A Room full of Gentlemen
8.25 I’m trying it out to see how easy it is to get here in time for an 8.30 start. I’m a bit too early as I was booked for 9.30 and it turns out Vikki is busy helping Sandy with oral testing so I have to hang around for a while in the waiting room in the gatehouse. The governor asks me if somebody knows I am waiting. I have to show my passport and put all valuables, mobile phone and my car key in a locker. Somebody with prison keys has to escort me so Shauna, the education administrator, comes to get me and takes me to the education wing. In the staff room, I meet the Art teacher and have a cup of tea to warm up.
Vikki comes and we have a chat about my qualifications and experience and what I would like to do as a volunteer. I say that I would like to help out with reading and writing.
She takes me to Sandy’s bright, warm, spacious classroom and I meet some of her students. Most of them are black, non native English speakers. Far from being intimidating, they are the most motivated, charming and polite group of students I’ve ever had the pleasure to be in a classroom with. Gentlemen, the lot of them.
Sandy calls them Mr. So and so and they all call her by her first name. It’s good practice to keep your surname out of it and never tell them where you live
I listen to one of the men read and then join in with the class when Sandy teaches them some how to spell words they may have to use in their writing exam on Monday. She has a relaxed, chatty manner and a good relationship with her students, even teasing them gently at times. They’re very respectful with her and the whole class has a supportive atmosphere. The lad whose reading I listened to rushes to give me a tissue from his pocket when I have a coughing fit. Sandy says her Wednesday class is very peaceful and she comes out feeling calm.
“The Verne isn’t a real prison,” one of them says. “The Scrubs is a real prison. You know you’re in prison when you’re in The Scrubs.” One man says he liked The Scrubs better because you knew where you were in there. He doesn’t like all these corridors in The Verne.
The Verne is not an open prison but the men take classes and many of them work. Some of them work outside the prison in The Jailhouse Cafe and in charity shops. One man tells me he packs tea bags and cereal into boxes which go to other prisons.
“Do you have any choice about what work you do?”
“When you first come in, they give you a list of jobs and you can put down which ones you want to do.”
"This man is the best in the class. I can't teach him anything."
She reads out the letter he has written asking a friend to buy a present for somebody in his family. It is faultless. He will sail through the tests.
She is very worried about these tests, which have just been brought in. They have to do speaking and listening tests, reading tests and writing test every seven weeks and in some cases they can’t even read when they start in her class. From not reading to taking these tests is a huge step but she can’t bear the thought of them failing.
One man, (let’s pretend his name is Bruce), helps the other students with their work. Sandy says he is a great example of what prison education can do, as he is now well educated, despite having had no qualifications when he left school – although he says he was always good with spoken language.
Bruce says he was moved around so much as a boy, he could never settle down in any school and also says he was a “scumbag” who deserved every bit of his sentence. He’s been inside for ten years and has grey hair which may be premature.
“When I went into prison I thought at least I could get some education.”
He talks about giving something back by helping some of the others learn.
There’s a programme in the prison called “Toe to Toe” where good readers can be peer tutors for those needing to learn. The tutors wear a tee shirt with a Toe to Toe logo so they can be identified .
“I love it when they shut my cell door,” This is Bruce again. “I read books do some of my art and I know nobody will disturb me.”
He tells me that his fiancée is a teacher, but she’s thinking of giving it up, because of the pressure she feels under.
“You wouldn’t think he was a murderer, would you?” Sandy says when we leave the class room. “I never ask them what they’re in for, but most of the lifers are in for murder.”
I suppose you wouldn’t get life for much less.
“I learn more from them than they learn from me,” Sandy says and not about murdering, presumably.
Later, Vikki and I have a debriefing session. She tells me that when I have my security briefing they will try to talk me out of coming. They’ll ask you what you would do if you were taken hostage.
“You would comply with what they say and keep yourself safe.”
I ask her what would happen if a dangerous situation developed in the classroom.
“Every classroom has a panic button that you can press if you need help. In the three years I’ve been here it’s gone off three times – twice by mistake.”
The keys I will carry on my belt when I am cleared by security have to be put down a chute when I go home. If the keys leave the prison, every lock will have to be changed. Luckily an alarm goes off if you forget to give them in but soon it will just become automatic.
My friend Charlotte texts me when I get out.
“Are you free to talk?”
“I am now. I just got out of prison.”
I don’t often get a chance to say that.