Teaching inside a prison takes patience. Not because the students are difficult or dull, they are not. On the contrary, you are unlikely to meet a more highly motivated and interesting group of adult learners. It does take time, however, to have your fingerprint scanned, to pass barefoot and beltless through the metal detectors, to have your personal identification, criminal history and biometric data checked.
A prison teacher also needs to be flexible. When visiting incarcerated students, be ready to roll with the unexpected. If you arrive on a family visits day, or during an emergency lockdown, or when students can’t make it to the education block, your own sense of time warps and stretches.
Before you know it, you have fallen into the grinding rhythms of the institution. You’re no longer sure if you’re very late or very early. Fortunately, no one blames you for this – the custodial staff nod knowingly and say “you’re on prison time now”.
In a prison, time is something to be dealt with, by any means necessary. Mental health is a pressing concern for most prisoners and education is a way to stay “sane”.
Incarcerated students often choose to study as a way to use their time productively and to have a sense of purpose and control over their future. They intensely value education as a way to rewrite their life story, to provide a positive example to their children and just to prove to themselves and the world that they can do it.
It is now widely accepted in Australia and in most parts of the world that education also reduces recidivism rates. Almost all Australian prisons, private and public, support and promote education programs as a way to improve prisoners’ employment opportunities upon release.
Education or training for prisoners?
Australian prisoners are often encouraged to undertake vocational training in areas like horticulture, hospitality and construction. Usually this includes input from accredited trainers on site. Prisoner access to higher education, however, tends to be more problematic.
Traditionally, incarcerated university students would receive their materials in the mail as distance education students. However, with the sector-wide move to online delivery of tertiary courses, incarcerated students, who have no internet access, are falling through the digital gaps.
Access to higher education also varies greatly from prison to prison, with tertiary study becoming more difficult as security becomes tighter. When there is a public outcry around recidivism, it is usually in regard to repeat violent offenders or sex offenders. Some commentators and members of the public, vocal on social media, talk-back radio and other media forums, do not believe rehabilitation is possible for some repeat offenders and these attitudes shape government policy.
The most isolated of all incarcerated students are often those in “protection” prisons or protective security units within prisons. These prisoners, separated from other inmates for their own protection, are some of the most marginalised and reviled members of our society. As such they are often on the cutting edge of public debates about whether prisoners are deserving of higher education and other social goods.
The treatment of the most feared and demonised inmates is a test of how humane our society actually is and how far rehabilitation can be rolled out. Certainly in some protective custody (“protection”) and maximum security (“secure”) units, students do not have access to the computers, textbooks, teachers, tutors and resources they need to successfully complete university courses.
A humanising and humane approach
Technological access and technological literacy is increasingly important for reducing recidivism. It is not, and is not intended to be, a substitute for good teaching.
Human contact with education officers, student peers and tertiary tutors is also an element of education valued highly by incarcerated students. Visiting tertiary tutors can provide not only a link with the outside world and new knowledge, but also an audience for new rehabilitated identities.
Approaches that recognise prisoners as human beings and provide opportunities for positive social interaction better prepare offenders for successful social re-integration when they are released.
Prison teachers learn quickly that they must build a sincere relationship of trust and respect with students, as whole persons, before the real work of education can begin. Good teaching, especially in a prison, requires being sensitive to the emotional life of the students and the social, cultural and psychological burdens they bear.
A whole-person approach recognises that students need an opportunity for reflection on their own values, beliefs and identities - to develop their own voice through writing and thinking about issues that matter to them. A humanities education is particularly important in this context, as it encourages prisoners to explore the human condition and humane values.
Human beings or human capital?
As Australian governments move to privatise and corporatise the business of incarceration, prisons, like other state institutions, are increasingly guided by economic principles and priorities.
Incarcerated students, like other students, are increasingly seen as “human capital” forced to fit the needs of industry. While employment is certainly central to successful re-integration, education in prisons cannot be limited to vocational training.
A broad education in the humanities, which facilitates social and self-understanding, may be just as necessary to successful social re-integration as training in trade skills. Humanistic teaching, characterised by human empathy and a sincere desire to help the student develop as a person, is far more effective in the long term than mere technical training.
While society has a right and indeed an obligation to incapacitate its most dangerous citizens, the problem is that the pains of imprisonment and negative consequences of social isolation continue long after a prisoner is released. As most prisoners, even those convicted of the most serious offences, will eventually be released, the focus needs to be on successful re-entry and social re-integration.
Education, particularly education in the humanities, is an important tool in this process. In my experience, protection prisoners are particularly aware of the power of education to rewrite life scripts and provide hope for a better future.
Prisoners don’t need more hard lessons, they need knowledge and skills
On social media and in the mainstream popular press, populist commentary frequently calls for getting tougher on criminals, as well as getting tough on crime. Recently circulated Facebook memes, for example, sardonically advocate locking the elderly poor in prison, where they will supposedly receive better access to free meals, medication, electricity, exercise equipment and education.
The implication of this satire is that prisoners receive better treatment than they deserve. This popular “get tough on prisoners” approach rests on the assumption that prisons are for punishment not rehabilitation, and that those who break the law have forfeited their rights to such social goods and privileges.
The problem with this “prisons are for punishment” approach is that it actually doesn’t work to deter criminals or reduce crime rates. On the contrary, the get tough on criminals approach contributes to an overarching culture of brutalisation. It does not make society a safer place, it makes society a more inhumane place.
A humane approach recognises that all human beings are to some extent products of their environment. Further harsh treatment of prisoners, institutional punishment and brutalisation is not going to solve the problems that put them there in the first place.
Offenders need adequate community support and substantial personal resilience to successfully re-enter society upon their release. They don’t need more hard lessons. They need a way to break the cycle and education is the key.
You can read other articles in the Beyond Prison series here.