Just over half of prisoners dropped out of school before the Junior Certificate, according to an unpublished survey by the Irish Prison Service. The study, based on more than 800 inmates at Midlands and Limerick Prisons and Wheatfield Place of Detention, in west Dublin, between 2015 and 2017, provides a stark insight into the link between poor education and the prison population.
Overall, four out of five prisoners (80 per cent) left school before their Leaving Cert, more than half (52 per cent) left before their Junior Cert, and just over a quarter (26 per cent) never attended secondary school. These rates are multiples of those in the wider population, where, for example, 90 per of students now complete their Leaving Certificate.
Early intervention and prevention programmes are key to retaining potential early school leavers
Deirdre Malone, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said the numbers showed that access to education was a crucial part of the response to crime. "Early intervention and prevention programmes are key to retaining potential early school leavers."
The study's findings are set to be debated on Tuesday by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, which is meeting to discuss education inequality and disadvantage.
Although education can be “transformative”, Ms Malone said, funding for prison-based education has been cut in recent years; staffing shortages have also led to a reduction in school hours, while the latest figures indicate that only 46 per cent of inmates took part in education activities in prison.
Many prisoners’ past experiences of the education system have been negative, Ms Malone said, underlining the need for the education system to be more flexible and to reflect young people’s diverse needs.
But the Government points out that the prison service provides education services at all its facilities in partnership with a range of organisations, including education and training boards. The Department of Education provides about 220 whole-time teachers for literacy, numeracy and general education programmes. It says these take account of the diversity of the prison population, with Junior and Leaving Certificate courses available.
The proportion of prisoners involved in education has increased slightly in recent years.
A 2007 report found that the most-deprived areas in the country had 145 prisoners per 10,000 people; the least-deprived areas had six prisoners per 10,000 people
The Independent Senator Lynn Ruane, who has campaigned to boost access to education, said there was an urgent need to increase opportunities for basic and further education while in prison and on release for these vulnerable young people. "Access programmes that lead into university or community education on release of an individual would go a long way in boosting the rehabilitation of ex-offenders, who we are failing," she said.
“Young people’s educational attainment is already limited on leaving prison, but returning to an environment where educational support is virtually nonexistent makes it increasingly challenging for young people to achieve employment and economic goals.”
The link between educational disadvantage and being in prison has been shown by a range of studies over recent decades. A 1997 study found that just over half of the inmates at Mountjoy Prison came from six postal districts in Dublin characterised by high economic deprivation. Almost 80 per cent had left school before the age of 16.
A 2007 report found that the most-deprived areas in the country had 145 prisoners per 10,000 people; the least-deprived areas had six prisoners per 10,000 people.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust has called for urgent attention to be focused on at-risk children, such as those in care and those with parents in prison. It says additional supports are needed to ensure better educational outcomes for these young people, who are over-represented in the criminal justice system.
It has also highlighted barriers facing young men with offending behaviour who have reported wanting to stay out of trouble, including unemployment, boredom and alcohol use. Other perceived barriers included whether Garda vetting would prevent access to education courses, and a lack of training opportunities.