Friends and peer influence

A strong situational barrier manifest throughout the course of the interviews was being involved with a non-education-orientated peer group in prison. Showing the influence of peer group and the “birds of a feather flock together” ideology, there was an expectation that prisoners would stick with their friends, either those they knew from outside prison or friends they made since beginning their sentence. If the norm in that group did not involve the school, they were likely to stick with these friends rather than going to the school. When prisoners established themselves within a peer group, they were reluctant to leave it.

PAUL: They have friends from the outside, already here and he sort of is pushed or expected to do the yard thing and do stuff like that. Seeing him coming up to the school, the lads would be giving him a bit of stick . . . he’d be sort of expected to join with the gang . . . and when you get into that routine out there you’re not going to come up here cos if all the lads are down there no one likes being left out ... so they all stick together and everyone heads out to the yard and basically does nothing.

(Mountjoy, participant)

Again this demonstrates the importance of routine in the prison, which appears to be a priority for prisoners. It also demonstrates the strong, often negative, influence of peers in the prison setting. Perhaps a suggestion that might combat this would be to separate peers as much as possible when allocating them to a landing or cell. The use of a school buddy system may also be helpful in guiding new prisoners to the school in the early part of their sentence.

Length of sentence

Manger et al. (2018) contended that those with longer sentences faced greater institutional barriers and lower situational barriers than those serving shorter sentences. This was reflected in the current study, where prisoners mentioned being worried about the limited number of courses that were available in the prison school. An example of this is James, a non-participant, who said that he was not participating in education because he was facing a lengthy sentence and he was worried about running out of courses if he started to participate too early. Again, this represents an institutional barrier to prison education. Providing opportunities for progression such as Open University degrees and ensuring that this information was made known to all could help in lowering this barrier to education. This might help those with longer sentences engage at an early stage instead of feeling the need to pace themselves with education to make it last the entirety of their sentence.

Past experience of mainstream education

Some non-participants spoke about not enjoying mainstream school when they were younger but did not actually list it as a reason for not participating in prison education. However, it seemed that a previous negative experience can act as a subconscious barrier to education. Prisoners were asked about their reasons for leaving school in order to ascertain their past relationship with education. The reasons for leaving school fell into three distinct categories, with only one or two prisoners falling outside of this. Participants tended to report leaving school of their own accord in order to get jobs and earn money, for example. However, non-participants tended to give reasons such as expulsion, not enjoying school or various personal problems for leaving mainstream school. The accounts of Martin and Niall that follow are indicative of some of the accounts in relation to previous experiences of school.

NIALL: Like I never liked school. I went to a school where we were hit with a cane. I took the cane off the teacher and hit him with it and that was the end of me like. It just wasn’t worth going.

(Mountjoy, non-participant)

MARTIN: I went to the Christian Brothers and saw terrible things happening to people. And I think a lot of times people are taking drugs to blank out a lot of things that happened to them in the past. I went to the Christian Brothers and was hit with bamboo sticks and things like that, but others had it way worse.

(Mountjoy, non-participant)

None of those who spoke negatively about their experience of mainstream education were participating in prison education. However, the analysis of the data appeared to show a strong relationship between the accounts of the nonparticipants and a negative past experience of education. This shows the influence that a poor experience of education in childhood can have on the life course of the individual and in particular their future educational endeavours. It appears that a past negative experience of education may have a significant influence over the life course. Educational disadvantage is widely reported as having a strong role to play in criminality (National Crime Council, 2002). Therefore, leaving school early due to a negative experience of education may have influenced the onset of offending in the first place and remains a considerable barrier as an adult to improving education and tackling the associated disadvantages. This also reflects the considerable bearing that dispositional factors can have on the life of the prisoner and their ability to access the “hooks for change” (Giordano et al., 2002) when they present themselves.

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