Almost 70 per cent of people in Irish prisons left school at 14 and had a negative experience of education, the Dáil Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was told on Tuesday. Director general of the Irish Prison Service Caron McCaffrey said there were more than “4,100 people accommodated in our prisons on a daily basis”.
The Department of Education provided “220 whole-time teacher equivalents to the Irish Prison Service through the Education and Training Boards”, she said. The education programmes provided took “account of the diversity of the prisoner population and the complex nature of prison life, including segregation requirements and high levels of prisoner turnover. The partnership endeavours to meet the needs of prisoners through helping them cope with their sentence, achieve personal development and prepare for life after release,” she said.
Included were core elements of a basic education “incorporating reading, writing, numeracy and IT literacy”, she said. It was “an unfortunate fact of life that many people who come into our care have had a negative experience of education in their past. That is why the provision of quality education and regular and consistent access to the prison school is so important,” she said. The prison school was “their gateway to a better life, for themselves, and for their families”.
In the three years from 2019 to 2021, inclusive, more than “€3.7 million has been spent by the Irish Prison Service on supporting the Prison Education Service”, she said.
Stephen O’Connor, on Behalf of Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), told the committee the 220 whole-time equivalent teachers were involved with 13 ETB prison education centres across the country, each overseen by an ETB head teacher. They provided a programme of education which aimed to help people in custody “cope with their sentence, achieve personal development, prepare for life after release and establish an appetite and capacity for lifelong learning”, he said.
Many of the prisoners had “suffered extreme levels of social, economic and educational disadvantage”, he said, drawing attention to findings of the Irish Penal Reform Trust that “the prevalence of people in prison with severe mental illness is four times that of the general population while an estimated one in two prisoners present with substance misuse/dependence issues”.
There was also evidence that many prisoners “experienced several adverse childhood experiences [ACEs]”, he said. This was a reason why it was “a priority for our education centres to create a warm, welcoming environment for our learners”, he said. There was an emphasis “on building the confidence of learners who often have had negative experiences of education characterised by feelings of failure, so that they can re-engage with the world of lifelong learning”, he said.
Digital literacy was seen “as being of vital importance if learners are to be equipped with the competencies necessary to adapt to the needs and demands of society on release while at the same time accessing knowledge for personal development”.
Among the prisoners “there are a number of discrete groups for whom disadvantage is particularly acute. The Travelling community is one obvious example of this. According to the 2016 census, 57.2 per cent of male Travellers had only primary school education, a figure four times higher than the general population. Only 13 per cent of Traveller girls completed second-level education. For the settled community, the figure is 69 per cent,” he said.