Prison education: motivations, barriers and experiences

The previous chapter outlined the various advantages of undertaking education while in prison. It is a means of rebalancing an educational deficit, of opening the mind to new ways of thinking, of developing the personality; of providing opportunities, of fostering community engagement and of reducing reoffending, among other things. Chapter 3 also highlighted that these benefits are also dependent upon the type of education offered or the philosophy and approach taken in that particular prison or state. Regardless of the benefits of education, the curriculum offered or the philosophies of those who provide prison education, none of this is relevant without the participation of those at whom the education is ultimately aimed. The typical person in prison is undereducated by comparison to the general population and will most likely have left school at an early age with few or no qualifications - in fact many have difficulty with even the basics of numeracy, reading and writing (Morgan and Kett, 2003). This deficit will likely have contributed to various social disadvantages including lower income, lower standard of living, limitations on social mobility; relational instability and a greater likelihood of substance abuse and homelessness, for example, all of which can also be criminogenic factors. Prison education therefore provides an important opportunity for those serving prison sentences to use this time to address any shortfalls in their past educational attainment and potentially address any of these issues that this deficit may have caused in their past. Prison education is based on an ethos of attraction rather than promotion, and a person must voluntarily decide to engage. Understanding what motivates a person to participate and to subsequently continue with prison education in the long term is paramount to ensuring that education meets both the desired goals and potentially the unknown needs of those who undertake it. Furthermore, having an understanding of the barriers to participating in education is equally important in reducing the obstacles and ensuring that as many as possible can engage with education during their sentence. This chapter will explore the previous literature in relation to each of these points, along with the narratives of prisoners in relation to these themes. This chapter will also outline the various findings in relation to other aspects of prisoners’ experiences of education, concluding with a discussion of the meaning and implications of the findings in terms of educational philosophy, policy, reintegration and the desistance framework.

Prison education participation rates

In Ireland, prison education participation rates vary greatly from one prison to another. The highest participation rate of 76.5% is recorded in Loughan House, an open prison with good educational facilities (Maslauskaite and Mooney, 2018). Therefore, it is to be expected that participation rates would be highest in the prisons of this type. Ireland’s second open prison, Shelton Abbey, where some of the interviews for this research were carried out, has a participation rate of 56.5%, which is quite a bit lower than Loughan House (Maslauskaite and Mooney, 2018). The lowest participation rate of 20.4% is in Cloverhill Prison, which is a remand prison, and given the transient population and profile of the men in this prison, a low participation rate is to be expected. Of the mediumsecurity closed prisons that are the mainstay of the Irish prison system, the rate varies from 20.5% in Mountjoy, which was the main data collection site in this research, to 55.5% in Wheatfield Prison. Both are located in Dublin and have similar populations. The majority of prisons of this type reflect participation rates of approximately 45% (Maslauskaite and Mooney, 2018). The participation rates appear to be inclusive of those prisoners who are only participating on a part-time basis, in addition to those who are engaging at a high level. For that reason, the figures tend to demonstrate a low to moderate participation level among Irish prisoners. In England and Wales, it is estimated that 33% of prisoners engage in prison education at some point during their sentence (Natale, 2010). However, the numbers engaging with education during their sentence are declining. Those undertaking academic qualifications in maths and English fell by 40% and 47%, respectively, between the 2010/2011 and 2017/2018 academic years (Atkins et al., 2019). In the same period, a drop of 36% was reported in programmes with more of a treatment orientation such as domestic violence and violent offending reduction courses (Atkins et al., 2019). In the United States, it is reported that 25% of prisoners participate in academic education while in prison and 32% undertake some form of vocational training. though this figure is representative of those who began courses, rather than those who completed education courses (Wolf Harlow, 2003). Given the various benefits that can accrue from participation in prison education and the fact that a significant proportion of prisoners will have low levels of previous education, these figures appear to be quite low. The answers to encouraging greater levels of participation may lie in understanding more about why prisoners are motivated to participate in education and the barriers that exist for those who do not participate. Both of these questions will be considered in detail later.

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