Blog: what is prison education for?

18 Nov 2015

Nina Champion, Prisoners’ Education Trust’s Head of Policy writes her second blog reporting on Irish criminology lecturer, Dr. Cormac Behan's address to the European Prison Education Association Conference which tackled the sector’s biggest question – what is prison education for?

“One of the most memorable presentations at the European Prison Education Association (EPEA) conference was by Dr. Cormac Behan. After teaching political education and history in Irish prisons for 14 years, he has some insightful and thought-provoking ideas.

What is prison education for?

This question is something that the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) has been working on with New Philanthropy Capital as we are formulating a ‘theory of change’ for the prison education sector. So I was fascinated to hear Dr. Behan's thoughts on this vital and timely issue.

Behan starts from the premise that ‘the role of adult education is to enable participation’. He highlights that prisoners have often had negative experiences of the state authorities – many have been in the care system and been victims of crime themselves. This means that they don’t feel empowered to assert their rights. He describes that prison education is an oxymoron:

“Prison is about denying power and control, whereas education is about enabling people to become agents in their own transformation,” Beehan.

The solution? Beehan argues that first prisoners need to resist the prison ethos and secondly need to create a new discourse. He poses the question ‘Is it possible to create a space for transformation in such a coersive place?’ He says it is, by engaging people both inside and outside prison as citizens.

He quotes from a letter written by a prison Education Manager for prison newspaper Inside Time which summaries this issue perfectly:

“I believe that prisoners, especially those on longer sentences are asked to undergo the most difficult of all human processes, the process of change, often in a deeply unsupportive environment.

"Prisoners, usually via their sentence plans, are made to ask themselves the great existential questions that most of us only encounter in moments of great stress and turmoil – who am I, where am I going, what’s the point of my existence, what’s wrong with the way I live, what do I need to change, what’s the point of it all?

“These are questions that no doubt anybody sent to jail asks themselves at some stage and in many cases they are questions that may well need to be addressed by people living destructive and self-destructive lives. But they are not easy and they demand a level of self-awareness that evades many people in the general population. I once attended a national meeting of education managers where Mark Johnson was the guest speaker. He encapsulated the issue perfectly by saying ‘Prisoners don’t need to learn to read and write; they need to find out who they are’. This is not to devalue literacy or numeracy but to elevate self-discovery as the overarching goal in education. In all education ideally and certainly within jails.”

A supportive learning climate

At PET we have been working over the past two years on projects looking at the concept of ‘learning culture’ and the important role of learner voice and participation (‘Involve, Improve, Inspire’) in contributing to a learning culture. We are looking forward to publishing our initial findings early next year. Several speakers at the EPEA conference alluded to the importance of having a supportive learning environment or ‘climate’. Beehan described it as being like a ‘scaffolding of support.’

However the context of the prison environment is typically that of confinement, coerciveness, overcrowding, noise, human dignity is undermined or is at the discretion of officers and people experience long periods of time without the ability to socialise and engage with others. He argues that the institution itself can be negative but the people inside can help build up strengths and draw out positives including social capital, support and resilience:

“Education can provide structures of meaning, feeling and mutuality – resists the prison ethos – rather than a numbing detachment. It can be restorative and transformative. It can help people move away from a self-destructing disposition.” Beehan.

How does a prison achieve this? Through the empowerment of prisoners, says Beehave. Robert Putman (2000) agrees that TRUST is key – social trust, reciprocity, honesty and civic involvement; whilst those who are civically disengaged often lack social trust.

We watched a short film about an Irish Red Cross project working in ten prisons in Ireland training prisoner first aid volunteers. Beehan says the project was about more than just about the acquisition of skills but also the transformative process that empowers prisoner to contribute in a productive way and embark on a journey of ‘reflection and change’. It was critical for the prisoner to buy into the vision of the programme and the identity of ‘volunteer’ helped with this process. The project enabled prisoners to become leaders in their own communities, both inside prison and out. The project also contributed towards a better atmosphere in the prison and barriers between prisoners and staff and different gangs broke down.

Active participation

Learning from this example, Beehan argues that prison education should be seen as ‘active participation’ – the learner as the subject rather than the object – teachers and others should enable, draw out, challenge and support the learner. To create a new discourse language is of vital importance. He said, if you view prisoners as ‘inmates’ or ‘offenders’ the discourse becomes about:

  • The past
  • Crime / ‘offender’
  • Suspicion
  • Hierarchy
  • Control
  • Routine
  • Rules
  • Institution
  • Disempowerment
  • Formality
  • Inward looking
  • Internalised stigma and shame
  • Focus on outcome of recidivism

If you view prisoners as ‘students’ the discourse becomes about:

  • The present
  • The future
  • Person /’citizen’
  • Strengths
  • Trust
  • Equality
  • Co-operation
  • Flexibility
  • Evaluate arguments
  • Ambiguity
  • Informal sphere
  • Flexibility
  • Outward looking
  • Personal growth
  • Focus on outcome of participation

He concludes by saying “People are key; 25% of learning is about the bricks and mortar (skills, knowledge), the rest is about human relationships. Interconnectivity, networks, co-operation, identifying with each other, support by peers – people you can identify with.

"Human contact is a necessary element to build human and social capital. Education is positive way to build those human relationships and practice skills of communication,” Beehan.

If you would like to find out more about the PLA’s developing ‘theory of change’ for prison education or PET’s work measuring and developing learning cultures, we would love to hear from you. Please contact me.

If you are interested in hearing about other European research, projects, training, webinars and conferences become a member of the European Prison Education Association (EPEA).