From education to employment

“You don’t know what’s going on behind those eyes” – educators describe life in Britain’s women’s prisons

For International Women’s Day 2024, digital learning staff reflect on their experiences working with women in prison to help get them ready for life outside

“What I really love about my job is that I can make a difference sometimes, and that’s what gets me out of bed,” says Coracle staff member Jenny.

Coracle is a King’s Award-winning digital learning company based in Cambridge, UK. Its staff visit women in prison every day to help them learn digital skills and take courses run by organisations such as The Open University, Prison Education Trust and the Aim Awards.

“After one course, we were handing out the certificates,” says Jenny. “A woman in her fifties burst out crying and everyone stopped clapping. She looked at me and she said: ‘I’ve never had a certificate in my whole life’. She was crying tears of joy”

Jenny, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, has worked in the prison service for twenty years, and at Coracle for two.

For International Women’s Day 2024, the theme is ‘inspire inclusion’, and Jenny believes it’s time to include Britain’s female prisoners in how we approach rehabilitation.

“In women’s prisons it’s much more difficult,” says Jenny, “because their trust has been abused. There are lots of mental health issues and self-harm is huge in female prisons. I wonder about the support when they get out.

“One girl was sitting at a desk to learn, but she looked terrified. It turned out her father used to make them sit at the table and wrap their knuckles. I put her in a separate room instead of being at the desk. 

“You don’t know what’s going on behind those eyes. Some of them I could cry for. We had an animal sanctuary in one prison. There was a woman who wouldn’t hold her head up straight or speak to you. We got her working in the animal sanctuary and she started speaking to people.

“She’d never formed any relationships because nobody cared. But she started to care for the animals. they wanted nothing from her.

“One of the animals had to be euthanized. I wanted her to fully understand the process of fully caring for someone and then the loss. 

“All the staff came to see. She’d had such a traumatic life up until that point. By witnessing something that she cared for dying she experienced the circle of life, and that was an important step for her.

“There was one woman who took her level two catering course in prison. She was desperate to get her kids back, who were living with her parents.

“She got an interview with a major convention centre to work in the canteen area. She went out on tag, the person interviewing said they would employ her but needed to check with the head office. 

“She got the job and then found out Michael Bublé was playing on her first shift. I don’t know what she was more excited about!”

“The tag needed to be amended to allow her to work the correct hours. But with that job and the stability it offered her, she was able to get her kids back.”

According to Jenny, there needs to be more of this kind of support that helps make sure there’s a clear route back to a meaningful life for women.

“There’s a missing link between women’s prisons and the community,” says Jenny. “If you want to help a woman who’s suffered domestic abuse, there’s not always the help on the outside. Often, they’ll put them straight back to where their abuser was.

“The help is improving but it’s got a heck of a long way to go. Awareness is slowly beginning to change – awareness of women’s needs in prison, too. 

“For example, the menopause – there’s now quite a big thing about being menopause aware. It was never spoken about – we have 80-90,000 prisoners and less than 5,000 of those are women. In the past, it was very focused on the men. 

“And people in meetings would always say ‘yes, the men,’ and I would put my hand up and say: ‘and the women!’ 

“It’s the hormones and the imbalance much more for women, this can cause difficulties in women’s prisons. Maintaining family ties is also imperative. Especially when it comes to kids, being able to see them by doing video calls.

“Together learning as well – if mum is doing something that might be relevant, if the parent can learn, the kids could learn with them. It gives those kids something different to focus on.

“At the same time, when it comes to employment opportunities, we must not stereotype. Not every woman wants to arrange flowers or bake cakes. We have to broaden opportunities right across the board. Women can work on a building site, too.”

James Tweed, founder and CEO of Coracle, believes tailored education is key to helping female prisoners get the help they need.

“The strength of the kind of secure, in-cell learning we can now offer is in providing a flexible, tailored programme,” he says.

“That means we should be able to deliver content that addresses the specific challenges a female prisoner faces, versus a male prisoner.”

According to Jenny, just providing opportunities to change can make all the difference. “If you send a woman into prison and her child goes into care, that can create a spiral of doom. It makes life feel meaningless for the woman,” she said.

“I don’t think there’s enough support for these women. We need to show them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Potentially, employers are willing to employ female ex offenders, but being more flexible round work life balance for carers is critical.

“Consistency is what’s needed and, sometimes, just giving people a chance. Give someone a chance because, if they really want to change, they will.”

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