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People with lived experience enhance prison education
A lived experience consultant from Prisoners' Education Trust writes about their experience in enhancing prison education.

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Working together with people with lived experience

One of the six new Lived Experience Consultants at Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) shines a light on how we are working together with people with lived experience on our National Lottery Community Fund project.

“You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.”

 Michelle Obama correctly points out that lived experience of the difficulties encountered in the course of our lives gives us the ability to overcome obstacles and benefit from them, and also provides each of us with tremendous opportunities not only to address specific problems, but also to look at new ways of working to achieve our goals.

For those of us who are still very keen to use our direct experience of being in prison to assist with the development of education among the prison population, the latest initiative by PET, I believe, is a really positive step forward.

At its heart is a real determination to look at ways to increase the reach of PET and develop the support they offer to learners in prison. Now with significant funding from The National Lottery Community Fund (TNLCF), PET has developed a lived experience co-operative approach within the organisation.

A unique perspective

 PET’s Alumni Group was involved early in the process of the funding bid to TNLCF. It was great to be taken seriously and asked for one’s views on various aspects of the submission, and then to listen to the sensible contributions of staff and alumni.

As with most ventures of this type, it was clear that the staff members putting together the bid had enormous passion for trying to do something different, but did much “learning as they went along”.

Quite soon, it was apparent from our discussions that PET could make the alumni an integral part of the project – not just utilising people in a tokenistic way (as I read all too often), but instead drawing on their/our enthusiasm and expertise to develop a whole new approach to employing this valuable “lived experience” resource.

And so the role of Lived Experience Consultant was formed, recognising the unique perspective and skillset of people with lived experience of prison education.

Creating a co-operative

 Although the employment of alumni as Lived Experience Consultants is not particularly groundbreaking by the standards of PET – given that it ensures those with lived experience and learners in prison remain central to the organisation’s work – one of the biggest challenges so far has been “how to do it in the most meaningful way”.

After a fair amount of discussions and feedback, we landed on a co-operative.

Like many people working in this sector, people with lived experience are also involved in many avenues of work – whether it be volunteering, mentoring, part-time roles or being trustees – so one full-time role for one person seemed a little dated and restrictive.

Therefore PET, together with the alumni, created six paid Lived Experience Consultant roles to work on the TNLCF project.

Each of us works a specific number of hours which can be used across the year however we see fit. We communicate collectively via email and WhatsApp to discuss workstreams and ideas and meet up on Teams every couple of months.

This way many people can bring many skills and experiences, not just one person. This allows for a wealth of knowledge and equally gives the flexibility for people to be involved where they are able and have time, and where their expertise lies – whether that’s data analysis, design, working with prison staff, or copywriting (I studied Proofreading and Copy Editing with PET while I was serving my sentence).

Rebecca Page, who runs this project as part of PET’s Engagement and Development work, manages and works with us to ensure good communication, inclusivity, development and support.

Renewed confidence

 From a personal perspective, my own involvement in what I consider to be such a groundbreaking project began a few years ago, while still serving a custodial sentence and coming across the myriad of practical problems that learners have to deal with in prison.

For me, it is this experience of the challenges and frustrations of studying in prison that has been the most valuable, as has my determination to do my own thing and to be part of something worthwhile and hopefully of lasting benefit to society. 

Thanks largely to PET’s acceptance of my lived experience as a valuable asset it was very rewarding to feel a renewed sense of confidence in my own abilities, especially after the “crushing” experience of the criminal justice system.

Recognising the challenges

As one who stressed from the outset the importance of integrating those with lived experience into the project, it was important to recognise that the process so far has been a challenging one – such as working out the specifics of the Lived Experience Consultant role – and lessons were being learnt along the way.

Even so, despite the extra work of thinking about things in a different way, we all trust the process and believe the challenges we encounter are the price of doing something different and new.

One of the best ideas to come out of the project so far has been to focus in on helping as many people as possible to finish their courses, exploring the barriers that many learners face in finishing. Investing in people and funding them is just one part of their journey towards completion.

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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