Barriers to participation in prison education

The current research explored the barriers to participation in prison education and showed that situational and dispositional factors are the most common. These barriers were manifest in the form of low motivation, a negative previous experience of education, adherence to routines, addiction and embarrassment surrounding low literacy levels. This gave rise to the consideration of wider issues, particularly in relation to low motivation. Many prisoners lacked the motivation to participate in prison education, as they felt it could not help them in the face of stigma and prejudice in society. They recognise the reality that opportunities for ex-offenders are scarce and they will face many obstacles on release. They view these obstacles as insurmountable, believing in the face of adversity that nothing can help them succeed. Such negative beliefs are characteristic of the condemnation script highlighted in the work of Martina (2001) as being prevalent among the narratives of persisters. It generally represents a view that nothing will help so there is little point in trying. This lack of self-belief and confidence related to their own future prospects but also appeared to relate to their chances of being successful with education; both most likely stem from their previous experiences, particularly with mainstream education. Although a negative experience of mainstream education was not mentioned by any of those interviewed, it was observed in their answers to questions about their previous education. While a past negative experience of mainstream education is a significant barrier to participation in education (Darkenwald and Merriam, 1982), it can also leave people with low self-esteem, feeling “less than”, and have a limiting impact on future progression and opportunities (Flynn et al., 2011) which can therefore contribute to criminality. Furthermore, this may be further compounded by negative attitudes and beliefs in their family or community around the importance of education. Thus, the person does not believe that education can hold any benefit for them, since it was only ever a negative experience. The problem with dispositional barriers is that because they are internalised, they are significantly more difficult to overcome through action or policies aimed at improving participation rates. This poses a problem in encouraging prisoners to undertake prison education. Confounding this even further is the problem of overcoming such negative attitudes in an environment that is inherently negative in itself. These are issues of considerable importance and will be returned to later in this chapter.

Literacy also appeared to be an issue, with many participants saying that this is why many prisoners are not participating in education. However, despite the number of non-participants interviewed, none reported this as a reason they were not participating in education. While it might be the case that none of these men actually had literacy issues, given the reported prevalence of these issues (Morgan and Kett, 2003) it is unlikely. This can represent several things. There remains a great deal of shame in having issues with literacy, and it is still a hidden problem that deters people from seeking help. This can also represent the masculinity and bravado that must prevail in the prison setting, where no weakness or vulnerability is shown as a person wants to keep their place in the prison hierarchy, which is likely part of the harms of imprisonment referred to in the literature (Sykes, 1958; Warner, 2007; Crewe, 2011). It can also reflect a lack of awareness or insight on the part of non-participants as to the reasons they do not participate. It may be that they are blaming external sources such as timetables, waiting lists or not having interesting subjects. The real reason may be more personal and the prisoner may not even realise that. Such levels of insight, awareness and reflection are very relevant to the agentic benefits of education and to cognitive changes associated with desistance. The ability to be introspective and take responsibility is associated with lower levels of criminal thinking (Walters, 1995), which is important to desistance. Such issues may therefore be prevalent across and hindering many aspects of the persons life, not simply the decision to participate in prison education but also their ability to desist from crime or to even want an alternative life to the life of crime.

Prison education and desistance

As outlined earlier, an objective of the study was to explore the links between prison education and the desistance process in order to offer a unique empirical view of the process through which prison education reduces reoffending, as evidenced in the literature. While there are many theories of desistance, it was evident from the overlaps in the respective bodies of literature that the benefits of prison education are connected to the structural aspects of desistance such as social bonds theory and the concept of social capital. The initial expectation was that education would support the development of structural aspects of the person s life such as creating skills for employment and, perhaps on that basis, have a role in creating social capital. However, despite the focus being on the role of prison education in the formation of pro-social bonds and social capital, one of the strongest themes to emerge from the findings was the strength of the reported level of cognitive change among the participants, which in turn demonstrated the process and interactions that underlie the influence of prison education on social bonds, social capital and desistance.

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