20th April 2020

Blog: Prison learning in lockdown

I am writing this as we enter our next three-week period of lockdown.  Most of us have adapted to remote working and Zoom meetings both of which are rapidly becoming the new normal.   Having had a case of Covid-19 in our household, we can now finally leave our 14-day isolation period and are allowed out for one form of exercise a day.  It is extraordinary how liberating it feels to be able to go for a short walk or bike ride for an hour at the end of the working day and as I do so I reflect on the situation for those in prison who our organisation supports through grant giving to partner organisations working in the criminal justice sector.

At the moment, prisons are operating on a lockdown system. Visits have been suspended, normal education and employment activities have stopped, and most prisoners are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, being let out only for showers and exercise. These lockdown measures are to try and reduce the spread of Covid-19 for both staff and prisoners.

When Frank Bell (our founder) was held in a prisoner of war camp in Japan in the second world war,  he established an “underground” university, teaching languages and other subjects to his fellow prisoners.   Teaching and learning was forbidden by the authorities in the prisoner of war camp and the prisoners used their knowledge to teach subjects to each other.

Nowadays this is what would be called “purposeful activity”, and in our prisons today, it has never been more needed.  Engaging learning activities are important for all of us and for prisoners can help them focus on their goals and aspirations for life after release.

Organisations such as the Prisoners’ Education Trust have been collating printable resources and links and publicising them to prisons, so that prison staff can print off activity packs and information to distribute to prisoners in their cells.

For the several thousand prisoners who have ESOL needs, those whose first language is not English, they are at a double disadvantage.  The language barrier means they may not understand what precautions to take in relation to Covid-19, and many will struggle to read newspapers or understand discussions on the radio.

The Bell Foundation, working with partners, has developed an ESOL screening tool to enable the identification of ESOL needs at the prison gate, increased support for ESOL teachers, improved advice and guidance services, established literacy projects, and developed ESOL worksheets which have all helped prisoners to make sense of life in prison, and to plan for their futures.

If you are working in or with a prison, do take a look at what has already been released, or sign up for updates using the link below to receive new (free) resources as soon as they are released.

Author: Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation