Prison Education 4000 word dissertation

Research Project: Education and Training within a Prison

1. Research Topic

The topic of this research is education and training within the context of a prison. As I am currently working within a prison, I have a personal interest in the subject and access to a rich source of primary data through interviews with and observation of inmates. It is an important topic to research as there has been relatively little research done within the field already (Wilson, 2000) although it is an important aspect of lifelong learning, which has become an important aspect of educational policy (Ball, 2008). It has been proposed that employment is a key factor in reducing re-offending. Over 70% of prisoners are unemployed and a similar number describe themselves as having no particular trade, profession or occupation. Employment on release can reduce the risk of re-offending by between a third and a half (Duguid, 2000). Vital for such employment opportunities however is education and training within the prison. Therefore, the Prison Service places a strong emphasis on vocational training activities and courses (DfES, 2005). Poor literacy levels and poor mental health are common issues and have an impact on training and education, which is currently delivered in the prison (NIACE, 2009). I therefore set out to explore key issues to arise from this context in more detail throughout my research.

2. Title of Project

Education and Training within a Prison

3. Statement of Purpose

The Research specifically seeks to determine:
– The quality, quantity and the way that training and education is delivered within the prison system in Ireland.
– The benefits of education and training for prisoners within the prison.
– What encourages the prisoner to attend education and training.
– What training they would like to be given within prison.
– The impact of other factors, such as gender and background, on attitudes to education.

The project will use quantitative techniques, through questionnaires to establish prisoner data, qualitative techniques, through more open interviews and observation, and theoretical analysis in order to draw conclusions from the sample.

4. Research Statement or Question

I propose to address the key research questions of:
– What are the key benefits of education and training within the prison to the prisoner?
– What encourages the prisoner to attend education and training?
– What training would prisoners like to be given within prison?
– How do prisoners learn?
Focusing on these questions will allow me to address key issues to emerge from research into prison education. This includes a consideration of the relation to Governmental policies to their implementation and interpretation, as well as their politics and inherent assumptions. Are they working and how should they be changed for example, or what are the gaps between prisoner perception and institutional aims for education programmes? Prison education generally can be assessed as part of a framework of lifelong learning, raising the question of what relation it bears to other forms of education. Addressing specific experiences of prison education will allow for a consideration and assessment of relations between training/education as an end in itself – as ‘transformative’, a mode of thinking, an escape or simply a way to pass the time, for example; and as a means to a particular end – of employment. The study asks both whether education necessarily helps avoid recidivism, how it does this, and whether employment should be used as the main or sole criterion of judgement. This also raises methodological questions of measurement and criteria for analysis. What role the analysis of perceptions and attitudes play in the study as well as simply employment data must be addressed. It must also be aware of more general notions of crime and deviancy which education policy and analysis is based on. Other studies will be used to compare findings, methodologies and analysis. The objectives of the study are to draw together these key concerns as a research context and focus on actual prisoner responses in order to address the key research questions of benefits, motivation, types of learning and types of classes.

5. Research Concepts and Variables

Basing the research on the above concepts, then, two types of variables can be identified. One set require ‘closed’ answers, which can be used for quantitative analysis. These will be gender, age, educational background, geographical background, family background, previous work, literacy level and reading habits. A second set of variables can be established from more ‘open’ questions leading to more qualitative forms of interpretation and analysis. These will be descriptions of which classes prisoners attend, how often and what type, their intentions after prison, reasons proposed for attending or not, what types of courses they would like, and their views on education and re-offending.

