Learning behind bars: Realizing the benefits of prison education

Achieving lifelong learning for all means paying particular attention to vulnerable groups: while the benefits of prison education are clear, too few prisoners have access to quality education programmes, argues Marie Macauley

© Shutterstock / SGr

Education is widely recognized as a human right, yet it is a right from which prisoners are routinely excluded. The benefits of education for prisoners are well established. It gives them the opportunity to broaden their knowledge and acquire new skills that will facilitate their sustainable (re)integration into the labour market and society, while, at the same time, reducing recidivism and the attendant economic and social costs. Yet prisoners’ education remains overlooked and under-valued. Within the framework of its programme on inclusion, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) has been studying and supporting prison education policies and programmes in different parts of the world. As the person responsible for UIL’s programme in this area, I visited the Fleury-Mérogis correctional facility (France), the largest prison in Europe, with 3,300 prisoners, to document their experience, understand the challenges they face, and identify good practices and lessons for other institutions and countries.

Located in Fleury-Mérogis, not far from Paris, the eponymous prison comprises a men’s prison, a facility for young men aged 18 to 21 and, in a small adjacent building, a women’s prison (MAF). Fleury-Mérogis receives convicts whose sentences do not exceed beyond two years, as well as remand prisoners (prisoners awaiting trial), who make up 26 per cent of the inmate population. Like in many carceral institutions in the world, overcapacity is an issue at Fleury-Mérogis, with the prison operating at 29.4 per cent above its maximum capacity. While every prisoner should have an opportunity to access some form of education programme (see Section 2 of the French Government’s Law No. 2009–1436 of 24 November 2009 on prisons, Articles 27–29), only 25 per cent of the prisoners benefit from such entitlement.

Yet the need is huge: the majority of detainees in Fleury-Mérogis have no qualifications. The French section of the International Prison Observatory (OIP-SF) points more generally to an ‘inadequacy of resources in relation to the number of prisoners’ as well as ‘logistical and security constraints which take precedence over the need for rehabilitation’. Priority is given to minors and those who are unable to read or write, including prisoners whose first language is not French. Seven per cent of prisoners at Fleury-Mérogis are non-French speakers, while around 12 per cent are illiterate (compared to 7 per cent of the general population). Education teams, in collaboration with prison administration, are tasked with identifying and addressing the needs of these particularly vulnerable groups.

Prisoners often face significant barriers in accessing available learning opportunities, as I noted during  a reading workshop organized by the Lire C’est Vivre association. Among the 15 participants, two were training to become library assistants. Although the course is offered to all the roughly 800 prisoners in this division of the prison (Fleury-Mérogis has five divisions), only those few had enrolled. To be eligible for the training, prospective students must write several letters to demonstrate their commitment – an insurmountable obstacle for anyone with low-level literacy skills.

This is not the only barrier to participation. A lack of information on educational provision within prisons means that many inmates are unaware of the opportunities available to them. Stéphane, a former prisoner who now works with the organization Auxilia Une Nouvelle Chance, which promotes the social and professional reintegration of vulnerable people, including prisoners, reported that programmes have long waiting lists and prisoners have to demonstrate a strong motivation to be admitted. Furthermore, the tedious application procedure is often a disincentive for those who do not have a good command of French.

Poor learning conditions can also be an obstacle. Inmates must study in the cells they share with other prisoners, where television and radio are often on continuously, and noise from adjacent cells, the prison yard and loudspeakers is incessant. Inside the cells, desks must be shared and there is often a lack of equipment such as notebooks and pens. Moreover, because inmates depend on guards to leave their cells, attendance in class rests as much on the efficiency of the system as on the goodwill of prison officers. A pro-school prison guard can therefore prove to be a strong support for teachers, as OIP-SF points out. Uncertainty is also a factor, as another former detainee explained to me. Most inmates are not willing to  enrol in a course before their trial has taken place.

In short, lack of funding, learning spaces and teachers are the most common obstacles to large-scale quality education programmes in prisons. Civil society organizations such as Lire C’est Vivre and Auxilia Une Nouvelle Chance operate to guarantee prisoners access to knowledge and skills and technical training. The latter employs 800 volunteer trainers who have so far reached 1,600 inmates with programmes that aim to combat illiteracy or provide refresher courses, as well as offering general training up to the baccalaureate and pre-professional training levels. Auxilia Une Nouvelle Chance also offers distance education and trains its volunteers to be aware of the many challenges prisoners face. Auxilia facilitators write personal letters to inmates in addition to providing them with course content, and tailor educational offerings to inmates’ particular needs. Another objective of Auxilia Une Nouvelle Chance is to ‘bring education into the cells’ by providing learners with tablets (without internet), thus facilitating their access to the required material, and limiting the time they need to share a desk.

Documenting such positive examples is key to improving and expanding education and training opportunities in prisons in France and around the world. More efforts are needed to systematically collect and analyse data on the effectiveness of prison education, including regarding specific programmes such as those aiming at preventing violent extremism. Early results of UIL’s programme on prison education points to the importance of reinforcing support systems to build awareness among prisoners and give them the information and guidance they need to engage in a learning journey. Another lesson relates to the potential of digital technologies to democratize access, enhance the learning experience and facilitate individualized support to learners throughout their incarceration.

By improving the quality of prison education delivery, such initiatives contribute to fulfil our common  goal to achieve lifelong learning for all.

Marie Macauley is a Programme Specialist at UIL 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *