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6 ways to improve prisoners’ access to education in Europe

Dr. Paul Downes, Institute of Education. Dublin City University, Ireland, looks at how we can overcome the obstacles standing in the way of improving education for Europe’s prisoners.

Prison education 6 ways


Dr. Paul Downes, Institute of Education, Dublin City University, Ireland, looks at how we can overcome the obstacles standing in the way of improving education for Europe’s prisoners.


There is a clear policy and legal basis for the promotion of education for prisoners in Europe. This stems from the European Prison Rules – a new version of which was adopted by the Committee of Ministers in 2006 – and also the significant step taken by the European Council to recognise prisoners as a key target group for lifelong learning.

The European Prison Rules, which provide a set of common standards, states that:

  • 28.1 Every prison shall seek to provide all prisoners with access to educational programmes which are as comprehensive as possible and which meet their individual needs while taking into account their aspirations.

Under the heading of ‘Promoting equity, social cohesion and active citizenship through adult learning’, the EU Council Resolution on a renewed European agenda for adult learning (2011) invites Member States to focus on:

  • ‘Addressing the learning needs of (…) people in specific situations of exclusion from learning, such as those in (…) prisons, and providing them with adequate guidance support’ (author’s italics).

This is the first EU Council Resolution in the area of lifelong learning to explicitly embrace prisoners within its scope of relevant target groups, via a social cohesion and active citizenship lens.

Yet, despite this policy and legal backdrop, access to prison education may be thwarted by a range of obstacles – obstacles that could be overcome with sufficient institutional and national policy commitment.  Here are six ways in which prison education could be improved:

Prison education Graph


1. Using general prison buildings for education

A pervasive issue in many countries is prison overcrowding as a barrier to education; overcrowding severely limits availability of space and motivation for education. One approach is to use the prison ‘wings’ – the buildings where prisoners are accommodated – as sites for education and not simply to have a separate education section. This may help in relation not only to working within limitations of space in prison but also may have a range of positive knock-on consequences regarding the spreading of education in the prison institutional culture. It is important to emphasise that such delivery is not replacing a separate educational site in prison but is complementary to it. The role of peer interaction in stimulating motivation to access and participate in lifelong learning needs to be more developed in a structured way in prisons in many European countries.


2. Integrating education opportunities across prisons

Another key issue affecting learning opportunities is not simply early release of prisoners but also prison transfer. This obstacle to education can clearly be overcome through an integrated education opportunities approach across prisons, and between prisons and the local educational institutions. Shorter, more focused intensive courses may operate better in serving the needs of those in the prison population who may become due for release.


3. Developing collaboration between tutors

The practical problem of finding teaching staff is an issue in some countries. This issue is related largely to salary rates for teaching in prison. There is little evidence of professional development and support for teachers working in prisons in many EU Member States. A key movement is needed to get away from an individualist focus approach of the isolated teacher or tutor in prison to a collaborative approach; this is particularly important in a prison education context which may bring its own specific requirements. Development of good practice in the prison education sector requires such collaboration across tutors.


4. Making sure that education has the same status as work for prisoners

Difficulties highlighted for prison education include attitudinal barriers of staff and the media, and prison doors being locked so that prisoners cannot access education classes at particular times. In some countries there is a questionable policy which involves a loss of income for prisoners who choose to use their time for education rather than work in prison. This appears to be in violation of the European Prison Rules (28.4): ‘Education shall have no less a status than work within the prison regime and prisoners shall not be disadvantaged financially or otherwise by taking part in education’.


5. Opening up web-based opportunities

It appears that security reasons are a pervasive barrier to distance education and web-based learning in prisons in at least a number of European countries. While reasons for limiting prisoners’ communication with the outside world is obvious, it must be technologically possible to devise programmes to allow for limited external communication and access to key aspects of the web for prisoners’ distance education. This technological development needs to be a matter of priority across prisons in the EU – what is being presented as a technological problem is in fact more a lack of political will to access the appropriate technology for this limited external communication.


6. Giving prison education a strategic focus

It is evident in a number of EU Member States that prison education lacks a strategic focus for intervention at national level – this placing of prison education on the margins of national strategic policy making for education and lifelong learning in some EU countries is a neglect that must change.


This blog post has been based on a 12-country European study for Dr Paul Downes’ book Access to education in Europe: A framework and agenda for system change. What other obstacles do you think require attention?  How else can we improve the educational opportunities for prisoners in your country? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Dr. Paul Downes is Director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre, Associate Professor of Education (Psychology), Institute of Education, Dublin City University, Ireland

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