Findings: motivations to participate in prison education

In the current study, the participants were asked about their motivations to participate in prison education from two perspectives. First, they were asked about the original reason they became involved in prison education and they were also asked why they continued to participate. This was to reflect the evolution of motivations over time, as indicated by Costelloe (2003) and Forster (1990). This led to an interesting aspect of the study, showing a contrast between the original and ongoing motivations for participation. In line with the semi-structured interview approach, prisoners were allowed to talk freely about the reasons for participating in education, they were not limited to one answer and several prisoners had dual reasons for getting involved. In line with Costelloe (2003) and Forster (1990), the most common reason for becoming involved in prison education in Ireland was to escape some element of prison life, such as the boredom or some anti-social element of prison life. Other reasons for participation included to increase their levels of education, to support post-release goals or to pursue an interest in a particular subject. Embellishment of their prison record was also mentioned by a very small number of prisoners.

Escape from boredom and the prison environment

The most common reason for participating in prison education was to alleviate boredom and escape the prison environment. In line with the findings of Costelloe (2003) and Forster (1990), who both found that escape was the most common reason for participating in prison education, many of the prisoners named this as the primary reason they had originally come to the school.


Participants stated that they found it hard to engage in the same routine every day with little in the way of mental stimulation. The school was a way to break the boredom of the prison cell, the landing or the yard; it was a place to escape to and help the day go by quicker. Those participants who stated that they were participating in education as a way to alleviate boredom were most likely to have been employed prior to coming to prison or had been predominately employed since leaving school. It may be that those prisoners who were used to having a constructive routine found it difficult to pass time on the landings and felt the need to fill their time with productive activities.

MARK: Like I’ve worked all me life, it’s in me and I’d go mad in me cell not doing anything and it’s the same when I'm on the outside.

(Mountjoy, participant)

It appears from the tone of the literature outlined earlier that participation in prison education, motivated by the alleviation of boredom or escaping prison life, is a less significant reason to undertake education than a more goal-orientated rationale such as future planning. While on the face of it, the alleviation of boredom or escaping prison life might appear to be less important reasons for participating in education, since it is ignoring education’s potential benefits, this may mask other more desistance-related motives for participating, as outlined under the upcoming subheadings relating to escape.

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