Global lessons in prison education

13th October marks the first International Day of Education in Prisons, commemorating recommendations for the education of prisoners made by the Council of Europe in 1989. To celebrate, we highlight some prison education initiatives from around the world. 

These recommendations formed the basis of the objectives of the European Prison Education Association, in which PET’s Head of Policy Nina Champion represents the Western European region. If you are interested in becoming a member of the EPEA and discovering more about education policy and practice further afield, please visit http://www.epea.org/take-action-with-us/become-a-member/    

Australia

As in the UK, most Australian prisoners are not allowed access to the internet. The "Making the Connection" project, run by the University of South Queensland (USQ), takes digital technologies that do not require internet access into prisons to allow prisoners to enroll in a suite of college and undergraduate programs. Founded in 2005, the government-funded project is now running in 16 prisons across Australia. 

The initiative is part of the university's wider drive to increase access to higher education for those from low socio-economic backgrounds who may lack reliable internet access. Working with prison populations, it aims to reduce reoffending by increasing employability through the development of digital skills. The programs offer a way for prisoners to transition either to higher education or into the workplace upon release from custody.

Associate Professor Helen Farley, who leads the project, says: “Where once these higher education courses were delivered via hard-copy materials, they are now becoming increasingly digital, further alienating learners who are already disadvantaged."

In 2015, USQ officially went paperless, and while for now, they are continuing to provide paper-based distance learning courses for around 450 incarcerated students, Farley says this isn’t viable in the long term. Her vision is that in the future all of their prisoner learners will be able to access courses via a restricted and secure internet. The project is beginning to start working with secure notebook computers so learners can complete their coursework in their cells.

"I used to get high on drugs, now I get high on books”

 

Canada

Book Clubs for Inmates (BCFI) began in 2009, when Anglican priest Carol Finlay visited Collins Bay Institution, a medium-security prison in Kingston, Ontario. Meeting with a small group of prisoners, she proposed an idea: a monthly book club. To Carol’s surprise, this was welcomed with enthusiasm and by August of that year, the first BCFI book club, involving a group of 12 to 15 inmates, was established. BCFI now runs 27 book clubs across seven Canadian provinces, in both English and French.

"The book clubs expect men and women to become the very best that they are, and they become that," says Carol. "As one inmate recently said: "I used to get high on drugs, now I get high on books”."

A lot of BCFI's work is with Aboriginal prisoners, who make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population in Canada. 68% of federally incarcerated womeninmates are Aboriginal, and this group is often hit particularly hard by the experience of going to a prison which is often far from their home, says Carol.

"When we go into a women’s prison we’re always asked to continue the book club during the summer, because the women don’t get visitors," says Carol. "Cut off from their families and culture, and locked up in a 'white man’s justice system' makes these women ill, both mentally and physically." 

BCFI volunteers "let these prisoners know that they are valued for who they are, not what they have done, not their crimes," says Carol. "So we call them by their first names, we listen intently to any and all of their ideas and we encourage them to find their voices and know they are valued."

India

India’s first female police officer - Dr Kiran Bedi – founded Indian Vision Foundation in 1994. Today the charity works in four prisons, where it builds skills and education levels among inmates and their families. The programmes range from basic literacy to preparing for degree level, and include hairdressing and chocolate making courses. Schemes aimed at young people teach yoga, meditation and personal and social development skills, while its Weaving Behind Bars programme trains female women prisoners to crochet, knit and weave.

In India, female prisoners are allowed to to keep their children with them until the age of six. India Vision therefore runs crèches in prisons, and, once children are old enough to move out of the prison environment, the charity continues to offer educational support through partnerships with schools.

The charity's director Monica Dhawan says the charity is careful to match educational opportunities with each prisoner's abilities and interests.

"If they are not very interested in education we try to educate them by equipping them with any particular skill which will enable them to sustain themselves after their release," she says. "We wish to empower the imprisoned and their families in order to give them a better life." 

"Identifying and supporting change-makers within prison, and empowering leaders to take action, is key to seeing prisons become places of positive transformation."

Kenya

The African Prisons Project (APP) works to change the way criminal justice issues are addressed in Kenya, Uganda and other African countries. This involves tackling injustices in the police and court system, as well as inside prisons. Here, there are two strands to its work: teaching functional literacy and numeracy to those without prior formal education, and running libraries.

The APP runs 11 libraries, providing resources, as well as training and ongoing coaching for librarians. One newly opened library at Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi serves prison staff and their families as well as 600 women prisoners and their children. As well as providing access to literature and educational materials, and hosting activities such as book clubs, debates and creative writing groups, the library also houses a legal aid clinic, funded by UK law firm Allen & Overy, where women can seek professional advice on their cases.

As well as preparing prisoners for employment, APP believes education can empower people to know their rights within prison, and to advocate for positive change when they return to their communities.

Director Alexander McLean says:"Providing education to people in prison, particularly in the law, is an essential step towards making sure that prisoners' rights are upheld. Identifying and supporting change-makers within prison, and empowering leaders to take action, is key to seeing prisons become places of positive transformation. "

The charity also also runs a secondment scheme, bringing Kenyan prison officers to the UK to observe how the British criminal justice system works. Participants are introduced to healthcare, education and rehabilitation initiatives and also look at the role of the third sector has to play in supporting the prison service and its prisoners.

Poland

Prison/university partnerships are springing up all over the world, including in Lublin, Poland, where the regional prison service and John Paul II Catholic University have worked together since 2013. Rather than simply get a taste of university level study, prisoners have the opportunity to study for a whole degree during their sentence. Working at the same pace as university students, these students study Social Work, specialising in "streetworking", which focuses on using outreach techniques to work with marginalised groups such as prostitutes, drug addicts and homeless people.

For the first year, prisoner learners study in prison, but for the second and third years some (licence-conditions permitting) have the chance to go to the university campus and take part in seminars and lectures. Jacek Głuch. who facilitates the project, says students have "integrated very well with other students". "The staff say they completely forget which students live on-site and which are normally in prison," he says.

USA

The US may not lead by example of levels of incarceration or sentence lengths, but it is ahead of the curve in terms of opening college access for prisoners and former prisoners. In a year when President Obama significantly expanded access to Pell Grants for prisoners to pursue college education, there are also a number of programmes forging links on institutional and personal levels.

One example of this is the Petey Greene Program, which since 2007 has recruited and trained undergraduate and graduate students to tutor in education programs in prisons with the aim of reducing recidivism and allowing people to successfully re-enter society and make positive contributions to their families and communities.

Student tutors are trained not only in teaching skills but also receive lessons in “cultural humility” before entering the prison environment. Although the students are not officially 'learning together' as they are in Poland (and in multiple projects across the UK), Petey Greene promotes a collaborative approach to teaching.

Executive Director Jim Farrin says: "We change the lives of volunteers who didn't know this society ever existed. and we help those who have made a mistake and are inside the opportunity to change their lives, and that is a powerful combination."