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March 17, 2006

If you want to escape managerialist jargon, don't go to prison - Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham shares her experiences of prison management

Posted by Emily Kingham

Drug usage is not the only thing which is rampant in British prisons - so too is managerialist jargon. Emily Kingham - writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison - shares her experiences of prison management.

Sometimes I think of prison as a microcosm of society at large. The same dynamics, prejudices, power plays, fears, theories and anxieties are evident in both organisms, but in prison they are magnified. In prison you will hear the same awful, jargon-ridden attempts at instilling sense into unwieldy systems. Meetings consist of over-excited, middle-aged, middle-management types promoting the necessity for "joined-up thinking" (which means people talking to each other), and "embedding life skills in literacy" (which means teaching prisoners food hygiene and English in the same class). The teachers despair but the bureaucrats achieve their KPTs (key performance targets). And KPTs are how the Home Office judges prisons. Numbers rule. Theories of rehabilitation, restorative justice, punishment and accountability are meaningless here, just as they are meaningless in the Palace of Westminster.

People who run prisons do not know what they are talking about because they do not think about what they are saying. I would like to send them on a crash course in moral philosophy. But they spend too much time in meetings going round and round in circles discussing what they are doing to question the efficacy of what they are doing.

One jumped-up jobsworth declared in a QIG (Quality, Improvement and Something Beginning with G) meeting:

Education has to come with qualifications employers will recognize, otherwise offenders [they're not prisoners, remember] won't utilise Education. We have to give them what they want.
She was so surprised with herself for getting a sentence out that didn’t contain jargon she stopped in her tracks and gasped for air.
I countered:
If you want to get the prisoners into Education you have to pay them the same rate per day as a wing-cleaner, I've just lost six students because they can't afford to come to my course. Meeting their financial needs really would be giving the men what they want. At the moment they're losing out by coming to Education.
Each prisoner receives around £7 per week for working as a wing-cleaner. If they come off the wings to attend classes they lose that money and receive – and it's never on time – significantly less. They need that money to buy food, phone calls, etc. The fact that they receive less money is another instance of the real regard prisons have for education.

The jobsworth slid straight back into jargon in order to avoid any more dialogue. Sometimes I think there isn't really any dialogue any more, anywhere. Ideas aren't discussed, they are floated. And so they float off into thin air.

But the jobsworth was right in one sense. Education does have to lead to employment. It does in schools, and where schools go, prisons must follow. And that's usually back to prison. (By the way, lessons are not taught, they are "provided".) I am disillusioned. I sense a change in myself from the first Notes from a Prison I wrote last December. Then, I thought, writing and literature were considered by the prison service as a way out of confinement – moral as well as physical. As the great, heavily compromised, deluded but nevertheless admirable Miss Jean Brodie once said:

The word "education" comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul.
But for my employers, it means attaching certificates to unschooled men. Let's face it, the prison service knows nothing about education, let alone creative writing. In many cases, a lack of will on the part of the prison results in "College contractors" (these are local education colleges that win teaching contracts in prisons) performing badly because of the prison's failure to resolve "operational failures". Not paying men what they would get for cleaning is an example of an operational failure, as is failing to find an officer to escort them from the wing to the Education block.

What is overwhelmingly obvious is that the kind of manager I have sketchily described above is only really interested in education in order to achieve government-set targets. An intrinsic belief that education can play a significant part in successfully resettling offenders gets lost en route. Educating prisoners means computing the right amount of numbers and passing the problem elsewhere. So I have joined the game, something I encourage the inmates to do. I tell them:

It's no use fighting against the system. Make it work for you. We are all caught up in systems that anger and frustrate us. It's part of the human condition. Prison is another system.
I think they know what I mean.

I, too, have joined the system. I am embedding the National Union of Journalists' Pathways to Journalism course into the prison. I told my bemused Head of Learning and Skills:

Journalism welcomes outsiders.
She didn't look encouraged. More to her point, I assured her that a criminal record was not an automatic bar to employment in this trade – if anything, it's an entrée, I didn't tell her. Men who write and edit the prison magazine will receive certificates in journalism that have currency in the outside world. And it always comes back to currency. But more importantly, in my slightly jaundiced eyes, in learning a reporter's skills my students will learn objectivity. If they are worked up about an issue I tell them to write about it as a journalist would. Present the facts, seek perspectives, do the research, reason - don't rant. I stress the word
as opposed to
Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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Keep up the good work, Emily! I wonder how many readers are like myself, enjoying your column but not commenting because, for once, we realise that we have nothing useful to add.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 18, 2006 08:44 AM

Afterthis does anyone really wonder why narcotics are so popular in prison? I could do with some now. Poor Emily!

Posted by: s masty at March 18, 2006 01:02 PM
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