Lowering the barriers to prison education

While there has been little previous research on the barriers to participating in prison education, there is little question that the findings outlined in Chapter 4 will not come as much surprise to practitioners. Most are well aware of the motivations of their learners and the reasons that many decide not to access education. However, these findings may prove valuable in some way in informing future attempts to reform curricula, make adjustments to the school environment or optimise recruitment of participants. It is important to look at ways to lower the barriers to participation in order to make prison education as accessible as possible. In making these recommendations, the logical starting point must be the barriers to participation. This research showed that a bad previous experience of mainstream education was a barrier to participation. It is important that potential learners realise the differing approach to education in the prison school, with a view to showing them that adult education can provide them with a more positive encounter with education. This might be achieved by word of mouth, by asking participants to share their experience with others where they are comfortable doing so or perhaps by holding an open class outside of the school, in the mainstream prison, on topics of interest to prisoners, which might ignite their interest. Furthermore, ensuring access across the full year would optimise the chances of attracting students who arrive during holiday times and who might otherwise fall into an alternative routine. In a similar way, ensuring sufficient capacity in subjects that are popular and that may act as “hooks” for further education is important. Literacy is a well-known, yet hidden problem among the prison population. Extending the use of peer mentoring programmes to target literacy issues would prove beneficial for both the person who is using the service and the mentor who gains tremendous pride and confidence from their role. Finally, increasing the amount of time available to access the school from only recreational time to regular school hours might be an important factor in encouraging prisoners to participate. It would also be beneficial to those who are studying for exams or qualifications, as prisoners mentioned they often did not feel prepared due to the limited time they had in the school. Having so much out-of-cell time might also act as an incentive for some to try education. Furthermore, given the findings relating to social capital, any extra time spent away from the prison environment is likely to be beneficial to the person in minimising the harms of imprisonment.

Maintain a broad adult education approach

The broad adult education approach to prison education is recommended widely based on its ability to enhance the development of the whole person. With an increasing punitiveness infiltrating penal thinking and policy in many states, there has been a consequent narrowing of perspectives on how prison education should be conceptualised and valued (Warner, 2007). This narrowing fuels the drive to make prison education more focused on reducing reoffending and results in treatment-based approaches manifested as education. These programmes are often shown to have empirical benefits, and there is no denying that any form of education is preferable to none. However, the benefits, much like the programme, will be narrow in scope. The current research was carried out with participants of education based on the broad, adult education approach. The results showed broad and significant benefits for the person. The recommended aim of prison education is to provide education to enhance the whole person, and it appears that prison education in Ireland is achieving this based on the accounts of the participants, particularly when compared to the accounts of the non-participants. While a focus of this research is to create links with the desistance literature, it is encouraging to see that the implications of participation in education are so valuable to the person. The broad and rich benefits truly appear to be important to the participants in enriching their lives. This is the true value of education. Regardless of the desistance-related outcomes for these men, their lives will have been enhanced in many ways for having participated in education. It is firmly believed that this could not be achieved through education that is narrow in scope, and therefore maintaining this broad approach to education is to be recommended.

The “what works” movement and desire for increasingly evidence-based decision making has played a role in narrowing the perspectives in relation to prison education. This narrowing is a result of a general infiltration of a more punitive ethos throughout the penal system. However, where there is a desire for evidence-based decision making, there must also be research informing the policies and decisions. The current questions being asked by policy makers and researchers predominantly relate to what will work to reduce reoffending. While funding and other considerations often tie the hands of researchers, there is a need to fight back against this research agenda. By maintaining a broad focus in the research, the results and decisions relating to prison education will subsequently be made on the basis of broader and more comprehensive outcomes that are based on a greater view of the overall picture, rather than a small snapshot of it. The reality is that in many states the provision of prison education is becoming increasingly based on the evidence presented; if the broad approach is to be maintained in the prison classrooms, it must pervade at every aspect of the system that guides its provision.

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