in ,

Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski: I educated myself in prison and changed my story

He went into prison with no qualifications and emerged with three degrees –now the criminology lecturer wants British prisons to become rehabilitation centre

Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski says Covid-19 has “severely impacted” the UK’s prison system.

Low staffing levels affected the provision of certain activities even before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has made things much worse , he explains: “At the end of March when prisons went into lockdown, prisoners were forced to remain in their cells for 23 hours a day and ‘non-essential’ visits to prisons were prohibited.

 

“This meant prisoners could not receive any social visits and non-essential staff such as those working in the education department were prevented from going on site,” he says. So prisoners could not access any learning. And with growing rates of Covid in jails as well as the prospect of a new nationwide lockdown, he fears rehabilitation programmes will suffer again.

Akpabio-Klementowski knows better than anyone the importance of opportunities to learn. Now a criminology lecturer at the Open University, he went to prison in 2002 without a single qualification, yet walked out eight years later with three university degrees.

Working by day in the kitchen servery, Akpabio-Klementowski studied at night on the toilet – the only time and place where he could find the quiet and solitude to concentrate, he says.

“Sometimes I wonder how I did it. The idea that you can study in an environment designed for punishment is ridiculous,” he says.

“It’s noisy and loud, and I was constantly being questioned by prisoners and guards why I was investing in my education. They’d say, ‘It won’t come to anything, it won’t erase your criminal record, it’s a waste of your time’. But I wanted to do it for its own sake, essentially to understand how it was I ended up in prison.”

Akpabio-Klementowski’s role sees him regularly returning to prisons to teach and talk about the significance of education in reducing reoffending rates. With more than 88,000 people currently incarcerated across Britain and numbers increasing year on year, Akpabio-Klementowski, who is now researching his PhD,questions whether it is truly possible for punishment to co-exist with rehabilitation.

“Prisons today do have that dual objective: one, to hold prisoners securely, which they do very well; and two, to rehabilitate them, which they do not do very well,” he says.

“Because everything is seen through the lens of security, it’s difficult to incorporate rehabilitative schemes like learning, educating or wellbeing into prisons. But most people don’t respond to ‘big stick’ punishment – we are human. You have to juxtapose the notion of punishment against the psychological harm that prisons do to people in their care. You often hear people crying in their cells through the night. There’s so much self-harm, there’s suicide. I still have nightmares, 10 years after leaving. It’s a really damaging environment.”

Akpabio-Klementowski believes the prison system needs to be entirely overhauled to become centres for rehabilitation, perhaps offering reduced sentences for every module of learning that a prisoner engages in. He points to data that shows that prisoners who take on any form of learning are 9% less likely to reoffend upon release than those who don’t, as evidence that it could work.

“Pro-prison advocates put forward the argument that prison acts as a deterrent and incapacitates people, allowing for rehabilitative work to happen,” he says. “But people aren’t being deterred – the number of people in prison has increased by 69% over the past 30 years – and they’re not being rehabilitated, because nearly half of all prisoners end up reoffending within a year of their release. Here in the UK, the average cost of a prison place is £43,000. You could get a private education for that money.”

His comments come just days after the Observer found that the use of force against inmates has doubled over the past decade, amid significant increases in incidents of assault, self-harm and poor prisoner behaviour, and reduced opportunities for rehabilitation.

Born to Nigerian parents, Akpabio-Klementowski grew up with five sisters on a London council estate. Life at home was abusive and tense, making him rebel at home, at school and against society, he says.

“Growing up was tough. I had a deep distrust of authority, and I didn’t think society was taking note of the needs of young people,” he says. “I felt like the world was a jungle and I needed to grab what I could.”

Leaving home at 15 with no qualifications, he started dealing drugs. He went off the rails two years later, when his father and sister were both killed suddenly in two separate accidents.

His offending increased until he was eventually arrested and sentenced in 2002 to 16 years’ imprisonment for drugs offences.

By then Akpabio-Klementowski was newly married and had a three-month-old baby. The enormity of the situation, and the shame he felt at “being another black man in prison for drugs, just reinforcing the stereotype”, stirred up difficult feelings.

All prisoners go through an educational assessment when they arrive: after taking his literacy and numeracy tests, Akpabio-Klementowski was encouraged to take his GCSEs. “I didn’t think I had the ability,” he says. “But then I passed my GSCEs with a distinction, and it was a watershed moment for me. I realised I loved learning.”

It took six years for him to pass his social sciences degree, but the moment he opened up his mail to see his name written on his 2:1 diploma stopped Akpabio-Klementowski in his tracks. “I just stared at it. All this time, I’d been thinking about how I’d let so many people down – my wife, my daughter, my family – but by educating myself, I was changing my story.”

He went on to pursue master’s degrees in international relations and international law. After serving half of his sentence, Akpabio-Klementowski was released in 2010.

In addition to his academic studies, he also works as a regional manager for the Open University’s students in secure environments team, which involves liaising with prison authorities and highlighting the many difficulties faced by prisoners who wish to engage in higher-level study, such as the “six-year rule” which requires prisoners to be within six years of their earliest release date to secure a student loan to fund their undergraduate degrees.

“The prison system is failing us. One of the reasons I go back into prisons is because it’s important to tell prisoners that change is possible,” he says.

“I go in and I say, ‘Here I am: a lecturer and a regional manager, and it’s all because I got an education in prison’. I tell them it won’t be easy, because prisons are not designed for study, but if they truly want to bring about a change in their lives, then it’s on them to get an education.”

Akpabio-Klementowski was forced to suspend all visits to prisons during lockdown, but after restrictions were eased, he was invited to visit a maximum security prison in the Midlands to speak about his learning journey for Black History Month celebrations.

This year, he plans to set up a charity to mentor black, Asian and minority ethnic children from poor backgrounds in west London to facilitate their access to higher education.

“No one is born a criminal. But poverty, race, class, discrimination, mental health, issues at home and education can all play a role in whether someone ends up in prison. We know that 42% of prisoners have been excluded from school. I tell prisoners that if they don’t get an education, they’ll go back to what they know, and that likely means back on the streets reoffending.”

Curriculum vitae
Age:
 55.

Lives: South-west London.

Family: Married, with three daughters.

Education: Expected: Open University (PhD, criminology); Oxford Brookes University (MA, international law, international relations); Open University (BA, social sciences).

Career: 2019-present: associate lecturer in criminology, Open University; 2015-present: regional manager, students in secure environments team, Open University; 2013-15: volunteer programme manager, User Voice.

Public life: Samaritan-trained listener, HMP Highdown; reading mentor and listener, HMP Lowdham Grange; race equality prisoner representative and listener, HMP Erlestoke; diversity prisoner representative, HMP Springhill.

Interests: Sports and politics.

 

What do you think?

Written by The Editor

warrior dedicated to the cause of fighting the takeover of our culture.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Loading…

Loading…

0

South Africa’s ‘Five Tiger’ Selected for 2021 Sundance Film Festival

What leads a person to white supremacy? Here is one man’s story