Barriers behind bars: educating foreign nationals in prison

The proportion of foreign national prisoners (FNPs) in European jails varies widely between member states. In most eastern European countries the figure is negligible – below 5%, while  in Luxembourg, Greece and Cyprus, over 60% of the prison population are foreign born. In the UK, the figure stands at around 12%.

The European Prison Rules state that all prisoners have the right to have access to education and training, whatever their nationality. However, the standard of education offered to foreign nationals is variable, with challenges common to the wider sector exacerbated by language and cultural differences.

A new project, funded by the EU and run by VOCVO, a Flemish support centre for adult education, wants to find out more about the type and quality of education provided to people incarcerated outside their home countries. The FORINER project aims to find “ambitious and creative solutions” to the barriers that often prevent foreign nationals from accessing “qualitative, low threshold, certified learning opportunities”. The study will particularly examine the potential role of ICT to facilitate distance learning for these prisoners. 

The project designers are looking to gather the views of those involved with education in the prison system, from prison managers to teachers and librarians. They want to discover what education provision currently exists for FNPs, what barriers prevent further implementation, and how much cooperation there currently is between member states. They are also interested in the availability of ICT facilities within European prisons.

The survey can be accessed here. It takes around 10 minutes to complete. All answers will be kept in the strictest confidentiality. The deadline is 20th April.

Dorien Brosens, a post-doctoral researcher at Vrije University in Brussels, is helping to run the project.

“Due to the enormous differences in culture and political and economical settings across Europe, the educational systems are very diverse,” she says. “Foreign nationals are often excluded from local education due to language problems. And if the prisoner takes part in education, their qualifications are often not recognised when they return to their home country or are not in line with what is expected from employers.

“If prisoners get access to education provided by their home country, their reintegration into society after their imprisonment will be facilitated.”

While PET funds distance-learning courses for prisoners including foreign nationals, the Bell Foundation runs its award-winning 'Language for Change' programme, and prisons offer English language classes, there is currently only one charity – based in the Netherlands – that gives prisoners the chance to complete courses offered in their native country.  

As part of its research, FORINER interviewed a female Dutch prisoner who is a beneficiary of this scheme – she is in prison in Belgium but is able to access education in her own language through the support of a Dutch charity.

“Taking an education course behind foreign prison bars is very important for me,” she told the research team. “I am being punished, but I want to do something with my time in prison. The courses offer me the chance to prepare for my release from prison.”

For every module, she says she has to complete a homework assignment, which she sends back by post to the Netherlands, and which is then marked and returned to her.

“After two weeks I receive feedback from my teacher and that is always a nice moment,” she says. “The feedback motivates me to continue my studies; to go further to another module. It lets me feel like a human being." 

FORINER’s partners include the European Prison Education Association, in which PET’s Head of Policy Nina Champion represents Western Europe, and MegaNexus, which runs the Virtual Campus system across UK prisons.

Brosens says a lack of ICT provision in prisons is common throughout Europe, and presents a significant barrier to distance learning.

“Prisoners are not only excluded in terms of having poor prospects on the labour market, or educational and familial disadvantages, but they are also digitally excluded within an ‘information society’,” says Dorien. “If prisoners do not have access to computers and the Internet, they are excluded from online learning. The FORINER partners are convinced that ICT will undoubtedly facilitate distance learning in prisons.”  

The FORINER project is funded through the EC Erasmus+ Programme and runs from 1st January 2016 to 31 December 2017.

The Bell Foundation commissioned two pieces of research A prison within a prison and The Language barrier to rehabilitation to look at foreign nationals in prisons in England and Wales. These reports found that no national figures exist for the numbers of offenders/ex-offenders with English-language needs and that the number of FNPs had doubled.