Life as a prison educator

Prison educator, Stephen Boyce, talks about the specific and unique pressures experienced by education staff working in prisons.

There are 124 prisons in the UK with 10-50 educators in each. In many ways they operate like mini further education colleges. Typical roles include:

  • Teaching Assistants – offer learning support to offenders who have basic education skills functioning at primary school level. Many offenders have the educational skills and social skills of 5,6, 7 years olds and some have special educational needs like delayed speech, autism.
  • Vocational tutors
  • Fully qualified teachers
  • Education service managers

In terms of our daily routine, we have a long working day starting at 8am and finishing at 5.15pm. The classes are over 3 hours long in both morning and afternoon. These lessons are long and can make it hard for both staff and offenders to maintain concentration. Many prisons are in remote areas so with travelling time this is a very long working day.

One of the positive is that we are not allowed to take our work home for security reasons and cannot work late as the rooms have to be locked up at the end of the day. This does mean your work-life balance is managed for you!

You are searched every day. In maximum security prisons this may include taking off your shoes and being x-rayed.  There are many items you cannot bring into prison – mobile phones, chewing gum, memory sticks, tin foil, tin cans. You are also subject to random searches on a regular basis.Stephen Boyce prison teacher

All prison educators carry around with them a set of keys to the prison which are chained to you and you must guard and a prison radio. This can make every day manoeuvres like going to the loo quite difficult!

We have limited facilities and of course cannot connect to the internet. Ofsted can criticise the lack of use of interactivity as we are judged on the same criteria as colleges on the outside.

Working with offenders

Prisons are a very different and difficult work environment and prison educators need to be very resilient. You are working with students who have sometimes had a bad experience of education and have committed crimes including rape and murder. There are many issues with violence and mental health which is of course challenging.

We do however, develop good relationships with the offenders. Most want to be in the classroom, (unlike some teenagers!) and want to better themselves to be able to find a job or continue education on the outside.

Offenders can become very reliant on us as we are often their only contact with the outside world. One said to me: “You are like my family. I have seen more of you in the last six years than I have my own family. They are strangers to me. I see them an hour a month, I see you 6 hours a day.” We therefore have to be careful not to get too familiar with them.

Generally, I would say we feel quite safe at work. Classrooms usually have two alarm buttons and if pressed, ten uniforms will pile into the room in seconds. This happens rarely and is usually due to prisoners attacking each other not their teachers.  This can of course be very distressing to see.  

We have also built up a social standing with prisoners and generally offenders will stand up for their teachers and respect and protect them.

Insecure working conditions

All prison education services are outsourced and we are employed by different colleges or private companies. The contracts are re-tendered every 3 to 5 years. This can cause stress as you don’t know if you will have a job following the tendering process. Often if a new supplier selected, educators’ contracts may be transferred across but then have to change pension providers and may have different managers.

We are subject to a great deal of financial pressures. Budgets are tight and our managers are always looking at the bottom line.

You can be summarily dismissed by the prison governor at any time for no reason. This can happen where there is evidence of inappropriate contact with a prisoner or taking a phone, drugs in to the prison etc. Sometimes just the risk of familiarity with a prisoner can be used as a reason. For example, an offender’s phone call was intercepted and he had asked someone on the outside to look up the name of his teacher so that she could be contacted and pressured to bring items into the prison for him. The teacher had done nothing but her relationship with the offender was viewed as a potential weakness in security so the teacher was dismissed.

Positive working environment

Staff work in very close knit teams. We are very isolated in this parallel universe away from normal society so develop a trench mentality and rely on each other a lot for support. We have a staffroom where we eat, do our preparation but there are no other spaces for staff so there is very little privacy. But this means we know each other very well and become very close, honest and open with one another. We have to be as we have to watch one another’s backs.

Despite the pressures most prison educators feel a strong vocation and are very talented individuals. We want to make a positive difference to the lives of the prisoners in our care and reduce the risk of them reoffending. It is a very specialist area of teaching and won’t suit everyone but those who stick with it tend to stay for a long time. 

We're here to listen

If you are a prison educator and need support please remember our helpline is available to you 24/7 on 08000 562561.

Stephen talks here about the helpline and encourages you get in touch if you need us.