Teaching students behind bars comes with challenges at the best of times – let alone during the double-lockdown brought about by the pandemic. José Aguiar is a teacher at HMP Pentonville, and has had to work twice as hard as teachers in the community to make sure his learners could access the teaching and educational materials to continue learning.
A lot of prisoners have had bad experiences of education, and so are reluctant to enter traditional classroom environments. That’s why it’s so important we offer alternative routes for people in prison to engage with learning – through improvisation workshops, cross curriculum projects and art competitions.
What motivates me to teach in a prison setting is my firm belief in the transformative power of education. Education in prison can change criminal identity, unlock potential, and create active citizens that can fully participate and make a positive contribution to society.
Prisoners have faced extra challenges during the lockdown. While many schools and colleges in the community have reopened, many prison teachers haven’t been able to resume classes or go into prisons throughout much of the pandemic. Getting security clearance to run our joint criminology module with the University of Westminster over Zoom has been a highlight as it’s brought some sense of normalcy. We run the course twice a year and even though the face-to-face element changes things, the course still provides a taster of what further education could be like, and encourages the men inside to think about and debate wider issues around crime and society.
Helena Baptista, a fellow colleague at HMP Pentonville, said: “José is the guy everyone goes to if they want to start a new course or programme. All the prisoners know he’ll go the extra mile and takes their interests and well-being seriously – he’s even been dubbed a “one-man learning campus”! José possesses all the qualities we all admire in a human being – and it’s even better when that person works in the justice system.”
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