Education is Subversive in Prison by John Bowden

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subversive educationThe role of teachers and educational tutors employed by local colleges and contracted to work within the prison system can be a conflicting and potentially very hazardous one. Empowering prisoners with knowledge in an environment
intrinsically organised to disempower them can sometimes be a dangerous activity.

Unlike the function and role of most other types of staff working within prisons (guards, probation officers, social workers and psychologists etc.) that revolve around the containment, control and disempowerment of prisoners, teaching
within jails usually involves a relationship with prisoners that is often inimical to that custody and control dimension of prisons. The uniformed guards who basically control and maintain ‘discipline’ in prisons instinctively understand the empowering influence of education on prisoners, which is essentially why they view civilian teachers working within prisons with suspicion and as an always
potentially weak link in the chain of security and ‘discipline’ (control), whose loyalty is always in question. There is a very strong and all-pervading occupational culture amongst prison guards that views any attempt to
empower and humanise those over whom they exact an absolute degree of
power as just another step to a liberalism that undermines and weakens the basic function of the prison – punishment and absolute control. It’s an attitude and culture that teachers working within prisons are confronted by every day, as well as a balance of institutional power firmly tipped in favour of the guards, who
charged with maintaining the physical security of the prison will always inevitably label teachers who question their authority and power as a ‘security risk’, which is a sure way of getting them removed from the prison and recalled to a local college usually desperate to protect and continue it’s contract with the prison system.

Essentially, however, to usually poorly-educated prison guards it’s the spectre of educated and empowered prisoners that disturbs and angers those responsible for maintaining and enforcing the ‘good order and discipline’ role of prisons, and in the mini totalitarian world of prison the aphorism “knowledge is power” is something clearly understood by those keeping prisoners in a constant condition of absolute powerlessness.

The education department, or Learning Centre at Shotts maximum-security prison in Lanarkshire, Scotland, was, before the arrival of Kate Hendry in the summer of 2011, a place of little inspiration or significance within the prison. The curriculum and number of subjects available was basic and poor, the
classes poorly attended, most numbering less than a half-dozen prisoners, and teachers always mindful of their lowly position within the hierarchy of power within the prison. Education and classes were always peripheral to the main daily activity of the jail: enforced attendance in the cheap-labour work sheds where a more acceptable ‘work ethic’ could be instilled, the fundamental basis of prisoner ‘rehabilitation’ for those who have failed to accept their true place
in class society. Classes were usually attended by those desperate to escape the mindless drudgery of the work sheds but unwilling to risk a ‘disciplinary report’ and the removal of even the most basic of ‘privileges’ by outwardly refusing to ‘attend labour’. Classes were usually a last option before the punishment of the removal of recreation time with other prisoners or a spell in the very austere
lock-down ‘segregation unit’.

The function and purpose of the Learning Centre at Shotts had been reduced to achieving little more than the prison’s statutory obligation to provide at least the basic rudiments of an education (the three Rs) to those prisoners who
needed and asked for it.

Kate Hendry’s impact on the Learning Centre at Shotts prison could be fairly described, from the first day, as seismic, simply because of her commitment and dedication to providing a high quality of education to prisoners, something her
colleagues in the Learning Centre, apart from the odd, isolated individual, had long ago forsaken in the interests of just supervising a class, not rocking the boat, and continuing to draw a salary. Kate also pushed hard against the boundaries that restricted the development of the Learning Centre, the institutional culture of control and ‘dynamic security’, that which says prison security is not just about bars, walls, lock and keys, but also about the control of prisoners, both physically and psychologically, and the treating with suspicion of anyone who enters and works with the prison who might threaten or challenge that concept of ‘security’. Kate certainly did that with her uncompromising belief in and commitment to the educational and intellectual integrity of the Learning Centre,
and her attempt to involve her chief employer, Motherwell College, far more closely in the activity and range of classes provided by the Learning Centre, thereby strengthening its independence from the restricting influence of the prison’s management and their uniformed guards who believe prisoners should be watched, controlled and counted, not educated to a point where they might challenge the authority and legitimacy of the regime inflicted on them. An educated convict is a dangerous convict in the eyes of most jailers.

