Here is a shortened, lightly edited, version of a letter sent by a prisoner called Dell to Prisoners Education Trust (I’m Vice-chairman of this charity). Last year the Trust made it possible for approximately 2,400 prisoners to undertake a variety of distance learning courses. As you’ll gather, Dell is a keen artist and his battles with prison bureaucracy would be funny if they weren’t so frustrating. Unfortunately, prisoners who want to use their time to study, and improve their life chances, are often thwarted by ‘the system’. Dell’s first-hand account reminds us of the energy and dogged persistence needed to obtain basic resources that most of us would take for granted.

Dear Prisoners Education Trust

You said you were interested to hear about progress with my art pursuits. Sadly, this year has not been a propitious one for serious art students in this prison. At the risk of inducing incredulity (or boring you rigid), I thought I’d alert you to just some of the problems that pedantic officiousness has brought for art students here. Whilst the education staff and our tutors strive selflessly, with dwindling resources, to encourage us to progress further through distance learning, there has been an equally fervent faction that seem to make our efforts to progress as difficult as possible.

In October 2009 I applied for, and was granted, permission from the Prison Governor to purchase an easel so that I could continue my art work in my cell. PET kindly agreed to fund the purchase of an easel from Argos. So, an easel was duly ordered and arrived. However, even though I had permission to have it, others didn’t agree and it was sent back! Then a paper work tussle began; permission was again confirmed and an easel re-ordered. Meanwhile Argos had removed the easel from their catalogue and a more expensive one had to be ordered from another supplier.

After a month or so with nothing happening, I enquired and found it hadn’t actually been ordered. So it was then ordered. Another month passed and I asked the Finance Dept if a cheque had been sent. They, of course, didn’t know what I was talking about. After more enquiries, I was told the paper work had ‘gone astray somewhere in the pipeline’.

By now, with letters and complaints flying around like confetti, my missing easel had become something of a cause celebre. I therefore appealed to the Head of Education for aid on this and was assured the easel would be ordered with the prison paying the difference between PET’s cheque and the new supplier’s increased price. I finally got the easel in September; almost 11 months to the day, and several trees of paperwork, after I had first applied for it.

I am epileptic and my Grand Mal fits can be triggered by stress or confrontational situations. Several times during these 11 months, I upped my preventative medication to be on the safe side.

During this time I learnt of other students who were having problems obtaining their course materials from the Open College of the Arts.  Just like my easel, on arrival the materials were being sent back to the College without the student’s knowledge. One of my pals complained and started the battle to get an explanation. His course materials were impounded and languished for months in reception. Finally, in desperation, he gave notice that if he didn’t receive his course materials within 14 days, he would instruct his solicitors to take the matter to court as the prison was preventing him from pursuing further education without due cause.

I was not unduly surprised when, shortly after this, he was relocated to another prison. I then began another battle that lasted 3 months to get permission to write to him at his new prison. When eventually I was allowed to contact him, he replied by return of post. The course materials he’d spent 7 months trying to obtain in this prison, arrived within two weeks at his new prison.

My worry is that with all this hassle, you and the course suppliers might start to think, ‘why bother, we don’t have all these problems at other prisons’. We are seriously concerned that you might be tempted to wash your hands of us.

I’m guessing that applications from here to do distance learning are down over the last couple of years. A number of guys I’ve spoken to who were keen to investigate the possibilities offered by DL courses have said, ‘I can’t be bothered with that now that I’ve seen all the aggro you blokes have been having’.

I’m sorry I’ve trundled on a bit but I feel you should get the full picture. I can assure you I’d rather be at my easel painting, rather than scribbling woes. I’ll send you one of my watercolours (I’ll have to make a stiffened A4 envelope first). I like painting very detailed Chinese theme florals at the moment. Until then, I wish you all the best and thank you for all your help and encouragement.

With best wishes


PS  I will be sending this recorded delivery as I’m fed up with my letters going astray. I’d appreciate it if you would confirm receipt and date of arrival. Sometimes, after I have posted letters on the wing, they take 7-10 days to get to Royal Mail. Just a line to let me know you’ve received this letter safely will put my mind at rest.

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