Cardiff Metropolitan University has hosted the annual Prisoner Learning Alliance Conference, which culminated in the Prisoner Learner Alliance Awards, where teachers, librarians, officers and peer mentors been nominated by students behind bars.
Over 150 sector experts gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities of proposed reforms to prison education and discussion topics included the learner perspective: prison education and beyond; Governor autonomy and Exploring gendered identities in prison. An overview of the Coates and Taylor Review recommendations and a self-development workshop on 'Embracing Change' were also delivered.
The PLA received over 200 nomination letters for the awards from people in custody, looking to thank those who go the extra mile UK-wide to engage and inspire. Awards were presented by Jo Stevens, Shadow Prisons Minister and MP for Cardiff Central.
She said: "Being able to recognise the achievements of people in prison is a great privilege. Prisoner education is a critical part of every prisoner's rehabilitation journey. It provides a chance to re-enter society with new or improved skills, to find employment and the opportunity to lead a fulfilling, law abiding life after sentence."
The five Welsh winners, who educate and support often while working in extremely challenging circumstances, were Vicky Dickeson and Valerie Samuels from Swansea Prison library, Cheryl Penn, a teacher at HMP Usk/ Prescoed and Prison Officer Trevor Latham and Maths Tutor Nick from HMP Parc, Bridgend.
Vicky and Valerie were commended by a prisoner for turning the prison library into a 'sanctuary of reading and learning.'
Prisoners said the pair, who moved from a community library to a prison a year ago, had made a 'huge impact' through organising book groups, creating a monthly newsletter, and keeping the library well stocked.
"Their cheerful dispositions and sense of humour have helped me and many other prisoners through the daily grind of a prison sentence," reads the nomination letter.
Vicky said: "It is humbling to receive praise for doing a job I love, and one that allows me to enable our customers to learn, experience and showcase their abilities and talents. Thanks lads!"
Valerie said: "To have the men consider the library a sanctuary is wonderful. We strive to provide a positive, informative, supportive environment where the men can study and work towards building a valid and viable future. Reading for pleasure and relaxation is also an option!"
Trevor runs the groundbreaking Fathers Inside programme at Parc, a parenting course which uses a mixture of therapy and teaching practical skills to help men inside engage with fatherhood.
He was nominated by six men, who wrote that the officer was 'well respected and admired by prison staff and student inmates alike.'
"He has invested so much passion, empathy and humanity into the course, showing us all by his own example those qualities that we all wish to adopt for ourselves," they wrote.
Trevor said the fact that the nomination came from prisoners themselves makes it 'even more special.'
"Seeing the difference the programme has had on children's relationship with their fathers is something else," he said. "And when I don't see the men back in prison it makes the whole work worthwhile."
Cheryl Penn, a teacher at HMP Usk/ Prescoed, was nominated by a prisoner who said she had given prisoners a "life-changing experience" through education, calling their teacher "amongst the highest achievers in rehabilitating prisoners nationwide."
She said: "I haven't achieved this award on my own. The greatest help for me is the learners themselves. As a relatively 'late learner' myself I value the advice I was given a few years ago when my tutor told me 'your students are the best resource you'll ever have.'
"I love what I do and feel that if we can make just a small difference to the lives of the men then this strengthens my belief that education in prison can effectively influence change."
Nick, a Prisoner Mentor who tutors Maths was 'humbled' by the award. Laurence Bater, Curriculum Manager at Parc Prison collected the award, saying on Nick's behalf: "I'm extremely grateful to receive the award for Outstanding Peer Mentor especially given that I was nominated by a group of prisoners that I have been working closely with throughout the last academic year." The award has made Nick realise that he can use his prison sentence as an opportunity to develop personally while helping others.
Nina Champion, Head of Policy at Prisoners' Education Trust, organised the awards, which are in their second year.
She said: "We were overwhelmed not only by the number of nomination letters we received, but by the heartfelt messages of gratitude within them. Our winners work tirelessly, often in difficult settings. The awards celebrate their achievements and remind us that even in the most adverse circumstances, education has the power to change lives."
The Prisoners' Education Trust Learners' Handbook was also launched at the event. This has been a pilot collaboration between the Prisoners' Education Trust (PET) and Cardiff Met's First Campus team and is PET's first project of its kind outside London.
Specialist study skills tutors have helped inform the handbook, written to provide study skills opportunities to prison-based learners.
Chris Dennis and Nicola Herbert from the University's Academic Skills department have co-written the handbook with PET students and alumni and the University has also funded and designed the handbook, which will be distributed to all PET learners in Welsh prisons and also to prisoners in England in due course.
The handbook was launched by University Chair of the Board of Governors and University Chancellor, Barbara Wilding CBE, QPM. The former Chief Constable of South Wales Police said: "Through 42 years of service in the police service I became more than aware of the link between education and a reduction in the cycle of re-offending. Education helps the individual, and helps their families in many ways.
"Parents' reading and writing skills are improved, and therefore they can do things like read to their children and other educational activities with them. In turn, this improves relationships, and those improved relationships keep families together."
The conference was also supported by Prisons Minister Sam Gdiyah.
He said: "Education is key to helping prisoners turn their lives around and in particular to securing employment which we know reduces reoffending.
"We want prisons to be places of hard work and high ambition, with incentives for prisoners to learn. Which is why I want to congratulate all those involved in this year's awards who have offered support, advice and provided prisoners with this opportunity."
'The Future of Prison Education. Personalised and Peer-Enabled Approaches', is the third annual PLA conference, held at Cardiff Metropolitan University on 16 September. See a full agenda and details here.
The Prisoner Learning Alliance was formed in 2012 by the charity Prisoners' Education Trust (PET) to provide expertise and vision to inform future priorities, policies and practices relating to prison education, learning and skills. It now brings together 23 expert organisations who work to champion learning for people in prison. For the full list of members see here.
Since 1989, PET has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by providing advice and funding for over 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.
A report by the MoJ shows that prisoners helped by PET reoffend 6 to 8 percentage points less than a matched control group. Analysis by Pro Bono Economics shows that it would only take a one percentage point reduction in reoffending to be the result of that support for the benefits to outweigh the costs of the investment.