Meet the student who went behind bars to teach inmates for his degree

The placement idea came from a module we were offered on my English and film degree, which explored the intricacies of crime in text and film.

Nat Ryan4 your life (5)

I was intrigued by the thought of the placement at HMP Edinburgh. It seemed like a unique opportunity to learn about the way a prison works and gain hands-on experience working with the inmates, although the nature of the setting made me a little apprehensive.

Through my constant watching of documentaries, like the ones by Louis Theroux, I sensationalised what I thought the experience would be like. In reality, it felt more like a primary school classroom than Miami Mega Jail.

Inmates choose whether they want to attend class or not, so everyone was there because they wanted to be. I’d expected rowdy inmates vehemently opposed to learning anything – something like my bottom set maths class in high school but full of murderers.

On reflection, this was a narrow-minded view to have, but this is the image of prison contemporary society is presented with.

I understand the idea of prison is endlessly fascinating – it is a world alienated from everything we know, where we house the most feared criminals who are deemed unsuitable for life within society.

Nat Ryan4 your life (2)

While this can be the case, TV documentaries show the extremities in the system to create excitement or fear in viewers.

My experience was the antithesis of the situation I had in my head: every inmate I worked with was respectful, willing to learn and genuinely a pleasure to teach.

Upon entering the facility you are met by airport-level security. The education section is located in the centre of the compound and it takes almost ten minutes to get there from the main entrance.

Nat Ryan4 your life (4)

Although I’m aware of the naivety of this statement, I was shocked at how often the doors had to be locked. Considering this is the integral part of what keeps a prison secure, it was strange how jarring it was to constantly wait on every door you pass to be checked and checked again.

Everything seems to be timed to the second, with every effort going into moving around the inmates’ tight schedule. The regimented protocol did not help with my initial anxiety but as soon as the inmates arrived I was weirdly at ease.

The group contained about six people who mostly attended every class in my two-month placement. I became close with one particular inmate, who I worked with on his literacy. What I empathised with most was how low this man’s literacy levels were and I couldn’t shift the feeling that he had been lost and abandoned by the system.

Nat Ryan4 your life (3)

The constant focus on positivity throughout my experience was enlightening and challenged the view I had before entering – fundamentally these people are still citizens and deserve the basic human right of an education during their time in prison.

I would like to see more focus on this positive rehabilitation in the media and pop culture but our constant need to be shocked has lead us to both sensationalise and demonise most prison narratives we are presented with.

Placements like mine should be more prevalent in our education – not only was I able to share knowledge with the inmates, but I was able to learn numerous skills myself: removing the stigma of what a prison actually is, challenging the representation of criminals and allowing for a positive focus on education and rehabilitation.

Interaction in such an unfamiliar setting taught me skills I never could have learned in my uni classroom and I would urge anyone to do the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *