In the second of two recent conversations with lecturers at HMP Erlestoke, Devizes, we meet Peter Jones who took up an instructor’s role last October after more than nine years teaching recruits across a range of industries. He’s employed by Milton Keynes College that is responsible for further education in several English prisons.
I joined a youth training scheme after leaving school at 16 and qualified as a forklift truck driver in 1997. I then drove forklifts in a warehouse environment until I got made redundant in 2009. During a refresher course to get back into work, I told my instructors about all the different trucks I had driven - there are 14-15 types of forklift, ranging from 500kg to 75,000kg machines although, if you are not working in the docks, the largest you will use is around 20 tonnes. They told me I really knew my stuff, so why didn’t I try instructing.”
I spent the next decade teaching across industry and travelling around the country to different companies. Then I decided I needed a change. I’d been doing a lot of driving to get to different sites and busting a gut helping out to meet demand and it all was starting to get to me. I applied for a job at the prison, which was the best thing I could have done!
I take three-week courses that cater to three students at a time. We go through all the skills from scratch - stacking through straight line steering to cornering manoeuvres. There’s a lot more to forklift truck driving than people think. The students build up their experience inside in workshops. The courses are very popular and there’s a long waiting list with loads of prisoners asking how many can do the course, when the next one is happening and what they need to do to get on it. Those qualifying receive a certificate and an ID card showing they have qualified. Only inmates within six months of release or D-Cat (living in ‘open prison’ conditions), and with a good knowledge of English and maths, are eligible.
My current students are all quite intent on learning what I am teaching them. On the outside, the students I taught had no choice but to do it but at the prison, they volunteer. The prisoners tell me their concerns about how much lock-up time they get, that the prison officers don’t listen to them and so on, but I remove that aspect it’s like a normal day for me. Statistics suggest a prisoner is more likely to go steady outside having done the course than not - so it does make a difference.
I arrive at the prison at about 8.15am when I’ll usually do some preparation for the day, and sort out paperwork. Then I’ll check out the truck/s we will be using, and start morning lessons from 8.45-11.45 with a break at 10.00. A typical theory day involves me going through key points in the morning with the students who take notes followed by practical sessions in the afternoon from 13.45 to 16.45. Other days are filled with practical training. I always go over what we have covered the day before and then go on to the next topic.
Adapting your sessions to handle prisoners’ attitudes when they arrive each day. It’s all about how they feel within themselves. If they have a bad attitude for some reason, you still have to keep them interested in what you are doing. I normally have a quiet word with individuals, pointing out that they are doing the training for themselves, and the course will get them a job once they are released. I also tell them how I expect to be treated. It’s about mutual respect. If a prisoner gets over-confident, I try reining them in so they can learn how to manoeuvre a forklift safely
I remember one of my students started out with no confidence and yet by the end of the course he’d changed completely!
Yes, I’m there for the students. They’ll often come to me if they have a problem and I’ll always listen and offer advice if they need it. I’ve had 12 students go through since I started in October.
I didn’t feel nervous but it’s difficult at first to gauge how you react to some situations. On the third course I took I had two quite argumentative students who were pushing buttons as much as they could. But I tried to be firm with them and was quite direct about what was required. I thought I had actually crossed the line and felt I’d been shouting at them. But someone else on the course said afterwards I had not been shouting or been over-aggressive but in fact, had been quite calm and in control - I’d handled it well. I was really pleased when I heard that - it was very reassuring!
Patience, a thorough knowledge of your subject, and the ability both to treat people even-handedly and fairly and to communicate clearly.
I spent 9.5 years as an instructor before I joined the prison staff and, prior to that, many years using forklift trucks in the industry. I also went on a training course to qualify as an instructor.
It’s having the chance to help people. If I can get one person through a course, I feel I’ve done a good job but if it’s three, it’s brilliant.