In the prison in question, there are already in place educational classes in Irish, English, Maths, History, Pottery, Computers, Cookery, Yoga and Carpentry. Preliminary research suggests that attendance is good for Cookery, Carpentry and Pottery classes yet low for the others. This enables a provisional hypothesis that more ‘hands-on’ practical classes are more popular. One potential reason for this is that prisoners are able to make objects for family, so the classes create a connection between life ‘inside’ and external relationships. Whether this is true, why it is and what impact it may have in relation to the research questions will be examined in depth. Provisional research has also revealed the extent of literacy problems, suggesting that around 30% of the prisoners have literacy problems. There is currently no literacy diagnosis in place when new inmates enter the prison system. This highlights the importance of researching literacy as well as taking it into consideration in responses and in the project methodology. Another issue to emerge from provisional research is the perceived importance of parenting classes, which are seen as a useful training for life after prison. Such responses suggest the possibility not only of adjusting current educational opportunities but also adding new ones, so space is left on the questionnaires for such suggestions.

6. Sources of Literature

Ball, S. (2008) The Education Debate: Policy and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. London: Policy Press.
This book has a more general focus on educational policy and the impact this has on all forms of education. It argues that we must understand education policy not simply as a Government statement that is taken up and followed within organizations, but instead as part of a complex process (p.7), where debates, different interpretations, contestations, reworkings, compromises and challenges take place before after and during the production of policy texts. The prison context is a good example of this, as prisoners, prison staff and prison officers must negotiate policies that are set out as being in their own interest by state departments. This can lead to potential tensions and problems, and it is a strength of this project that it can provide analysis not only of policy texts but also responses to it within the prison context. Ball discusses how lifelong learning, as a general category within which prison education can be situated, has shifted in importance throughout histories of education policy, becoming particular important within the discourse of New Labour educational policy since 1996. Lifelong learning, he argues, is part of a general shift in concepts of space and time within education and how it is formulated (p.3). Ball’s analysis is very useful in providing a context for educational policy and how it has changed as well as a methodology for reading and interpreting policy texts. While he does not deal with issues of prison education directly, the book provides useful material for the institutional aspect of my research – understanding the ways in which education and training programmes are selected in relation to Government politics, discourses and assumptions. I can use this but also develop it further through my immersive primary data collection.

DfES (2005) Prison Education: Report, together with formal minutes. House of Commons Education and Skills Committee. London, UK.
This report is very useful in terms of understanding not only the background of prison education but also the Governmental aims and objectives that support current programmes. It emphasises how prison education has, at time of writing, been transferred to responsibility of the Department for Education and Skills, making it part of mainstream education policy (p.10). It proposes that this move has been successful but that there is still much work to be done in the development of and implementation of prison education. It is a useful document for its statements of intent. The objective of prison education, for example, should be, “part of a wider approach to reduce recidivism through the rehabilitation of prisoners” (p.10). Its main aim, therefore, becomes the reduction of further re-offending and the discourse of ‘re-habilitation’ becomes an important legitimating motive. It goes on, however, to argue that “prison education is about more than this” (p.10) and that it must be considered in a broader context of prisoner need. The report will prove a very useful example of Government policy which may correlate or may differ widely from prisoners’ own attitudes and experiences of the education system. It forms part of a debate between defining education in terms of an instrumental goal – the reduction of re-offending, and exploring the possibilities of other effects of classes. This report focuses very much on the instrumental argument and I hope that my research can either support this or challenge its assumptions by drawing on actual prisoner experience.