Her achievements within her first twelve months of working at the prison were considerable. She created a high-quality, award winning national prisoners’ art magazine based at Shotts. She formed a prisoners/students representative forum with direct input into discussions and decisions influencing the management and quality of the Learning Centre. Virtually single-handedly she created a new library in the jail, where before there existed just a few shelves of pulp fiction and true crime books in an almost inaccessible area of the prison for prisoners. She
organised a “Cuba Week”, featuring Cuban music, art and films, and a talk from a representative of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. She was in the process of organising a “Writers in Prison” week, looking at the lives and writing of prisoners of conscience from around the world, before the events that were to lead to her exclusion from the prison unfolded. For the relatively brief period
of time that she worked at the prison she created a dynamic in the Learning Centre that was empowering and inspiring, and revealed the true potential of education as a means of transforming the lives of prisoners in a fairly revolutionary way.

I had attended classes in the prison a short while before Kate began working there and had attempted to organise a ‘debate’ class, encouraging prisoners who attended to learn the skills and confidence of public speaking and debate,
something difficult for individuals whose self-esteem has been virtually destroyed by years, and often lifetimes of brutal institutionalisation. The class became a sort of organisational nucleus for events like a large debate held in the prison chapel and attended by prisoners throughout the jail, all debating the topic, “Alternatives to Prison”, which a guard at the back of the chapel taking notes would subsequently become an ‘entry’ in my security file presented to the parole board, that claimed I had simply used “as a platform for his latest political views”. Even before Kate’s arrival in the Learning Centre at Shotts my presence and influence there was perceived as in some way ‘subversive’ and probably
motivated by intention simply to create disruption and discontent within the jail.

My initial impression of Kate was unfortunately coloured by prejudice and suspicion and so I viewed her a s a middle-class liberal probably driven by personal ambition, not the empowerment of my brother prisoners. I was wrong. I eventually collaborated with her on a number of projects within the Learning
Centre that were probably viewed by the jail’s administration as dangerously ‘left-wing’ and potentially threatening in terms of the effect they might have had on the intellectual confidence and increased self-esteem of prisoners. Over time the intellectual and political relationship I formed with Kate would be interpreted by some guards and jail managers at Shotts as a ‘security risk’ and
justification for her removal from the prison. Two events probably
became the catalysts for the process that would lead not only to her
exclusion from the jail but a deliberate attempt by the administration to destroy her professionally and personally. The first was my openly confronting a delegation of Turkish prison officials being taken on a guided tour of the prison and its Learning Centre by the jail governor and an E.U. Official. Prior to their
arrival Kate had made known her views about the visit and how it was legitimising and lending respectability to probably the most brutal prison system in the so-called developed world. She was therefore viewed as complicit in my attempt to embarrass the visitors by confronting them with their verified record of human rights abuse.

The second event was clearly the most critical one, revealing as it did something about Kate’s true loyalty in the eyes of the prison guards and clearly marking her out for removal from the jail as a consequence. Guards supervising the Learning Centre had obviously been told to ‘keep an eye’ on certain prisoners who attended classes ans restrict as much as possible their movement around the centre. I was in no doubt that I was one of the prisoners being more carefully watched.

One morning a young and particularly over-zealous guard decided to interpret the instruction to ‘keep an eye’ on me as probably a license to put me on a disciplinary charge for whatever he liked. He decided to ‘nick’ me for smoking in the Centre’s tea break area. Not a single one of the twenty or so prisoners also in the area at the time saw me smoking, neither did the guard’s own colleague who was also carefully watching those prisoners, including me. The guard’s action quickly created an atmosphere of anger amongst both prisoners and teachers in the Centre, although the later had long ago learned never to take a prisoner’s side in a dispute with guards and risk professional suicide as far as continuing to work in any prison was concerned. Kate, however, was not so constrained and she directly approached the guard and expressed her unease about what appeared to be my victimisation. By appearing to openly take the side of a prisoner against a guard, Kate would provoke an immediate and total hardening
of attitude against her by those who ran the prison. Her position wasn’t helped by the official perception of the prisoner that she appeared to align herself with – a long-time “subversive” and “disruptive influence” in the prison.

I would subsequently be cleared of the charge the guard had invented against me by a prison disciplinary hearing, but for Kate the nightmare was about to begin.

