Women prisoners in Portugal during a SEPE session. Photograph by: Vanessa Rodrigues

University partnership gives new hope to prisoners

Academics at the Marchmont Observatory, part of the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education are helping prisoners improve their employability skills.

A new arts-based skills package is being rolled out in prisons across Europe with five European countries, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Austria and Turkey currently involved.

A small pilot run at The Verne prison in Dorset led to three out of the five prisoners involved going into work or further training. The programme, called SEPE: ‘Supporting employability and personal effectiveness’ aims to help disadvantaged groups like prisoners develop workplace skills  such as effective communication; being able to make a positive contribution to a team; demonstrating employability skills in a group project; effective listening and acting on instructions.

Working with Superact, a not-for-profit organisation that uses creativity to improve the health and wellbeing of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities, the project uses artists and musicians to work with up to 15 prisoners at a time.

Jo Cursley from the Marchmont Observatory at the University of Exeter explains “The really unique thing about the project is using the Arts, which have well-known benefits, to improve employability skills especially at a time of such high unemployment across Europe. Everyone involved, from the prisoners themselves to education managers and prison governors, have expressed surprise at the impact the programme has had.”

Ben Neild, Assistant Director added  “It’s been really exciting to be see an original idea be developed through research, piloted in the UK, turned into a mainstream UK qualification and then piloted across the European Union.  This isn’t easy, but it’s exactly what EU investment seeks to achieve”.

During focus groups with prisoners in the Netherlands, one prisoner commented “I had lost all ability to trust others both out and in prison and this project has given me hope” another said “I had never been able to work with others before but this has taught me to listen and work together, not to just follow my own ideas.”

Ali Smith, Director of Superact added “We work with small groups of prisoners to produce an artistic performance which is staged in front of an audience. The prisoners often develop the content themselves and, by doing so, learn to listen, trust, work together and communicate – all key employability skills. We have also successfully used the same techniques to help thousands of disadvantaged and at risk young people develop new competencies in this area.”

The project is funded by the Leonardo Programme, which is part of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme.

Date: 25 February 2012