Duguid, S. (2000) ‘Theory and Correctional Enterprise’, in Wilson, D. and Reuss. A. (eds.) Prison(er) Education: Stories of Change and Transformation. Winchester: Waterside Press, pp.48-62
Duguid here examines relations between various theories of crime and deviancy and the practice of prisoner education. When choosing what to teach, what can be taught and how it should be taught, in other words, a whole set of theoretical assumptions are made. This includes, for example, the essential assumption that people are fundamentally good but commit crime because of ignorance or social conditions, or, on the other hand, that people are fundamentally evil so will commit crime if not restrained (p.52). The aim of Duguid’s essay, drawing on a range of philosophy, sociology and more recent theory, is to show how these fundamental assumptions have played a great role in the practicalities of prison education. If we assume that prisoners are good people but have been socially deprived for example, then could education be used as a way to provide them with opportunities that society has not given them? Or is it the case that social conditions have led to the inability of prisoners to relate to education in the way desired by policy makers? If prisoners are fundamentally ‘evil’ then how could education change this? Duguid’s work, in other words, raises questions about the relation between educational policy and its theoretical underpinning. After this, he goes on to argue, drawing on data from research that education has been fundamentally useful for prisoners in terms of re-adjusting to society and securing employment after imprisonment (p.59). Duguid’s essay is useful in providing a philosophical framework for some of the more general aims of prison education, allowing a direct link to be made between prison education programme objectives and the views of human nature they assume. This will be useful to my study although I hope to focus more on primary research gathered from the use of interviews and questionnaires. It argues that lifelong learning is of vital importance to the field of education and to society in general. It also argues that this is not due purely to economic reason but part of a broader cultural and social shift as attitudes to learning change (p.4).

Field, J. (2006) Lifelong Learning and the New Educational Order. Stoke: Trentham Books.
This book provides a more general framework for considering education in the context of ‘lifelong’ development, including, for example continuing adult learning as well as more specialist scenarios such as prison education. Against arguments that lifelong learning has developed mainly due to economic reasons, it proposes to look into broader social and cultural reasons and attitudes for taking up further education in a non-traditional educational context. It assumes that learning can be a transformative experience, suggesting an “emancipatory” role for the learning of new, skills and abilities (p.4). Its analysis of some of the effects of lifelong learning is useful as a framework for considering their relevance in a prison context. It discusses, for example, the importance of rethinking learning in a lifelong context, of how learning can lead to active citizenship, and how it can be part of an active search for meaning on behalf of the learner (p.148). While it does not discuss prison education specifically, such research and insights provide a useful context with which to explore prisoner motivation and the effects of prison education and training. It also provides useful references to shifts in government policy towards lifelong learning, which is another factor to be taken into consideration in the study.

James, E. (2009) ‘In prison, education is your best route to a better life’, The Guardian, 17th September, 2009,, [accessed 5th April, 2011].
In this article, an ex-prisoner provides a first-hand account of his experiences of education programmes within prisons. He is initially unconvinced and not very enthusiastic about taking part but becomes a ‘convert’ to its benefits, arguing that it is empowering to be treated as a learner first and a criminal second. The article is useful in a number of ways. It shows the gap between the language of researchers, the language used by prisoners and the attitudes of each to the other. James describes his “failings” for example, while his educational psychologist refers to his “needs”. He describes himself as “too thick for education” but she replies that “no-one is too thick to learn”. It gives a good insight into his motivation, which emerges through his encouragement from the psychologist and also the way that an individual absorbs and comes to terms with the terminology of prison education – human capital, identity capital and social capital. Rather than feeling alienated from such language, James feels enabled and the article is very positive, through his story, about the role of education. It does only provide one perspective and there are methodological issues over what one would be ‘expected’ to say in such an interview context, but this could provide a comparison with my own research as well as background reading.

NALA (2007) National Adult Literacy Agency Annual Report 2007. Dublin. NALA.
This document provides a useful insight into basic questions of literacy which must be taken into account in a prison education context. It is useful for providing a definition of literacy to include not only reading but also writing, speaking, numeracy, communication, personal, social and economic factors (p.8). Its impact on policy can be addressed as well as its effect on specific methodologies and ways of measuring data. The main aim of NALA is to allow those with literacy problems to take a more full part in society, improve literacy and numeracy skills and become more self-directed in their learning. It also highlights key ways that it intends to do this, including the development of new strategies and the increasing of resources (p.15). The relevance of its concerns to prison education can be explored more fully in this project.

