Education International
Education International

Reintegrating prisoners through education

published 1 September 2009 updated 1 September 2009

Sophie Dupont, a business education teacher, parks her modest car outside an imposing building. At the entrance gate, she shows her ID card. Smiling, she greets the guard, who then hands her a beeper. She has to wait until one gate is fully closed before the next one opens. Only then can she make her way to the class room. For the last three years Dupont has been a trainer at the high-security prison for men in Andenne, in the Belgian countryside. Her students are serving long prison terms, usually between 3 and 10 years.

“I don’t know what they are in for. Sometimes the press tells me who one of them is and why he has been sent to prison. For me they are, above all, a person with a name, not a number. Human relations are very important to me, and providing structure,” says Dupont. “As a teacher, I want to be accessible,” she continues. “I have broken away from the traditional image of school and I am ready to question myself. Over the years I have built up a reputation based on trust. There is mutual respect. It is essential to show them respect and to keep your word.” She literally took refuge in education in prison. In 1997, she was threatened by one of her students at the technical college where she was then teaching. She dreaded going back there. Instead she found a part-time job in a prison, and discovered it suited her very well. “I’m having fun! I’m thinking of asking for life imprisonment, with semi-detention (work-release) in reverse,” she jokes. But seriously: “I feel safer in prison, surrounded by guards, than outside in a technical college.” Through her highly-motivated, dynamic approach and positive spirit — qualities she believes to be essential for teaching in prison — she tries to be a “ray of sunshine” for prisoners who are feeling down. “I have a positive view of prison. I don’t think about the fact that there could be a hostage-taking, for example. I always try to think about the fact that I could be setting one or two of them back on the straight and narrow. I don’t think we should judge people, and sentence them twice over. Rather we should try to understand what they have been through.” That view is shared by her colleague, Salvatore Scavone, who has been teaching welding for two and a half years. “They have done wrong, but I am helping them overcome that,” says Scavone. “Everyone has the right to social integration, and everyone can make a mistake. Some have been put back on track. And I like to explain my work to young people. Here we are in a prison, with adults. I like contact, thinking about things together.” How do these teachers appear in the eyes of the prisoners, most of whom struggled in school and failed? Training gives them more possibilities when they are released, but welding students Bruno, Mohamed and Saïd say their principal motivation is to free their minds and leave their cells for a few hours. “The teacher is someone from outside,” Bruno points out. “It is a different relationship than with the prison guards. They are here to give us something. We are learning to work in a group. Everyone helps each other to do the exercises we are given.” What is the relationship between the teachers and the prison staff? Dupont explains that sometimes it is strained because guards feel that the prisoners tend to see them as “bad guys” and the teachers as “good.” Moreover, the prison staff sometimes think that the teachers systematically side with the inmates and also see them as “bad.” For their part, these teachers don’t always understand why there are so many checks and find it difficult to get used to all the security measures in the prison system, however essential. Stéphanie de Ketele, the prison’s training director, explains: “We work hard at reducing tension between prison staff and the teachers. We have set up a disciplinary team for this.” Dupont also recognises this: “I’m not seen in the same way as the guards. It is easier to get my message across. But we all have the same aim: to help them reintegrate into society.” Taking a training course has a positive impact on the life of the inmates. According to the preliminary results of an EI study on education in correctional settings, national legislation guarantees education for prisoners in most of the 40 countries from which trade unions responded. The objective of the survey was to know: who and where are the teachers working in correctional settings; whether they are members of EI affiliates; what their working conditions are like; and what EI can do for them. It was carried out following adoption of a resolution on Education in Correctional Settings at the 2007 World Congress. The resolution affirms that people in prison have the same right to education and respect for their human rights as do all others; it addresses accreditation of courses taken in prison and the personal development of both prisoners and teachers. “Everyone has the right to education, whether they are incarcerated or not,” says EI Deputy General Secretary Jan Eastman. “When prisoners have access to education, it’s beneficial to them personally and to society in general.” The resolution insists that students in correctional settings should be able to access accredited programmes. In Andenne, students can take the same state-approved course as students in ordinary colleges and, if successful, they receive a national certificate as a metalworker. In Belgium, as in other countries, the trade unions insist on their role in the certification of diplomas. Régis Dohogne, former General Secretary of CSC-Enseignement, explains that the adult education programmes offered inside and out of prison are the same. “The idea is to develop a range of courses in terms of literacy and basic education diplomas, which should be available in all prisons.” Teachers who work in prisons must, like the inmates, have their rights recognised and guaranteed. EI’s survey showed that 24 of the 43 trade unions said their principal concern is that many of their students have learning disabilities that cannot always be properly addressed. As well, teachers expressed concern for their personal health and safety. The resolution states that “teachers working in correctional facilities have the right to be represented by their union especially within their working environment, and to secure employment, with appropriate additional financial compensation for the particular circumstances of their working environment.” The EI study reveals that teachers who work in prison have different terms and conditions of employment because their work is “sub-contracted” and there is a different source of funding for that. All too often, teachers in prisons have a lower-status contract. Dohogne warns that unions “have to be careful that they [teachers in prisons] don’t face discrimination when it comes to permanent appointments, and joining the statutory system.” Dohogne has high praise for these colleagues: “There is a lot of generosity among teachers; many want to dedicate themselves to the public good.” Sophie Dupont and Salvatore Scavone are among the many teachers around the world who provide prison inmates with the skills and education that they will need to successfully reintegrate into society in the future. By Claude Carroué.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 31, September 2009.