Education here at the Weare is compulsory. There are two reasons for this. First, recent research has revealed that 60 per cent of all inmates throughout the system have a reading ability below that of an average 12-year-old; our well- meaning director general has decided it’s time to raise their academic standards. Second-and this applies more directly on board this prison ship-there is nothing else to do. Having decreed some time ago that prisoners must spend more time out of their cells engaged in “purposeful activity,” the directors at headquarters, area managers and governors in situ are now finding this more difficult to provide.
When I first started coming to prison, way back in the 1970s, there were plenty of stimulating activities for the inmates to engage in: mail bags to sew, garden gnomes to paint, fishnets to crochet, blankets to weave. I was once in a prison workshop where the prisoners were forced to weld together the bars for their own cell windows.
In today’s streamlined, politically correct prison service, most of these workshops have been taken over by anger-management courses, drug rehabilitation programmes, offending behaviour seminars, and the naif new boy in the stable-“employability” initiatives. When in doubt, send the men to school. The trouble is, you can lead a con to water, but you can’t make him drink.
Some weeks ago there was a disturbing television programme on BBC2 about the problems posed by a gang of four maladjusted teenagers in a special needs centre in east London. Their classroom antics (which were pandemonious) reminded me of the daily shenanigans here on the hulk. Three prison teachers have resigned over the last fortnight. The staff shortages have become so bad that they’ve started to employ other prisoners to help. So began my teaching career.
The head of education allocated me to the “basic skills” group where, she felt, I could best use my talents to “give a hand up to those who need it most.” When I arrived the supply teacher was already looking brow-beaten. He had taken the trouble to write his name on the board. Originally, it had read “Mr Walker.” Someone had rubbed out the l and replaced it with an n.
Within ten minutes the class numbers had decreased from a baker’s dozen down to eight.
“Got toofache, sir…”
“Need to get frew to my brief on the phone.”
“Sir, I jus’…