NIACE (2009) Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning. London: National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.
This report provides a recent framework for understanding developments in lifelong learning objectives. This includes a focus on the access of citizens to developing capabilities in digital, health, financial and civic areas. It provides an overview of the current situation along with criticisms of it and specific recommendations for change. These include ideas such as reviving local responsibility within national frameworks, and building a set of learning entitlements (pp.7-9). Alongside Ball’s insights into education policy and its interpretation, close reading of the report will allow for an analysis of key assumptions, goals and ideologies within the lifelong learning framework. It is useful not only for general context but also for the specific objectives it sets out for prison education “a guarantee of a place on a course outside would give offenders a goal, an identity and a social context where they stand a far better chance of establishing a new life and retuning to prison” (cited in James, 2009). Such statements provide concrete institutional aims, which can be examined and tested. It is interesting here, for example, how a split between educational aims directed toward employment differ from those to be gained from the act of education itself (Sennett, 2008).

Reuss, A. (2000) ‘The Researcher’s Tale’, in Wilson, D. and Reuss. A. (eds.) Prison(er) Education: Stories of Change and Transformation. Winchester: Waterside Press, pp.24-47
In this essay, Reuss provides a researcher’s perspective on conducting interviews on prison education within a prison setting. She gives an example of a study she conducted, which took place with maximum security prisoners over five years, testing the hypothesis of whether higher education could change their behaviour (p.25). She provides interesting methodological approaches such as a focus on “classroom talk” (p.26) allowing a focus on prisoners’ own responses to educational programmes beyond those given to researchers in the context of interviews. The result of her approach is a kind of social ethnography where education forms part of a framework of general prison experience. The problem that emerged in her research was the question of how exactly behaviour changed due to education programmes. She describes her position as a “research insider” (p.27), as she was fully embedded within the prison context rather than just entering to do interviews and then leaving immediately. She also points to methodological concerns of specific relevance to the prison context, such as, for example the prioritising of issues of ‘security’ over those of discovering new information. Her account is useful in terms of the detailed analysis she makes of the everyday lived experiences of the prisoners. Education within this context, she makes clear, must inevitably account for the specific contexts of prison life. Some of the methodological issues she raises will be useful to take into account for my study. I take on an ‘insider’ role to a certain extent due to my situation within the prison. On the other hand, however, I cannot hope to take on such a long-term embedded project so there will inevitably be differences of approach.

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman. London: Penguin.
This is a more specialist book focusing on the pleasures people get from doing craft work and working with their hands. Because of this, it is particularly useful for providing theoretical frameworks for why arts and crafts classes may be popular with prisoners. Sennett’s argument extends back historically, discussing contexts such as medieval guilds or the Arts and Crafts Movement, but the most relevant section for this study is his theorizing of the importance of the act of craft itself. “Thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making” (p.7) he argues, and it is this idea that through crafting people can achieve a different type of thought, a mode of self-realisation, and an increased sensitivity, which may be useful in analysing not only enthusiastic prisoner responses to manual work, but also policies providing options for prisoners to take up manual and craft work. Sennett argues not only that craft is a different type of thinking, challenging the lack of motivation for prisoners who see themselves as ‘thick’, but also that it can be hugely rewarding. The book is also useful in examining activities such as arts and crafts as useful activities in their own right, as well as just training for future employment. The sense of absorption in work, for example, may provide an important sense of escape and self-worth for the prisoner, in excess of its functional use in future employment. It is particularly useful for this study as preliminary research has shown that it is the more ‘craft’ based education classes that have the highest attendance. Sennett’s work may help in understanding why this could be.

