Beyond recidivism: holistic rationales for prison education

Many stakeholders ascribe to the whole-person approach to education, looking at the personal benefits that can be derived from increased educational attainment. While the majority of studies are concerned with recidivism rates, there are other studies that look at more intrinsic factors in measuring the impact of education programmes. The upcoming section will look at the various theories and pieces of literature that support the provision of education in prisons, supporting the more “whole-person” focus of education and looking beyond the acquisition of rehabilitative skills to the other benefits that it can foster (Mezirow, 1991)

Opportunity theory

It is accepted by most criminologists that a majority of crimes are carried out by the poor, undereducated, disenfranchised members of society who have not had the same viable opportunities for legitimate economic success as most (Warner, 2009). This thinking finds its origins in strain theory (Merton, 1938), which suggests that social structures within society may actually foster crime by holding out the same goals to all members of society without each person having equal means of achieving them. Education, and particularly third-level education, is seen as the means of providing these opportunities of equality and social mobility in areas such as employment, further education and access to services in society for example (Nie et al., 1996; Ubah and Robinson, 2003). Society itself places an “inherent value” on the acquisition of knowledge and skills (Eikeland et al., 2009). In an increasingly meritocratic society, those who are educated are often seen as having a greater status in society. Education is also seen to be one of the most significant predictors of social capital (Putnam, 1995,

2000; Brehm and Rahn, 1997; Helliwell and Putnam, 2007; Huang et al., 2009). Those in possession of more social capital tend to be able to identify and pursue greater opportunities that in turn foster the growth of social capital in a cyclical fashion (Nie et al., 1996). It may be that social capital is a link between education and the creation of opportunities within society: Those who are able to either maintain or increase their social capital while in prison are best placed to then identify and act upon opportunities when they arise after release.

Therefore, the education of prisoners is important in ensuring that they can maximise their role and place in society when they are released by developing the whole person (Eikeland et al., 2009). Participation in prison education provides a person with a chance to increase their opportunities when released from prison. For example, Tewksbury and Stengel (2006) found that 35% of the academic participants and 53% of a cohort taking part in vocational education in prison believed that these academic education programmes would help them get a job when released. Furthermore, in the United States the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control (1993) reported that 70% of inmates interviewed stated that their main reason for participation in prison education was their interest in self-improvement and in giving themselves the best chance of success when they were released. Porporino and Robinson (1992) reported that 79% of the released prisoners in their study were in full-time employment and most of these had found a job within one month of their release from prison. Thirty percent of the interviewed prisoners felt that their ABE acquired skills had helped them a great deal in seeking employment (Porporino and Robinson, 1992). Various other studies have demonstrated a link between prison education and greater employment levels (Fabelo, 2002; Vacca, 2004; Ellison et al., 2017) and educational uptake after release from prison, showing the various pathways and opportunities that education can foster.

There is a need to be cautious here. The narrow view of an opportunity' is that it means developing employment opportunities. Education should promote and reinforce the view of opportunity' in the broader, more agentic sense of the word. By developing the whole person, education may support the opportunity' to take control of their own life, for example, to choose their own actions and determine their own outcomes. While a part of this may include employment, it is also inclusive of the opportunities and chances to create a good life for themselves in all respects.

Moral development theory

Moral development theory proposes that prison education programmes, particularly programmes in the arts such as literature, history, philosophy and sociology, can have a positive effect on prisoners by strengthening their conscience and promoting moral development. This ty'pe of broad-based educational approach creates a better understanding of the world around them (Duguid, 1998). It leads naturally to an increased awareness of other’s feelings and thoughts and therefore fosters a type of empathy (Morris, 1962). Highlighting the importance of prison education, Duguid (1998) states that “if there is such a dimension of latent humanity in us all then education becomes a potential key, a means of identifying, liberating, and exploring that humanness” (p. 38). Further weight has been added to this view, with Hobler (1999) stating that moral education promotes a less selfish view of situations and people begin to base decisions on moral reasoning instead of solely on self-satisfaction. Participation in education can change a person’s personality, outlook, characteristics and interests, promoting open-mindedness in relation to the world (Schuller et al., 2002). When educational programmes are designed to help prisoners with their social skills, artistic development and emotions, they produce drops in recidivism rates, in addition to increasing the problem-solving and critical-thinking capacity of the person (Ripley, 1993). Participating in ABE in prison was found to help prisoners become more concerned about other people’s feelings (Porporino and Robinson, 1992). This is important in terms of their future behaviour and decisions relating to offending. Education can also take greater control over their own lives and decision making by challenging their

taken for granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind sets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.

(Mezirow, 2000: 7)

People begin to view things in a more objective, open-minded way (Schuller et al., 2002) and base their decisions on these new critical perspectives and understandings.

Studies in this area have shown that prison education can have significant implications for family relationships. Porporino and Robinson (1992) for instance found that 30% of ABE participants stated that it helped them “very much” with their familial relations, particularly with their children. Participating in broad-based prison education also helps to reduce the instances of corporeal punishment of fathers against their children, showing a degree of moral development and consideration on their part (Bushfield, 2004). Parents also reported being less likely to rely on their children for emotional support having participated in prison education (Bushfield, 2004). It is interesting that these results referred to general education, not specific parenting courses where such outcomes might be expected (see positive outcomes in Bushfield, 2004; Gonzalez et al., 2007 for example). Munoz (2009) cautions against focusing on short, treatment-based programmes that seek a particular outcome such as better parenting skills, in favour a more broad-based educational approach to develop all aspects of the person. Such an approach is in line with the recommendation to focus on developing the whole person. By participating in broad-based prison education, the prisoner will still see the benefits across various aspects of their life.

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