The Learning Connexion: working in prisons

11 February 2010

Prisoners are able to participate in Learning Connexion courses through distance learning processes. At the beginning of 2010, there were 80 students studying from Corrections' facilities around the country.

Artwork by a Corrections student at The Learning ConnexionThe Learning Connexion is a tertiary art and creativity school with facilities across all fine and contemporary art mediums – from video to bronze-casting, drawing and painting. Based in Taita, Lower Hutt, it has 85 staff – all of whom are practising artists who understand the reality of being an artist and the need to market and sell work.

The overall goal of The Learning Connexion (TLC) courses is to achieve sustainable creativity for every student. It believes that creativity is essential in achieving human potential and building healthy communities.

Artwork by a Corrections student at the Learning ConnexionAnyone can study at TLC, which offers a range of tertiary level, NZQA-approved courses. The key requirement is commitment and it is not necessary to have art experience or prior qualifications. Distance learning courses are delivered world-wide via DVD, notes and one-on-one communication with tutors. Students can also attend the course at the Taita campus.

TLC courses have been adapted to fit with Corrections guidelines and have been delivering to Corrections’ students since 2005. Within TLC, there is a small team dedicated to the Corrections students. These include qualified mentors and tutors as well as specialist support staff. All the staff have had the required security checks and necessary training to accommodate what is required to work within Corrections guidelines.

In the first year, prisoners can study towards a Certificate of Art and Creativity, learning basic technical and creative skills. After they gain this certificate, they move to more independent projects when they study towards the Diploma of Art and Creativity and the Diploma of Art and Creativity (Honours).

Arts Access Aotearoa talks to Sharon Hall, Restricted Programmes Co-ordinator, TLC.

How do interested prisoners participate?

We recommend that students write a short letter of interest. Once we receive it, a prospectus is sent to each prisoner. When interest has been confirmed, we liaise with Corrections and begin the process of working through the details of delivering the programme to them.

What does it cost?

The courses cost approximately $2000 a year. Sometimes, students apply for a student loan. Limited  scholarships are available. These are allocated by the Academic Board and assessed on a case by case basis.

What materials do prisoner students need?

When a student enrolls, we seek materials’ approval from the relevant unit and facility for the student to have the approved Materials Kit. This includes black folder/s and a plastic tub, which has everything needed to complete the course. Access to these materials is up to the discretion of the individual unit staff and may need to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

The pre-approved materials include eight acrylic paints, five assorted brushes, chalk and oil pastels, water colour pencils, graphite pencil, sharpener, rubber and two large black art folders that both store and contain material to post.
TLC supplies all Corrections students with a “Materials Request Form”. If the materials are used up, the students need to fill out the form and send it back to TLC with the empty packaging of the materials requested: e.g. empty paint tubes. This process helps prevent the possible misuse of any excess art materials.

How does the study process occur for prisoner students?

The distance delivery programme is provided through notes, which include a lot of visual examples and have been adapted to meet Corrections’ guidelines. The course is also available on DVD and students may be able to negotiate set times to view DVDs through  facility programme co-ordinators.

The course is assessed in two ways: the number of hours logged and actual work seen by the mentor. To stay on top of course requirements (10 to 15 hours a week), we recommend that students send in a folder of work at least twice a term. We  provide all students with prepaid courier tickets for posting the artwork. All work is then photographed and returned to the student with feedback, technical tips and relevant artist resources.

Communication is vital and we recommend that all students get our 0800 number (T: 0800 208 769) logged as an approved number.

What happens if students are released or transferred to another prison before their course is complete?

Any prisoners transferred to another facility can continue with their studies in the same way as before. There can be some delays if this involves a facility where programmes staff are unfamiliar with TLC and the distance delivery process.

When prisoners are released from prison and their course is incomplete they simply continue from wherever they relocate to. If they are in Wellington, they are eligible to attend classes at our campus.

What about mentoring?

Each student is assigned a mentor to provide regular feedback on his/her work. The mentor is the main point of contact and supports the prisoner as he/she journeys through the programme. Along with the mentor, students have a programme co-ordinator and programme support available for extra support and course information.

If students are transferring to another prison or released, they will continue with their same mentor from the new prison or from the outside.

What are the challenges to the TLC process in prisons?

The greatest challenge is the change of Department staff working with prisoner students. And sometimes, staff lack knowledge of our programmes when prisoners on transfer arrive with their TLC course materials and study needs. 

What opportunities are there to exhibit work?

As part of the courses, students are encouraged to exhibit their work four times a year in TLC’s student exhibitions. This provides an opportunity to sell work, showcase new work  and boost their CV. It also means that students get familiar with managing their time effectively as work needs to be finished in time to meet specific deadlines. The Department’s art policy provides guidelines on the sale of prisoners’ artwork and no sale can exceed the $200 Trust Account limit.

What about purchasing art materials?

Students can use a portion of any money made from artwork sales to buy specialty art materials, approved by the Department. They can also begin to pay off their student loan or have the money sent directly  to their prison Trust Account.

What are the security issues around prisoner identity when work is showed in public places?

Prisoner students who are exhibiting their work use an unidentifiable pseudonym as a condition of participation. 

Are there contractual agreements with students?

All students sign a “class agreement” when they enroll. This stipulates that TLC will not support by way of materials or feedback any work deemed objectionable. This includes any imagery with reference to gangs, tattoos or nudes.

For further information:

Sharon Hall, Restricted Programmes Co-ordinator
182 Eastern Hutt Rd, Taita, Lower Hutt
T: 04 568 0320 / 560 0261 (direct line) or 0800 208 769


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