‘Second chance education is not a top up – it’s a catch up’….

May 21, 2019

CDETB provides a comprehensive education service to seven Dublin prisons ranging from basic education up to QQI level 6, also including Junior Certificate, Leaving Certificate, ECDL, MOS and Degree level (Open University).

Click here to watch CDETB’s head teacher Dr Ann Costello’s recent TEDx talk from Mountjoy Prison organised by SOLAS.

Or read on to hear Anne describe the world of prisoner education.

Good evening everybody,

For the next few minutes I am going to invite you all into the wold of prison education. And when I say prison education what I really mean is ‘prisoner education’ or education that takes place in a prison. But I am sticking with the term prison education, even if it is slightly misleading, as that is what it is called right across Europe and it is similar to the term correctional education as it is known in North America, Australia and other countries.

To navigate this world of prison education, I am going to look a three aspect of it. I am going to look at provision, practice and philosophy. But it is the latter; it is the philosophy, or the ideology which underpins the provision and practice, on which I will be mainly concentrating. So in other words, what I am really going to talk about is the ‘why’ of prison education rather than the ‘how’ of prison education.  I’m going to do so because I believe that is the best way for me to explain to you how education in prison can transform a prisoner’s life; how it can help them reach their full potential and ultimately how it can help them live more successfully on release. But before I delve into that, I think a little context or a little background would be helpful.

In Ireland all prisoners have a right to education and education is available in all prisons. The education is delivered in a partnership arrangement between the Irish Prison Service on the one hand and the local Education and Training Boards on the other. The ETB’s are statutory education authorities who deliver education in secondary schools, adult education centres, further education colleges and of course, the prisons. What that means is that prison teachers are employed by the local ETB rather than the Prison Service. And that is very significant and that is very important. So here in Mountjoy for example, all the teachers are employed by the City of Dublin Education and Training Board and we enjoy the same terms and conditions of service as any mainstream teacher. I believe that this in one of the primary reasons why prison education in Ireland is so successful, and in fact when compared to prison education in other countries, why it is quite outstanding. It is outstanding because of this partnership arrangement. Having the CDETB on board means you are getting a professional service delivered by education experts and having the Prisons Service on board means that service is then tailored to the unique needs of the prison population. It is that working in tandem with each other that makes it so successful.

Now that you know a little bit more about ‘who’ we are; it is now perhaps a good idea to talk about ‘what’ we do. In order to do that I am going to look at the curriculum and once again Ireland is actually quite unique. Unlike in many other countries where prison education is just focused on basic skills, or it is just focused on employability skills, or it is just focused on addressing offending behaviour, or if they are lucky an amalgamation of all three – here in Ireland we do more than that because we focused on the holistic development of the prisoner. How that translates on the ground is that our curriculum is exceptionally broad and adult-centered. So here in Mountjoy for example, the curriculum ranges from literacy to Open University courses, from politics classes to cookery classes, from P.E. to music, and lots of other academic and not so academic courses in between. Of course, the real benefit of the wide curriculum is that it allows our students much wider opportunities for certification and accreditation.

Furthermore this emphasis on the holistic development of the prisoner means that the creative arts are crucial to our service. So subjects like music and art, drama and pottery are seen as central, as core subjects, to our curriculum. They are so important to us because they have proven to be easily navigated gateway subjects into more formal learning and accreditation. They ensure that this whole focus personal and holistic development is possible. So if a prisoner comes to us to learn guitar for example, they are now by default re-engaging with education. They are hanging out in a learning environment with other learners and almost by stealth they are now more likely to tip their toe into more academic learning. When I was listening at the choir during the break, I was reminded that one of the singers fits perfectly this kind of scenario. He first came to us to learn guitar, he then achieved a few QQI courses, he did his Leaving Certificate and he is now more than half way through a Social Science degree. In addition, while doing all of that, he also qualified as a gym instructor and at the moment he is teaching yoga to some other prisoners. He is living proof of how this holistic view of the prisoner is realised. Moreover, he now has all these positive identities to counterbalance the negative identity that brought him here in the first place and with which he must live for the rest of his life. Let’s face it, who wants to be judged all their lives by the worst thing they ever did and how helpful is that anyway?

Yet I am aware that when I talk about prisoners doing all these courses while in prison, some people will find that rather jarring. But I would like to reassure people that because we are in the business of second chance education we are not actually giving prisoners something ‘extra’, it is not a top up rather it is a catch up. That is why I would suggest that all those who think that prisoners do not deserve these educational opportunities, that because they have committed a crime we simply lock them up and throw away the key, that those people are being rather short sighted. Because the reality is that all prisoners in Ireland will get out some day. If we don’t allow prisoners this second chance at education then they will leave not having changed at all in any way. We would thus see that this second chance at education allows prisoner to develop the skills and competencies necessary to live more successfully on the outside.

You don’t need me to tell you that most prisoners in Mountjoy came to hate secondary school as teenagers; they couldn’t wait to leave. And unfortunately let’s face it; many of those schools couldn’t wait to get rid of them either. It is little wonder then that education holds negative connotations for so many prisoners; that so many of them have a negative mind-set towards education. But we believe it is our responsibility to dispel those negative connotations; to ensure that our learners come to develop a love for learning and that they come to see the intrinsic value to be had from education. But more importantly, that they will then pass on that value of education to their children because if they fail to do so we are looking at more and more intergenerational education disadvantage and all the problems that can be associated with that. Thus it is the ripple effect that is of significance to us, and as educators we are just as concerned with the long term effects as with the short term gains.

Before I finish up I am going to ask you to take away just one thing from this talk. We in prison education believe that education has the power to transform prisoners’ lives. As educators we believe that everyone has the potential to turn their lives around, and it is that potential, or capacity for change, that we tap into. We have seen how education in prison can create and cultivate the knowledge; the skills, the values and the motivation necessary for positive citizenship. We have seen how it can enable prisoners develop social responsibility and personal responsibility and in so doing how it leads to personal transformation. It is this personal growth or personal transformation that ensures that prisoners in turn transform their perception of self and their perception of others. It is those perceptions that determine behaviour. So the one thing I would like you to remember from this talk is that education in prison is a powerful catalyst for change. It can change people’s lives. It does so because it allows them burst open their lives choices and their life chances and in that way it leads to real and lasting change that will transform their lives.


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