Victor Hugo’s aphorism, ‘he who opens a school door, closes a prison’, might have been on UK Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s mind when he announced that education can help people to contribute to society and that educating prisoners can help reduce re-offending and increase the employability of prisoners. At present each prisoner in England and Wales (there are over 85,000) costs the state about £45,000 a year. Prisoners have significantly fewer qualifications than the population at large as about 53% of prisoners have no qualifications compared with 85% of the working-age population.
Gove is not the first to reach such conclusions about the benefits of education and there has been a legislative framework permitting education in British prisons since 1815. After the Second World War, Durham Local Education Authority ran classes for prisoners and, following legislation, others authorities followed. By 1948 there were 700 weekly classes and by 1961 there were 3,000. Gove nodded towards the past in that he quoted Churchill (who was imprisoned during the Boer War) on the need to transform the ‘soul’ of prisoners through rehabilitation.
Almost 50% of adult prisoners re-offend within one year of their release and 60% re-offend if they serve sentences of less than a year. The figure for re-offence within a year of release for under-18s is close to 66%. It is these figures that Gove wants to improve and he might be able to call upon the OU to help. A government report in 2014 examined 805 OU students in prison and found that they were significantly less likely to reoffend compared to other prisoners. While it is not always straightforward being a student in prison there are examples of former prisoners going on to hold political positions in Ireland.
Across the world it has been recognised that the idea that learning in prison, being a social as well as a cognitive process, can support the development of citizenship. In 1944 members of a paramilitary group, the Irgun Tz’vai L’Umi (‘The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel’) attacked British offices, military installations and police stations in British Mandate Palestine. Hundreds of those caught by the British, which administered Palestine between 1920 and 1948, were sent to detention camps in Kenya, Eritrea, and Sudan. While in Africa some studied at British universities by correspondence. Following Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 many of those who had been imprisoned became political and governmental leaders there.
While in prison Nelson Mandela obtained a Bachelor of Laws degree by studying through the University of London external degree programme. He passed the London Intermediate exams in 1963, but was prevented him from completing his degree until about a decade later. He became a central figure within the ‘Robben Island University’, that is the arrangement by prisoners on the island, many of whom went on to hold important political posts, to teach one another. After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela played a leading role in the introduction of universal suffrage and democratic elections to South Africa. In 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace and in 1994 he became the first black president of the country.
The Open University of Israel educated people imprisoned in Israel on charges of terrorism. In common with many Irish Republicans some of these prisoners refused to recognise the legitimacy of the state which has imprisoned them, were separated according to their organizational affiliation and elected officers from among the prisoners. Professor Mark Hamm suggested that those he termed ‘security prisoners’ had, by studying through the Open University of Israel, ‘turned Israeli prisons into de facto universities of Palestinian nationalism’. Professor Leslie Fishbein concluded that ‘you have prisoners who remain committed to the Palestinian cause and terrorism, and the prison system seems to foster that’. Nevertheless, there are examples of prisoners who studied for degrees while in prison and came to work for peaceful solutions. However, a study of 18 high-profile Palestinian leaders imprisoned for their activities on behalf of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, concluded that education provided a route to disengagement and rehabilitation. ‘None of the prisoners leave their organizations’, the researcher, Sagit Tehoshua noted in her study carried out in 2014. However, she added that ‘they just become much more pragmatic, believing that the way of terror and violence is less viable and effective’. A member of Hamas sentence to six life terms in an Israeli prison said: "Since I entered prison I think before I decide, I count to ten and only then act – it was not like that before I entered prison. In prison we learn a lot from the Jews and also from the Open University – it changed me."
Prisoners were restricted to studying in Hebrew so that the learning material could be monitored. The commissioner of the Israeli Prison Service 2000 -2003, Orit Adato, noted that one impact of this was that prisoners became fluent in Hebrew and familiar with Israeli society which helped facilitate peace negotiations. After his release Palestinian prisoner Abu Muhsin said that his education in prison had helped change his perspective: "Conflicts could be resolved not only by military force. We fought for decades, and now we should think of other ways to liberate our land."
Israeli teachers at the Israeli OU who work with Palestinian prisoners have come to regard education as a catalyst for change and development towards non-violent conflict resolution. The director of the Palestinian Prisoners Society's Ramallah branch, Abd Ala'al Al'anani, argued that studying for a degree often prepared a prisoner for post-prison life. Through their studies prisoners can become better equipped to deal with issues of power and politics. Whether this will mean they become the citizens that Mr Gove wants is another matter.
This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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