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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C

'From scumbag to student': The power of prison education

A former prisoner, who went from drug dealer to master’s student, has called for more funding for education in prisons. He admitted it will be “a hard sell”.

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MICHAEL* COMPLETED HIS Leaving Certificate while serving a four-year drugs-related sentence in a Dublin prison.

“I’d never done [the Leaving Cert]. It was just a personal thing, I wanted to see if I had applied myself in school. I always wondered ‘Could I have done it?’ I found out I could.”

Michael said achieving this “set the ball rolling” in terms of his education. He now has a master’s degree.

He initially started to go to the prison’s school to simply get the chance to have conversations with people removed from prison life. He said he owes a lot to his teachers, who were “separate from the prison officers” and treated him “like a human being, not a prisoner”.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but each [teacher] was there at the right time,” he recalled.

I had a bad experience of school. It was ‘get down, shut, up.’ College was never an option for me. Motivation? I didn’t even know what it was.

Michael said school in prison was different for him as the teachers there “value your opinion and encourage you to read”. He also completed a number of FETAC courses while inside.

As a result of his own experience, Michael knows first-hand how important education can be in stopping criminals re-offending or ending up homeless.

He said that many people return to crime when they are released as they cannot read or write and have little chance of getting work – something exacerbated by having to tell potential employers about any previous convictions.

Michael said he understands why the Irish Prison Service’s education budget has been cut but is concerned about the long-term implications.

He is also aware that many people will not care a huge deal about the issue.

If you said to me ‘prison education or Crumlin hospital’, I know who I’d give my money to.

“I had a passion for [education] and it turned my life around. My life is totally different now to the life I had ten years ago.”

Not least, it helped him get clean.

When in prison, Michael attended school from 10am – 12pm and 2 pm – 4 pm, Monday to Friday. However, if a prison officer was out sick, “access to the school was one of first things to be cut”.

“Education doesn’t get the priority it deserves [in prison],” he stated.

‘Red thumbs’

There were about 12 men in his class, some of whom were studying for the Leaving Certificate and others for the Junior Certificate. ”There was a fairly good completion rate, the teachers had a fairly captive audience,” he joked.

To this day, he remains in touch with some of the teachers he credits with changing his life. “They’re proud of me, but not half as proud my mother.”

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He admitted that calling for greater educational resources in prisons is “never going to be popular”.

I can see the red thumbs on now. They give out about people re-offending and the cost to the taxpayer, but if you intervene early and put the bit of effort in, it can make a real difference.

Is prison for retribution or rehabilitation?

What good is locking them away and treating them like an animal? They might be strung out on drugs, from a broken family. I’m not playing the poor mouth ‘my mother never loved me’ line but it’s true.

Michael added that prison is about network-building and if those on the inside aren’t educated, this will foster more crime on the outside.

“For me its a no-brainer, but it’s a very tough sell.”

If you put a bit of effort into someone, instead of being identified as a prisoner or a scumbag, they’re a student.

He noted that many of the men he knows who received an education in prison go back to their communities upon their release and work in drugs rehabilitation centres and youth clubs.

Michael said there will “always be a stigma” associated to an ex-prisoner but noted that this changes over time, albeit slowly.

There are currently 13 vacancies for prison-based workshop or training posts nationally, six of which are in Midlands Prison.

Each prison has a library. Opening hours range from an ‘on demand’ service in certain institutions to 77 hours a week in Portlaoise Prison. Most other prison libraries operate from seven to 37.5 hours weekly.

‘A scandal’

Dr Kevin Warner was the Education Coordinator in the Irish prison system for nearly 30 years until 2009.

He has also worked in Europe and North America, and founded the European Prison Education Association. He is a board member of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

Relative to the overall cost of the prison system, education is minor really, but it has been cut disproportionately in recent years in relation to other activities.

Warner said there are more than 300 individuals teaching in Irish prison, the equivalent of about 220 full-time staff.

Dr Warner noted that the Irish Prison Service, which falls under the remit of the Department of Justice, has said it costs about €65,000-70,000 to keep a single prisoner locked up for a year. He thinks this is an underestimate, saying the real figure is probably closer to €80,000 and “very high by international standards”.

This still marks a significant drop from €97,700 per prisoner per year – the cost in 2007.

Dr Warner said the decrease is partly due to a change in the calculation method, and not including certain expenses such as teaching and prison maintenance.

In 2008, €220,539 was spent by the IPS on Open University courses, when 108 prisoners availed of the offer. This figure was reduced to €100,000 in 2011 – where it still stands.

Some 36 prisoners from Ireland’s 14 prisons are pursuing OU courses at present.

“You’ve spent all this money to lock them up in a destructive environment, if they’re ready for something like Open University it should be there for them.”

‘Phasing out higher education’

Dr Warner believes the only reason the initiative wasn’t scrapped entirely is because a number of prisoners threatened legal action.

In 2011, an art course that was facilitated by the National College of Art and Design and ran in Portlaoise Prison from 1987 onwards was terminated.

“They’re clearly phasing out higher education in prisons.”

Dr Warner said such harsh cutbacks are “a scandal” as prison education is of “enormous benefit to prisoners and also to society”.

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He said there has never been any problem getting prisoners to engage with education, citing access as the main issue.

During his three decades working in the Irish prison education system, he saw first-hand how it could make “a big difference to a lot of people”.

Education gives people a different sense of themselves, a different view on life. It changes their perspective on themselves and the wider world.

He added that it helps prisoners “cope with sentences” and affords them an opportunity to “get away from the landing where the talk is all about drugs”.

“They think: ‘I can tell my parents and my partner about this, it’s something I’m proud of.’”

About 1,057 prisoners are doing FETAC-accredited vocational training courses in a wide range of areas such as computers, woodwork, braille and horticulture.

Dr Warner said these courses are valuable but somewhat pointless if prisoners don’t have any where to progress to.

“If people get beyond the level of FETAC and beyond the level of the Leaving Certificate, there should be third level education options available to them. There’s no point doing FETAC courses if you’re way beyond that level.”

He noted that some prisoners are not interested in the type of certificate they receive, if any, adding that they want to learn for the sake of learning itself.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt [education] does help people not to re-offend.”

Dr Warner said that there needs to be a shift in the public’s opinion of prisoners.

If people start with a distorted image of prison and a distorted image of the people in prison, it’s very hard [to change their minds]. People need to accept that prison damages people severely, in all sorts of ways.

Education can limit that damage and help them survive prison.

Some people think they’re all ‘scum’ like the tabloid headlines say … it’s not true. Only a minority of prisoners are violent. Most people in prison are as much sinned against as sinners.

They have problems. We’re not absolving them, but they need to be seen as people with as much good and bad in them as the rest of us.

If they’re locked up they should still have the opportunity to develop.

*not his real name

Read: Majority of criminals re-offend within three years

Read: Women prisoners are ‘significantly more likely’ to use drugs

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