Three ministers work together to improve access to education for prisoners
More than half of prison inmates in France have, at best, a primary level of education and no vocational qualifications. In 2013, 48.4% had no qualifications and 22.6% had substandard reading skills. One of the key aims of the European Agenda for Adult Education and Training is to promote justice, social cohesion and active citizenship, with a particular emphasis on “people in specific situations of exclusion from learning, such as [...] prisons”. The European Prison Rules stipulate that prisons must all provide access to educational programmes, with priority being given to those who lack basic skills (as also required by the 2009 Prison Act) and to young offenders. The new prisoner’s guide provides inmates in France with information on various education and training opportunities available in the institution where they are being held. This is obligatory in the case of young offenders. The learner undergoes a skills-based assessment and can request to be enrolled on a basic or vocational course. In 78% of cases, prisoners on vocational courses are paid.
In 2012, a quarter of prisoners also received basic training (78.2% of those who sat a public examination gained a pass) thanks to the involvement of several hundred teachers assigned by the Ministry of Education which, for ten years, has been organising education for prisoners through regional education units. When courses are not delivered in an education centre, they are available through distance learning organisations such as the CNED (National Centre for Distance Learning) - but these training providers are now digitising more and more of their courses, which can pose access problems for prisoners who do not always have suitable computer equipment. In the case of basic skills, literacy strategies are being upgraded to include clearly defined stages for identifying, flagging up and supporting the people in question (about 11% of the prison population).
In 2012, around a third of prisoners were able to do some kind of vocational training course (either one which would lead to the award of a diploma or one which would enable them to embark on a diploma course) to address their lack of basic training or simply prepare them for release. These initiatives have, to a large extent, been made possible through the partnership which has been set up between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labour in accordance with the provisions of the 2009 Careers Guidance and Vocational Training Act, which grants those in prison the same access rights as the rest of the population.
The importance of partnerships with various stakeholders and multi-level governance
As a result of the transfer of responsibilities for vocational training to the French regions, they now play a leading role in managing and funding education provision for adult prisoners. The European Social Fund, in particular, has played a significant role in this funding. For example, in the Pays-de-la-Loire region, between 2008 and 2010, 24 prisoners received industry-related training which helped most of them find work on their release (see video for further details). The European Erasmus+ programme, which funds EPALE, also offers a large number of funding possibilities to enable adult education professionals to develop a prison-based project of this kind. The Greta du Velay Educational Laboratory is a partner of the Vocational Training in Prison project (see Facebook page) which enables instructors working with prisoners to share and improve best practice.
A large number of organisations also act as education and training facilitators for adult offenders. One such is the Ligue de l’Enseignement which has been involved in initiatives of this type for many years. The Centre and Ille-et-Vilaine federations have, for example, signed a partnership agreement with the interregional prison services departments in Centre-Est Dijon and Brittany respectively to encourage access to culture and education in prisons. There are also other organisations which are privileged partners. GENEPI, for example, takes on student volunteers and CLIP is calling on the skills of retired ICT professionals to improve inmates’ computer skills.
At an international level, we can cite a number of interesting initiatives designed to foster better collaboration between prison education staff. The UNESCO Chair in Applied Research for Education in Prison provides valuable academic resources on the subject. The European Prison Education Association (EPEA) is also an extensive network, which is represented in France by the Melun Detention Centre.
Alexia Samuel, domain expert in learner support and social inclusion in France. In particular, she has worked for the European Commission and as the policy officer for a European lifelong learning association.