Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

JOSE AGUIAR (HMP/YOI Pentonville)

JOSE AGUIAR (HMP/YOI Pentonville)

COMMENDEE 2020-21: Helena Baptista, one of Jose’s Education Staff colleagues at Pentonville, wrote a vivid Initial Nomination, and it’s worth quoting at length as it gives a real sense of Jose’s impact on HMP Pentonville – and the wider prison community – in his role as an Education Lecturer par excellence:

“If you walk with Jose around the wings of Pentonville, make sure you put some time aside because Jose will be stopped by everyone: prisoners, prison staff, chaplaincy, education, you name it! Why? For staff, he is one of the people to go to if something needs to be done. For prisoners, he is the guy to go to if they want to be part of the next drama course, to enrol in the distance learning program (Jose is the Distance Learning coordinator), or criminology course (Jose runs a partnership between Westminster University and HMP Pentonville), to ask for advice or a recommendation, or just for one of those chats that make life in prison seem ‘normal’! They all know Jose will go the extra mile and takes their interests and well-being seriously – since 2012!”

She adds that “When COVID 19 took hold, you would have thought that his plans, like everyone else’s, would be put on hold: education stopped, and everyone, apart from the prison key workers, was sent home. That’s not Jose! A week later, he was back in prison, this time as a volunteer. For the whole of April and May, he worked hard – as the Project Lead – on the Prisoners’ Education Trust 30th anniversary commemorative booklet, launched in June on social media.”

He also set up a scheme, with The Postal Museum, to bring postcards and stamps to prisoners while assisting prisoners studying for their degrees. He then found the time to start a competition, Creativity@Pentonville, to keep the prisoners engaged and minimise the stress because of the lockdown.

As if all that wasn’t enough, he set up a scheme, ‘Meals Behind the Wire’, bringing food, once a week for two months, to the staff not only at Pentonville but in three other prisons in London: Wormwood Scrubs, Isis and Feltham. “Jose”, she concludes, “possesses the qualities we all admire in a human being, even better if, by chance, that human being works in the justice system.”

Sarah Poynton, Head of Safety and Equalities at Pentonville, and Butler Trust Local Champion, says Jose was nominated by four people at Pentonville, adding “there are many reasons as to why he is such a very inspirational and respected member of staff, by both his peers and prisoners in equal measure.”

Sarah says Jose is seen as the ‘go to guy’ for new events, ideas and educational initiatives –“and this is a role that he relishes” – and says “it is this energy that has allowed many prisoners here to look ‘outside’ of themselves and take part in education in a new and vibrant way which has given them confidence, passion for learning and invaluable life skills along the way.”

He truly believes education is “a powerful tool to ‘break the cycle’ for the men he works with”, she says.  His ambition for his work is impressive, too. Working alongside Oxbridge Universities he developed a regular calendar of debates – the ‘Vocalise’ project – to instil confidence and self-belief in the men taking part. It’s paid off, too: the Pentonville teams are undefeated!

Jose has also played a vital role in the ‘Voice of the Ville’, the prisoner newsletter and worked with a number of impressive partners – detailed by Jose below – to bring drama and into the education space.

Ian Blakeman, Pentonville’s Governor calls Jose “inspirational” with a particular gift for “bringing the outside world in, to make men inside feel more connected to life in the community.”

Jose explains that he developed partnerships with the London Shakespeare Workout and various music and drama schools (RADA, Guildhall, E15, Rose Bruford, to name a few), and also a Shakespeare Improv course, with the ShakeItUp theatre company. “These courses enable learners to develop social skills and, for some, are the first step to engage, or reengage, with the learning process.”

He also partnered with Westminster University for a Criminology course (Prisons & Desistance Level 3) providing learners an experience of higher education, with prisoners getting a Level 3 Certificate and 20 credits. “Most prisoners that complete the course decide to join The Open University, or Distance Learning courses funded by the Prisoners’ Education Trust.” Jose adds that “We also have learning partnerships with Universal Studios and the Alan Turing Institute.”

Jose describes his approach as “humanistic… We need to create conditions for men in care to fulfil their potential. A major contributing factor is relationships: relationships between education staff and prisoners, prison staff and prisoners, and between prisoners. I try to create an environment where these relations can support the development of learning and social processes.”

His rationale for his ‘Meals Behind the Wire’ scheme, bringing 150 meals a week to four London prisons, was that “prison officers would be better equipped to look after men in their care if they were also looked after, in very challenging conditions.” (All while delivering education projects to prisoners, and supporting the Open University and Distance Learning students, in Pentonville during the pandemic).

Described by one learner as “a one-man learning campus, always on the move looking for new ways to inspire and educate,” he clearly seems unable to rest on his laurels. Because Covid led to the suspension of prison visits in the summer, he set out “to support the relationships between prisoners and their families” through a partnership with the Postal Museum, and Tate Modern: the prisoners received 1000 postcards and stamps to keep in touch with their families.

Jose is understandably proud, too, to have set up the first course delivered remotely in prison via Zoom. The Criminology course due to start in October was at risk of not being able to go ahead because of face-to-face contact restrictions, he explains, but “I could not accept that, after being locked up for the last 6 months, prisoners would be denied the opportunity to engage with their studies and experience of higher education. I challenged HMP Pentonville, and the University of Westminster, for us to set up the course remotely. We put all systems in place, and the course started on 21/10/2020. Also, for the first time, we have two prison officers studying alongside inside learners.”

Among enormous numbers of staff who have stepped up a level under the incredibly difficult conditions due to the pandemic, Jose is a truly shining example of the sheer passion and imaginative commitment found throughout the United Kingdom’s prisons.

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