Education in prison: It's like trying to teach people on a bus. They're getting on and off at every stop

 

AT ANY given time there are about 2,300 people in prison in the Republic's 14 prisons. Between 50 and 60 of these are women. Of the rest, some 25 per cent are estimated to be juveniles young men between the ages of 16 and 21.

These figures are interesting but they do not give the full picture. The number of people sent to prison each year is about 9,000 and up to 50 prisoners are released every day, particularly from among the juvenile population.

"It's like trying to teach people on a bus," says Kevin Warner, co-ordinator of education in Irish prisons. "They're getting on and of at every stop." It is widely accepted that the standard of education of most inmates adults and juveniles is somewhere between third and fifth class of primary school. "Some of them would have gone on to maybe second or third year of secondary (school," said one educator, "but their names would just have appeared on the register.

St Patrick's Institution adjoins Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. Generally it holds about 220 young men in 188 places. About 2,500 went through last year, according to Willie Kane, chief officer at St Patrick's. Their average age was 18. Some 1,000 of them were enrolled in the education unit at the institution, which has 50 places. Sentences are generally between six months and two years, so courses are normally six weeks long because of the high turnover among prisoners.

Tom Duffy, supervising teacher at St Patrick's, points out that, although only 20 students sat the Junior Cert there last year and one is studying history and English for the Leaving Cert, "every year hundreds take courses that would prepare them for the Junior Cert examinations and tens of them would be Leaving Cert standard".

Classes range from basic literacy and basic education in maths, history, geography, home economics, technical graphics and art through subjects such as crafts, music and computers. "Serious examination preparation" take place in a purpose built school apart from the main prison block containing 14 class rooms. Separate classes are provided in the separation unit for the inmates (usually 16) of its 13 cells.

Waiting lists for the main school, says Duffy, are not long for most subjects. Some of the lads are "moved on", some prefer to work in their cells, some are at PE (there's a very small gym in the main prison) and some would be in court. A spacious, lofty room has been put aside for a new library and lecture room.

Work and training, the other big elements of education in prisons, are not available in St Patrick's the workshops there have been closed for the past four or five years while badly needed renovations were going on in the prison at large.

"When they were being renovated, the electrical supply needed for them was not put in," explains Willie Kane. The rooms stand idle. It seems a strange, ongoing contradiction in a place where pressure on space pushes young men on and out, most of them back to the most disadvantaged areas of Dublin, where drugs are such a problem that it's not unusual for mothers to plead for their sons to be kept inside where, according to Kane, "there are drugs, but not enough to feed any habit."

"They are healthier as they are in a bit longer," Duffy agrees. "You can see the difference in class after a few weeks. They're brighter and they fill out. But, with a 70 per cent recidivism rate," says Kane, "they come back a month or two later in rag order."

Many of the young inmates go on to Mountjoy when they are old enough but, says Duffy, this, despite popular misconceptions, is not because of what they learn in St Patrick's. "It's because of what they go back to, out there.

Mountjoy "houses" some 650 adult male prisoners at any one time in a building designed for 480. Again, space is at a premium. The education unit here consists of eight, sometimes ten, classrooms, plus a recently completed, well stocked library of 500 books and computerised reference suite. There is no gym PE takes place wherever a `suitable' space can be found.

Classes in the medical care and separation units enjoy even fewer facilities as segregation imposes further burdens on the number of teaching staff and classrooms available.

Ciaran Leonard, supervising teacher at Mountjoy men's prison, has 150-180 students on his books attending one or more classes a week. Between 300 and 350 students would pass through the school in a year. Remand prisoners are not eligible for classes and some prisoners would be involved in work programmes. Nonetheless, Leonard admits, "if I got practive in there I would be flooded. I wouldn't be able to cater for them."

Subjects offered in these very limited facilities are surprisingly varied, ranging from business and classical studies through computers and drama to parenting and political philosophy. Last year seven students from Mountjoy successfully sat the Junior Cert, five the Leaving and six took Open University examinations.

While the new library was being completed in the main prison, most of the classrooms were displaced. One day recently, four classes French, art, history and English were going on in one section of the auditorium at one time, while another student studied an Open University programme on a TV behind a partially drawn curtain in the corner.

Granted they were small groups of students, from three to five in a class, but the scene vividly underlined both the lack of space for education here and the commitment of teachers and pupils against all odds. In a separate music class a student, Dermot, sang his own composition, The Welfare Chain, giving voice to the hopelessness that underpins many of the lives here when they go back outside.

Prisoners who take part in the very popular six week cookery programme may have to wait up to nine months to rejoin, despite immediate reapplication, but pupils for the basic literacy class, carried out on a one to one basis, are positively recruited and prioritised. This class recently acquired a CD ROM and a new literacy programme which enables the student to access reading and spelling lessons increasingly independently the computer can read aloud, as well as record and print.

Use of computers for self directed learning is further developed in the open learning centre, a classroom containing five computers with access to a range of programmes in different disciplines. One of the most exciting aspects of this centre is its link with computers in the Pathways Project, a post release centre in Dublin city, helping ex-prisoners to continue their education on the outside, to find a job, and to know that there is at least one place where they don't have to hide their past in order to have any hope for a future.