Barriers to participation in prison education

Little is known about the reasons that prisoners do not participate in prison education. Brosens et al. (2013) described the extent of the literature in relation to barriers to participation in prison education as nonexistent. While this is slowly changing and there is some empirical guidance to be found, there still remains a lack of knowledge about the reasons that prisoners decide to not participate or to leave prison education. While prison education is different from mainstream education, there is far more guidance on barriers to participation in the adult education literature than in the direct context of prison education. Given that prison education researchers usually use the same classifications as adult education (Manger et al., 2018), this broader research can also offer some clues. However, while adult education literature can be used to support the gaps in the literature on the barriers to prison education, there is also a distinct need to consider the factors that differentiate the prison setting from the community that might act as barriers to education (Brosens et al., 2015). Previous studies have given some indication of the potential barriers that exist. Overall, each of the main categories of barrier is represented in the literature, with prisoners describing a wide array of reasons for not participating in education; Manger et al. (2018) found that barriers were spread across all categories. These barriers and the inconsistencies in the findings from one study to another are likely to be founded on the fact that the prison experience differs greatly from one jurisdiction to another and from one form of education to another, for example, traditional education versus vocational training. Furthermore, the typical characteristics of those in prison differ considerably from the general population. Those in prison tend to be from marginalised backgrounds, from lower socioeconomic groups, and from communities characterised by higher than average levels of poverty low educational attainment and early school leaving (O’Mahony, 1997; Flynn et al., 2011). It is important to bear these factors in mind when examining the previous literature on the barriers to participation in mainstream adult education as against the barriers to participation in prison education.

In terms of the adult education literature, the barriers to participation were originally divided into internal and external factors (Johnstone and Rivera, 1965). Later these were recategorised into dispositional, situational and institutional factors (Cross, 1981). Informational factors was added as a separate category by Darkenwald and Merriam (1982), though many still consider this to be a subcategory of institutional factors.

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