AMONG THOSE sitting this month’s State examinations are almost 280 prisoners, many of them returning to education years after leaving school.
Some 117 prisoners are sitting the Leaving Cert this year while 161 are taking Junior Cert exams.
The highest number of Leaving Cert students are in the Midlands Prison, where there are 32 candidates. The highest number of candidates (44) sitting the Junior Cert are in St Patrick’s Institution. There are more than 200 teachers in the prison system this year, all from the Vocational Education Committees.
Although other courses are on offer from the prison education system, including Fetac, creative and health education courses, there is “something very special about the State exams”, says Brenda Fitzpatrick, head teacher at Wheatfield Prison.
“They are sitting down on a par with other students. Most left school before they were 15, and had negative experiences of school. For them to re-engage with education is a huge step.
“Also, many of them are fathers. One of the things we try to do here is instill in them a respect for and love of education, for themselves and for their children. It strikes a real emotional chord with many of them to sit the State exams.”
Among them is Eric (38), who is sitting Junior Cert English at ordinary level. “I did foundation level last year and I got an A-plus. With me, I’m dyslexic, so I’ll have a scribe to get the stuff down on paper. At school I thought I couldn’t read or write. I hated it. I was always the dunce of the class, I wasn’t getting anything out of it, so I got a job on a milk round and left when I was 13.”
He went on to work as a painter and decorator and was constantly hiding his literacy problems, getting his partner to rewrite the snag lists he had written, illegible to anyone but him: “I’d be embarrassed.” Involved in drugs from a young age, he was sentenced to eight years some time ago for possession of cocaine. When he came to the education unit, he was assessed and found to be dyslexic.
Studying for the foundation level Junior Cert last year was hard he says, because of his dyslexia, “but I’d take the work back to my cell and I’d get it done”.
When he got the A-plus last year, he “felt amazing” and he got 87 per cent in his mock exam earlier this year. “I’ve come on so much. I know I’m not stupid.”
Another Wheatfield student, Clayton (27), in his eighth year of a life sentence, is sitting Junior Cert Spanish. “I’m enjoying it. I want to do this. I want to be a good person and to get out to be with my son,” he says. “I’d hope to do some kind of community work, give something back.”
The prisoners’ names have been changed