A guide to tutoring prisoner students – Part 1 | The Open College of the Arts
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A guide to tutoring prisoner students – Part 1

Tutoring prisoner students can feel like something of a minefield. It can be difficult to decipher fact from fiction from the information shared in the press about what prisoners do (and don’t) have access to, as well as what the individual is expecting from you, or you from them.

Hopefully this series of blog posts can provide a bit of information and a few suggestions to help make this easier.

Despite the different circumstances learners are approaching their studies from, the intention should always be for prisoner students’ work to be assessed alongside, and against the same standards as students outside. With the help of their tutors, prisoner students may need to find different approaches to make this possible, but this is one of the challenges anyone choosing to study a distance learning course from within a prison will have considered – even if it seems a bit scary.

In this first post I want to focus on what the role of a tutor is for prisoner students and, specifically, what you can do to build your knowledge and understanding of prison life to help you support them effectively. 

Without doubt, as a collective, prisoners are the most creative group of people I have ever worked with. By nature of their surroundings they quickly become adept at using what they have available to them to fulfil a multitude of different needs and functions. This can vary from using J cloths as coffee filters when fresh ground coffee suddenly appeared on the canteen sheet, to cooking curries in a kettle when no other facilities are available or, more deviant behaviour, like adapting biros to make a basic tattoo gun. I am also reliably informed that prison issue roll on deodorant makes a great varnish! 

Regardless of the purpose, the bottom line is when they want something, prisoners will find a way of achieving it. For some reason though, when it comes to their studies, they seem to forget that these creative thinking skills can be transferable. Every OCA tutor that has worked with prisoner students will be familiar with the tales about what materials they don’t have, or what tasks they can’t do because of where they are. It can be easy for us as tutors to go along with what our students say, particularly if we have a limited knowledge of prisons. But is that really the best way we can support our learners? To me, there shouldn’t be anything in our courses that prisoner students shouldn’t be able to do, it may just require us to think about adapting the ways they approach it to still learn the same skills. 

Start as you mean to go on.

My advice would be to talk through the whole course with the student early on (even through letters) and get them to identify potentially difficult tasks that need re-framing, or materials and resources they will need, but don’t currently have. It is ok to explain to them that they may need to save up to buy some materials or books, so encourage them to factor this into their planning. Depending on the system in place at a particular establishment, it can take up to a month to receive an order they put in, so try to help plan what they need for the whole course to avoid being held up waiting for things to arrive. It can also be useful to establish if they want you to recommend books for them to buy, and if they have a price limit they can go to. Asking questions like this about their expectations of you and what they expect in return, will help you feel more confident supporting them and, make them feel like they have more autonomy and responsibility.       

Pose questions as challenges to be overcome – not problems or excuses.

One of the first things I learnt about working with prisoners is that if they perceive that you are giving them an option out of something, they will take it. So, as a tutor how we frame the conversations we have with, and questions we put to, prisoner students will determine what they will do or believe they need to do. We may not all have the best knowledge of what life in a prison is like or what prisoners can have, but it is better to ask direct questions and make suggestions in a positive way rather than sounding apologetic about what you are asking. For example, rather than asking ‘have you got access to enough research for your course?’, try framing it as ‘what sources of research are you going to use?’ The first sounds like you are saying there is an option to say ‘no’ and therefore that you won’t have to do that part of the work, whereas the second is more directly stating it needs to be done, so what are you going to do? 

Encourage creative thinking

First of all, I don’t want to make out that tutors need to have all the answers to questions and concerns prisoner students have – quite the opposite. The main part of a tutor’s role is to encourage learners to think for themselves, identify the problems they face, and work out how they will solve them. Over time, prisoners generally can become dependent on those around them, purely because of the way prisons are structured. They can lose all sense of autonomy and responsibility for everything in their day-to -day life. They can’t leave their cell or move anywhere until a member of staff unlocks the door. They can only go on exercise at the designated time, and only access specific facilities with assistance from staff. The risk for our students is that they view us as tutors in the same way and expect us to ‘do stuff for them’ rather than take responsibility for themselves. We need to be clear in our purpose and help break that cycle. For want of a better analogy we need to be their cheerleader, giving feedback and support to help them find their direction, and pick them up when things are challenging, rather than a conductor taking the lead on what they are doing with them following our instructions.  

For example, a learner may tell you they can’t complete a task because it says in the instructions that they are meant to go for a walk and write about what they see, which they can’t do. Rather than accepting this and agreeing with them, encourage them to think about what the task is wanting them to learn. Is it more about describing their surroundings using all of their senses, and writing to create a visual sense of what it is like to be there? If so, could they write about their journey from their cell to work in a morning, or going for exercise, to the library, to the gym, or association, or any other journey or time in the day where they can describe the sights, sounds and smells they experience.

The same goes for visual tasks. A prisoner may say they can’t paint on A1 cartridge paper because they aren’t allowed to buy it under the prisons list of approved items. So, as a tutor, if you know it is important for them to demonstrate how they work at a larger scale, ask them what else they can use to work on. If the scale of the work isn’t important help them see how they can approach the task successfully working smaller. Finding larger scale materials to work on, is possible for prisoners if they think smart. For example, I have seen prisoners use prison issue bed sheets to paint on, so they can fold them up once dry to make them easy to store. I have also seen sheets of newspaper stuck together as a support surface for drawings and paintings. In other words, trying to encourage learners to see that it doesn’t matter if they don’t have the materials stated in the exercises, as long as they try and work out what the exercise is wanting them to learn or consider. Encourage them to experiment with ways of using what they do have, not apologise for what they don’t – this can make their learning log easier to write and much more interesting to read for assessors.

The bottom line is that being creative shouldn’t mean you have to have all the best stuff. We need to emphasise this to prisoner students to show that this is not the only key to success for their studies. Every learner, whether a prisoner or not, comes at our courses with their own world view, preconceptions, expectations and intentions. Just as we recognise individuals and their own journey with learners in the outside world, we need to think about prisoner students in the same way.


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Posted by author: Rachel Forster
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3 thoughts on “A guide to tutoring prisoner students – Part 1

  • Thank you for this. I am glad to know that OCA offers courses within the prison system and I hope that many will find it a way to build skills and confidence for life during and after incarceration. And it doesn’t hurt any of us to remember that “[t]he bottom line is that being creative shouldn’t mean you have to have all the best stuff.”

  • There are so many perceptions of what prisoner students say and do which applies to students in general – perhaps not OCA students who, in my experience are supremely motivated and creative. It’s great to see that the OCA is promoting its valuable work in supporting and developing the creativity of students in prisons. I wonder if there are any OCA students in overseas prisons?

  • Thank you for this and it is very do-able. I have been teaching prisoners at OCA over the years and they can be very inventive. By having lesser resources, one can become inventive and the same can apply to non-prison student too- sometimes we have too much choice! I have seen a particular prisoner drawing the cracks in the corner of the cell and it became really meticulous and imaginative.

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