Nelson Mandela wisely said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Over 2000 years earlier, Confucius wrote: “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.” Perhaps most relevant are the words of Victor Hugo: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”
These great thinkers of time past draw us to the same conclusion: the aspect of education in the Irish Prison system is an incredibly significant one. Current statistics, however, argue that the reality is overtly different. The Irish Prison service’s education budget is being cut year after year, starting from €1.27 million in 2012, down to €1.065 million in 2017.
This drop in funding is combined with the all too widespread public opinion that educating prisoners is not a societal priority. Furthermore, specifically in relation to higher education, many regard the spending of taxpayers’ money on giving prisoners access to third level degrees as an almost laughable concept.
An article recently published by the Daily Mirror ran with the headline, “Pampered Prisoners: State pays €130,000 to fund college courses for Irish inmates,” while comments on a similar article read, “If you said to me ‘prison education or Crumlin Hospital’, I know who I’d give my money to.”
While the socially critical, ironic tone of both of these articles calls for greater spending on public services, what this sort of outlook fails to recognise is the underlying fact that prisons make up part of our local and national communities and that their principal aim, therefore, must not be retribution, but rehabilitation, as whether we like it or not, today’s prisoner will potentially become tomorrow’s neighbour.
In Ireland, while 30-40% of persons in custody do avail of some sort of prison education services each week, ranging from life skills and personal development to basic education in literacy and numeracy, the numbers participating in third level programmes only represents about 1% of the prison population.
One might ask, this statistic being so minute and public opinion so against the general concept, what encourages or acts as a motivator to somebody living in such a restrictive environment to place their dedication, faith, and energy into higher education?
Uncovering the truth
In an effort to delve deeper, I spoke to psychologist and Open University Liaison at Mountjoy Prison, Claire O’Connell. She gives her personal view on the issue, explaining:
“In my experience there are a number of factors involved here; a common one would relate to finding a constructive way to pass the time being served. Alleviating boredom and finding a way to escape from the usual prison talk relating to crime and drugs is mentioned very often by those undertaking third level courses.
Self-development is often a big factor also, both in terms of obtaining a qualification that may enhance employment opportunities on release, as well as building general self-confidence. A sense of pride and achievement is definitely part of it too, as is the desire for redemption, in some manner, and to make family members proud.”
In relation to the options available to those wishing to proceed in third level education during their period of sentence, there are two possibilities. The first, and most common, is to avail of Open University courses, of which there were 47 prisoners availing in 2016/17.
Unlike other universities, with the OU there are no entry requirements to study most of its undergraduate qualifications, and it is not necessary for potential students to sit exams in order to gain entry, as they believe that anyone who is determined to succeed should be given every chance to do so. However, in saying this, there is a need for prisoners to satisfy the prison authority that they are prepared to undertake the amount of study necessary to eventually obtain a degree.
Students undertaking OU courses are supported by the head teachers and staff of the Prison Education Service, with a teacher nominated as an OU Liaison in each prison who supports students, assists with accessing course materials and forwarding assignments, identifies suitable courses, and then forwards the application forms to the IPS Education section in IPS headquarters.
The second option is open to a very small number of prisoners, who may be permitted to obtain temporary release to attend a further education college, IT, or university while still serving their sentence. However, this is subject to strict security assessment and usually applies to persons in an open prison or progression unit who are coming towards the end of their sentence.
No easy task
In relation to the undertaking of OU courses in prisons, O’Connell acknowledged that many difficulties, due to a lack of funding and resources, often arise for both staff and students in the process: “Challenges certainly exist.
The main problems we face tend to be logistical ‒ prison officer staff shortages can often lead to cancellation of classes, and this disruption can make it hard for students to complete courses. Also, students can be transferred at short notice to other prisons. Security arrangements mean that technology is greatly restricted, so in many cases, students are not allowed access to phones, tablets, laptops, etc.”
Prison is certainly not what one would consider an ideal educational atmosphere, and it becomes clear the extent to which extreme dedication (drastically more so than the average third level student) on the part of the individual is a huge factor in successfully completing a degree as O’Connell continues: “At times the prisoners do struggle, as there are restrictions on the access they have to online material, if any at all.
Hard copies of the material are sent out to the prisons, but there can be delays in receiving this, which is particularly stressful when assignment deadlines are looming. It can also be a challenge for the students to manage their time around other prison commitments that they often have, such as work or training. For those starting off on first year modules, it can be quite stressful as they get to grips with academic writing and time management.”
Speaking of her own personal role, O’Connell goes on to inform: “We don’t hold Open University classes as such. As OU Liaison for the those studying OU courses with the Education Centre in Mountjoy Prison, I provide study support and guidance sessions 2-3 times per week. While the students are supported when they come to these sessions, the bulk of their assignment work is done alone in the evenings.
On top of this, contact with the course tutor is limited. We arrange for the students to have phone tutorials via the Education Centre with their assigned OU course tutor, but these only occur about 4 times a year.”
The power of persistence
On the subject of drop-out rates, O’Connell is adamant that despite situational difficulties, prison education staff work tirelessly with students to support and maintain their dedication to the courses they embark on: “The majority of students complete the courses they undertake. A couple every year defer but then take it up again at a different time.
It is unusual, but it does happen occasionally, where a student drops out of the Open University course, but they are then encouraged to actively engage with the Education Centre to continue with education and possibly engage with another course.”
O’Connell concluded by speaking briefly of the beneficial and positive outcomes that she has had the opportunity of witnessing: “Overall, I believe that third level education provides prisoners with a distraction to life behind bars while offering them a sense of direction and ambition.
There are a number of cases where students have completed OU Degrees, particularly in the area of Social Science, Maths, Exercise, and Business, (which are the most popular courses) and have gone on to engage in further postgraduate study upon release. This has lead in time to secure employment and a complete disassociation from criminal activity.”
It is an aspect of reality in Ireland that crime has its roots in disadvantaged communities, in those with a history of little access to adequate education. Therefore, education in prisons is essential in the process of rehabilitating acquitted criminals, and third level education is, furthermore, an even greater implement to provide students with the necessary tools to break the cycle of poverty and social exclusion upon their release.
The option of third level education does exist today for prisoners, as do stories of those who have succeeded in completing their chosen courses and embarking on stimulating careers post-release. In spite of this, it is evident that a lack of funding and resources, combined with cynical public opinion, complicates this process for many who would benefit greatly from its outcomes. The patience and commitment required on the part of prison education staff and, more importantly, prisoners’ own determination are therefore certainly deserving of admiration.