Shine A Light

Empowerment through education for Travellers in prison

Gypsy and Irish Traveller prisoners represent 5% of the entire prison population of England and Wales. Let’s get their education right.

Conn Mac Gabhann
25 November 2015
HMP Traveller Forum 1.jpg

HMP Traveller Forum

I started going into prisons 6 years ago. I had taken up a job as a researcher with the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain, a Catholic social justice organisation that started in the 1950s and whose main work today is with marginalised groups within the Irish community in Britain: Irish Travellers, prisoners, and isolated elderly people.

It was on my first visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison, chatting to a man called John, outside his small, shared, glossy-green cell that I heard the following words in reference to education in prison for Travellers:

“There’s no use having the wrong type of education for a man who has worked 20 years on the roads… It has to be the right type of education.”

John and I had been speaking about why Travellers in a prison in multi-cultural London could accurately be said to be amongst the most excluded. With so many people struggling with so many difficult situations, how could you possibly highlight one group as having a distinctively worse time in jail than another group?

But officially speaking, Travellers are such a distinctive case. In 2003, the Commission for Racial Equality stated their concern that poor literacy in the case of Travellers in prison “is compounded by prejudice and discrimination, leading to high levels of self-harm”. Five years later, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) — the people who run prisons — stated in Race Review 2008:

“Particular concerns relating to Gypsy Traveller Roma prisoners included: difficulties accessing services, including offender behaviour programmes, as the literacy level required was too high, derogatory and racist name calling primarily by prisoners, and by some staff, in two of the prisons visited, lack of confidence in the complaints system and the lack of cultural awareness and understanding of staff.”

Traveller's Home reading book_0.jpg

I’ve made numerous visits since to prisons across England and Wales and yet I always remember how prescient John was. John understood that empowerment through education was the way to address all problems facing Travellers in prison. John knew as a prisoner and a Traveller that issues like depression, discrimination and contact with a prisoner’s family ultimately were best dealt with by Travellers empowered with the skills to advocate on their own behalf.

The work of the Traveller Equality Project which I manage has been guided by this idea: Travellers once given a fair opportunity within a prison environment to access services will improve the situation for themselves by themselves.

And things have improved in prisons for Travellers. In late 2011, prisoners from a ‘Gypsy / Irish Traveller’ background were officially recognised by being counted on the operational database used in prisons, P-NOMIS. As a result of this, Gypsy and Irish Traveller prisoners, as a group, are becoming more visible within prisons.

Within this context, various other initiatives have developed. Many prisons run regular Traveller Groups, have Traveller Prisoner Representatives, and hold Traveller History Month celebrations. Focussed Traveller literacy and training initiatives exist in a number of prisons. Five years ago, there were about seven regular Traveller Groups running in prisons in England and Wales. Now the figure is closer to fifty Traveller Groups.

At a national level, the criminal justice system has made big strides in addressing Traveller issues in prison. In 2013, NOMS in partnership with National Prison Radio established ‘Open Road’ a monthly radio show primarily for Gypsies and Travellers but which also worked to promote cultural awareness amongst non-Traveller prisoners.

In 2014, HM Inspectorate of Prisons published a report ‘People in Prison: Gypsies, Romany and Travellers’ which detailed the challenges facing Travellers in prison and made recommendations for improvements. Furthermore in 2015, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman published ‘Deaths of Travellers in Prison’ again identifying the main issues facing Travellers in prison and recommending many of the steps advocated by the Traveller Equality Project over the past years. The consequence of this official interest in issues affecting Travellers in prison is that prison staff at all levels, are increasingly aware of the needs of this prisoner grouping.

While the Traveller Equality Project has facilitated some of these changes through lobbying, training and the provision of resources, ultimately, Gypsy and Irish Traveller prisoners have led these changes themselves. John was right all those years ago, Travellers are not a hard-to-reach group, like us all they just need a bit of empathy. 

The Traveller Equality Project has published ‘The Right Type of Education: A briefing on education and training provision for Gypsy and Irish Traveller prisoners in England and Wales’. Its findings expand on John’s thoughts about what suitable education means for Travellers, not least the need to take into account when developing an education strategy that 68% of respondents “did not attend school or left at or before the age of 14”. 

Significantly, the report shows what can be achieved when the right type of education is in place. Statistics from the prison literacy charity, the Shannon Trust show that 9.5% of all participants nationally on their peer-to-peer learning programme are from a Gypsy or Irish Traveller background. It just shows what offering the right type of education in prison can do to engage Travellers.

And as Gypsy and Irish Traveller prisoners represent 5% of the entire prison population of England and Wales, costing over £155 million annually (excluding healthcare and education provision), clearly, it would be judicious, cost-saving and humane to act on the recommendations of this report.




1. Find out more about the Irish Chaplaincy and the Traveller Equality Project at:

2. Download The Right Type of Education: A Briefing on Education and Training Provision for Gypsy and Irish Traveller Prisoners in England and Wales at: 

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