the conference, a sense of confident optimism regarding the Learning Together programme and its potential to make a real difference in the criminal justice system came over me. I suppose if we sow the seeds, they will grow and a beautiful flower will blossom.
Thanks so much for inviting me.