Wilson, D. (2000) ‘Introduction’, to Wilson, D. and Reuss. A. (eds.) Prison(er) Education: Stories of Change and Transformation. Winchester: Waterside Press, pp.9-24.
One of the key questions raised by Wilson’s essay is the issue of “who prison education is for?” (p.10). There is a tension, he argues, between, on one hand, the assumed objectives of education from the perspective of prison and educational institutions, and, on the other hand, the diverse motivations that prisoners themselves may have in taking on education and training. Such tensions can lead to difficulties such as a focus on teaching literacy and numeracy skills as these are seen as important from an institutional perspective, but a lack of motivation on behalf of prisoners for this type of training (p.11). One of the conclusions that Wilson comes to is the need to listen to the voices of prisoners themselves, discussing and understanding their motivations in taking education and training classes within prison. There can be no universal imposition of educational standards, in other words, but research can reveal some of the different contexts, motivations and needs of prisoners themselves. He then bases his analysis on a series of case studies of prisoners who have been interested in education for different reasons, ranging from those who just want a way to pass time to those who are already educated to degree level and need some intellectual stimulation. The analysis also suggests unexpected effects such as the huge success of an arts and crafts studio, which neither prisoners nor prison staff suspected would have much impact at all. This introductory essay is useful in terms of thinking about methodological questions in my research as well as providing examples of types of education and attitudes from previous studies. It provides a very goof overview of the field of prison education research generally which will help me situate my research and consider what are the most important issues at stake.

7. Methodology

As outlined above, a questionnaire will be used with a series of questions designed to address the research questions in the most effective way. This involves a mix of closed and more open questions in order to allow for a range of responses and type of data. A training needs analysis will be undertaken in order to find what is not working within the prison education system and why attendance is low in certain classes. The sampling is for a prison located in the mid-West region of Ireland. It currently has 300 inmates aged between 17 and 56 years. As many of the prisoners have difficulties with literacy, there exists the possibility of having the questions read out to inmates, rather than them having to read themselves. The staff consists of 50 prison officers, 8 supervisors, a chaplain and a governor, while the prison sees a rapid ‘revolving door’ turnover in prisoners. More detailed interviews will also be conducted with the Head Teacher in the Education Unit and the Governor of the prison. This will then lead to analysis of the data in order to address the key objectives of the project.

8. Potential Merits of Research

The research will be potentially useful in a number of ways. Firstly, it will benefit my own practice working within a prison. It will provide detailed insights into prisoner attitudes towards education, helping to understand relations between these attitudes and relevant educational policies. Secondly, it will provide useful contribution to the discourse of prison education, allowing an engagement with issues such as the relation between education and re-offending and prisoner motivation, which can be compared to other studies seeking out similarities and differences. Thirdly, it should also prove useful for the participants. It is hoped that the research can be put into practical use helping not only the deliverers of education and training programmes but also providing a critical space and framework for prisoners to articulate their own ideas and concerns. A clear practical link runs throughout the research and this connection with implementation gives it merit as a project.

Appendix: Questionnaire

1. Are you Male /Female ?

2. What is your age? (circle one number)
1. 18 -24 years
2. 25 – 34 years
3. 35 – 44 years
4. 45 – 54 years
5. 55 – 64 years
6. 65 or over

3. What is the highest level of education that you have completed?(circle one number)
1. Primary Level
2. Junior certificate
3. Leaving Certificate
4. Third Level

4. Where do you live? (circle one number)
1. Rural area
2. Town / Urban Area
3. City Area

5. Do you have children? Yes / No

6. In the past year did you work before you were sent to prison? Yes / No
If yes please State the type of work __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

7.What level of literacy do you have ?(circle one number)
1. Excellent
2. good
3. Fair
4. Poor

8. Do you attend education / training classes and why?

9. Do you see education / training as a valuable experience and why?

10. When you are released from prison will you continue to attend education classes?
Yes / No.
Please give reason _____________________________________________________

11. What do you think is the major issue affecting the attendance to the Education Unit within the prison? _______________________________________________________

12.What training /Education courses would you like to see taught within the prison?_____________________________________________________________

13.Do you get homework in the Prison? Yes / No

14.How often do you attend Education class in the Prison?
.________ Hours /________ days per week

15 .Do you read often? Yes / No

16. .Do you prefer to do manual work/training or more reading/writing-based work and why?

17. Would you agree that increased education / training could help to stop re-offending? And why/ why not?