The guard that Kate had confronted in my defence submitted a “security intelligence report” to the prison’s security department alleging that Kate was involved in an “inappropriate relationship” with me and was therefore a “security risk”. A prison manager then phoned Motherwell College and claimed that Kate had become “emotionally involved” with a prisoner and she was under suspicion. A manager at Motherwell College then phoned Kate at home late one night whilst her partner and children were present and informed her of the prison’s allegation. She was also informed that when she returned to the jail the
following day she would be ‘interviewed’ by a security manager about the allegation. She was duly summoned to the prison’s security department the next day and in the presence of the Learning Centre manager warned that prison staff suspected her of becoming unprofessionally close with a prisoner and that “boundaries” had been crossed. She strenuously denied the allegation and demanded to be shown what real evidence existed to support it. Of course there
was none, so she was then warned that I was a “psychopathic” and “subversive” prisoner who was simply “manipulating” her for my own sinister and disruptive ends. She was then questioned about some of the projects we had organised in the Learning Centre and told that prison staff suspected my involvement in them suggested a “politically subversive” dimension to the activities that could impact on the “good order and discipline” of the prison. She was finally warned that I was being closely watched by the guards so her contact with me should be kept to the absolute minimum.

Of course the intention to remove Kate from the prison remained and a second guard submitted a “security intelligence report” on her, claiming she had taken me without permission to the prison library and spent some time there alone with me. This was a complete lie and related to a visit Kate, me and another prisoner had made to the old prison library to assess what books should be retained for the new library. She had obtained permission to take myself and the other prisoner to the old library which was situated in the busy administration area of the jail. The guard who submitted the security report against Kate was actually present with us in the library at the time.

On the 26th September 2012 a known prisoner informer told a member of the teaching staff that Kate had exchanged “love letters” with me and had witnessed us being intimate with each other. The teacher reported the information to the
Learning Centre manager, who passed it on to senior prison management. The following day Kate was denied entry to the prison and Motherwell College told her that she would be placed before a college disciplinary hearing on a charge of “gross misconduct”. I was also seen by two prison managers and informed that I was barred from the jail’s Learning Centre and my behaviour was under investigation.

No “love letters” were ever discovered or produced as evidence against Kate or me, and when closely questioned by security staff at the prison all of the
teaching staff said they had never witnessed or seen any inappropriate behaviour between myself and Kate, and neither had any of the guards who supervised the Learning Centre. The prison informer was revealed to be someone with a history of serious mental illness who had previously passed false information to prison staff.

Kate’s treatment deeply angered the prisoners who attended the Learning Centre and who had benefited from her dedication and tireless commitment to prison education, so they organised and signed a petition in support of her and sent copies to the Scottish Prison Service H.Q. And the local M.P. For the area. The
M.P. Pamela Nash, wrote to the governor of Shotts, Ian Whitehead, expressing concern about Kate’s treatment and asking that the matter be fully and promptly investigated. She also asked that copies of her letter and Whitehead’s response to it be made available to all those prisoners who had signed the petition. In his response Whitehead tried to absolve himself or his staff of any responsibility for
Kate’s removal from her post at the prison and instead shifted the blame and responsibility to Motherwell College, claiming they alone had decided to withdraw her from the prison, and the responsibility for any investigation subsequently lay with them.

A short while after that a story was leaked to a Scottish tabloid that claimed there had been a “love affair” between me and Kate, and inevitably I was described in the usual folk devil way. The purpose of those who passed the story to the tabloid was essentially to destroy Kate’s professional and personal reputation.

Following Kate’s sacking from the prison all her projects and work in the Learning Centre were closed down and eradicated. What happened to Kate Hendry absolutely epitomises the treatment of any member of staff working in prisons, especially in a ‘non-custodial’ role, who dares to relate to prisoners with humanity and solidarity. The position of civilian teachers is particularly hazardous in that regard because of the nature of their relationship with prisoners and the potentially empowering effect their work has on prisoners, something prison administrations would rather was purged from prisons for obvious reasons. In many long-term jails the education department or Learning
Centre is the one place where its possible to effect a change in the relationship of power between prisoner and jailer, as well as returning some semblance of self-respect and intellectual integrity. That is a spectre that unnerves those employed to subjugate and disempower prisoners, and their deepest wrath is reserved for those actively trying to make that spectre a living reality.

John Bowden

HMP Shotts
Canthill Road

sub ed