A guide to tutoring prisoner students – Part 2 | The Open College of the Arts
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A guide to tutoring prisoner students – Part 2

Tutoring prisoner students can feel like something of a minefield. It can be difficult to decipher fact from fiction out of 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 blog post I want to outline the different options prisoners have for carrying out the research element of their courses. As with most things relating to prisons, the specifics of each of these will differ between establishments, but what I want to emphasise is that it will very rarely be the case that someone can’t do research – it may just take a bit of effort on their part. 

    1. Prison Education Tutors – Many learners are in contact with tutors in the prison education department. Generally, there will be a tutor who is responsible for facilitating distance learning sessions. This is often one or two sessions per week for learners to have a classroom space and possibly computer access for their distance learning studies. These tutors will have internet access so can access and print relevant information (usually in black and white). However, they are not going to have the time to filter through what might be needed, so it is important to encourage learners to be specific about what they need so the tutor isn’t doing all the legwork.
    2. Education Art Classroom – This one won’t be an option at every prison, as prison art departments have reduced massively in recent years. However, where they are still in existence, many have a range of books available for students to use for reference. While these will be intended primarily for use by students in the classes studying with the education provider, books can be loaned to OCA students for use in cell if requested. This can be done through applications sent to the education department or through the tutor facilitating distance learning sessions.    
    3. Library – Most prisons have a library where prisoners can borrow books on a wide range of topics. There is also an option of interlibrary loans, where books can be ordered from within the wider library service (which is often the local authority). Obviously this can take time, so encouraging learners to read ahead in their course and identify early on what might be needed, can help to avoid delays. Some libraries are also open to suggestions of books prisoners would like to be purchased and added to collections, so it can be worth encouraging learners to discuss this with librarians to see where this might be possible. As with education staff, librarians also have internet access so may be able to carry out a small number of searches and print useful information for a small fee.
    4. Amazon – One of the biggest recent changes is that prisoners are now allowed to order items from Amazon. This means they can buy books to help with their research, if the item is sold by, or fulfilled by Amazon. If you wanted to recommend specific books to learners, details from Amazon could be helpful. Again, this can take a number of weeks to be processed and delivered so encouraging the learner to be organised would be key. As mentioned in the previous blog post, establishing if individuals have a maximum amount they want to spend on books, can be useful when considering this.
    5. Friends and family – Many prisoners are in regular contact with someone outside of the prison. Whether this is a friend or family member, quite often these people will want to support the individual with their studies and can be willing to find information required and post it to them. 
    6. Magazines and Journals – Prisoners are allowed to buy newspapers, magazines and other publications. If you know of a particularly useful magazine or journal publication that would be useful recommend them by sending the publication details so that the prison staff processing the order would be able to find them. This can be a particularly good option for prisoners as if they choose to regularly receive subject specific material like this, they will have access to more up to date information and often at a cheaper price than regularly buying books.  
    7. OCA Tutors – I don’t for a second think we should be providing all research materials for our prisoner students, however a printout of a particularly useful article or extract from an exhibition catalogue, if it will particularly help is absolutely acceptable to supplement the other materials they have. Personally, I would only do this for students who were already using the other sources available to them, as I wouldn’t want to set this as a main option – more of an acknowledgement of the effort already being put in by them.

It can be the case that some prisoner students won’t be aware of some of these options for finding research materials, so the more suggestions you can make the better. As the different options are varied and include differing amounts of input from staff, over time you will start to get an idea of when a prisoner student is just trying to avoid doing research themselves, and when they genuinely have issues accessing what they need. This will help you to build a sense of how much you need to, or are willing to do. If you have any questions regarding this please feel free to ask either myself rachelforster@oca.ac.uk or gerryryan@oca.ac.uk


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Posted by author: Rachel Forster
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