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

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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.

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Creative writing beyond bars

As we mark World Book Day, Lisa Krolak highlights the transformative potential of creative writing in the prison context

© Evandro L.D.J. Jr/Shutterstock.com

On World Book Day 2021, the German Prison Library Support Group (Förderverein Gefängnisbüchereien e.V.), in cooperation with the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), the Ministry of Justice of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia and the German reading project KonTEXT in Munich, implemented its first nationwide writing contest for prisoners. They were invited to write up to three pages on one or more of the following topics: life, freedom or hope. In the following months, prisoners submitted personal reflections, autobiographical writings, fiction, poetry, accounts of traumatic experiences, song texts, and more.

I was part of the small organizing committee and jury, reading and judging the nearly 400 entries from more than 300 inmates from 80 prisons and five juvenile detention centres from all over Germany. I can say for the whole jury that we were deeply touched by the contributions. Some made us laugh, some made us cry – but they all gave us an insight into the hopes, feelings and dreams of the authors and the reality of life in prison. We are grateful to the authors for sharing their life experiences, thoughts of freedom and hopes. It was moving to hear the silenced voices of people that society decided to lock away. Continue reading

COVID-19: Challenges and opportunities in prison education

The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing already over-stretched prison services around the world, but the crisis is also an opportunity to do things differently, particularly in prison education, write Marie Macauley and Lisa Krolak on International Day of Education in Prison

An inmate chooses a book from the prison library. HMP Wandsworth, London, United Kingdom.

With more than 11 million people in prison worldwide and prison populations increasing rapidly, many prisons around the world were already at crisis point, unable to provide basic services such as education, when the pandemic struck. The crisis has highlighted the challenges prisons face, but it is also providing impetus for change.

Education in prison can provide prisoners with the opportunity to learn new skills and give them a renewed sense of purpose. Research has shown that prisoners who participate in education and training programmes are less likely to return to prison. They are also more likely to find employment on release.

Most countries provide formal primary and secondary education and vocational training to prisoners free of charge. Some countries provide access to higher education, whether through distance-learning or in the prison, at the prisoners’ own expense or financed by private grants. Prison libraries also play a key role in enabling access to information and reading materials to inmates. Continue reading

Stories beyond bars: Family literacy in prisons

As we mark World Book Day, Lisa Krolak highlights the transformative potential of providing incarcerated parents with the opportunity to practice literacy skills while bonding with their children

© Storybook Dads

What better way to engage a non-reading, hard-nut prisoner who lacks parenting skills and has lost contact with his kids than getting him to read Cinderella? Sharon Berry, Storybook Dads

Many prisoners are also parents, meaning that countless children worldwide are growing up with the stigma and trauma of a parent behind bars. For children forced into isolation at home by the COVID-19 pandemic, this absence can feel even more acute. Imprisoned parents also struggle with separation, particularly as they are currently not allowed to see their families in most countries. Not being able to stay in touch with their children and families can have a very negative effect on their mental health.

Programmes are needed that provide opportunities for incarcerated parents to maintain strong family connections, enabling them to play an active role in the education, learning and development of their children. Often, such programmes offer crucial learning support to prisoners, who are more likely than the rest of society to have had limited educational experience, and to have difficulties with reading and writing. Continue reading