The education opportunities of female inmates are being developed through European cooperation
A multilateral project within the EU’s Grundtvig programme has brought up new perspectives on hearing the opinions of the female inmates and on developing better studying opportunities for this small group that generally remains at a low educational level, and the pilots have added weight to practical measures. There are ten operators from eight countries involved, with Hämeenlinna Prison representing Finland. The coordinator of this very ambitious project is the upskilling centre of the University of Mainz from Germany. As the problems related to prison education are largely the same everywhere, new ideas and good practices can be transferred both within and between countries.
A summary of the latest news from the participants of the Finding Education for Female Inmates (FEFI) project was heard in an international video conference in last September 2015. It was led from Germany by Alan Smith, the ex-coordinator of the European Commission’s Grundtvig programme. He noted that the EU’s Grundtvig programme has offered a good forum for developing prison education through European cooperation. However, the future is unclear because after the start of the Erasmus+ programme in 2014, no prison education projects have been approved.
The Finnish participants took part in the video conference from a conference of their own in Tampere. The representatives of France and Cyprus were present as guests of the Finnish conference. The conference ended with a lively future-oriented panel discussion. In addition to female inmates’ rehabilitation and education opportunities, it thoroughly discussed the attitudes and choices of the staff, media, political decision-makers and the public.
Effectiveness through good planning
The FEFI project planning started in 2013. The majority of the participants have been involved since the very beginning. Meticulous planning has made efficient working possible. The most important aspect has been the fact that each fully packed seminar has included the opportunity to visit a local prison and meet female inmates.
“It is fantastic to carry out practical work together and realise that different countries wrestle with the same issues. People are alike, and so are female inmates. After joint seminars, everyone returns home and gets immediately back to work. The project book contains all the elements. All I have needed to do is to think what it means in my work in practice,” says Finland’s FEFI contact person Ulla Sundholm, counsellor at Hämeenlinna Prison.
On the other hand, Ulla Sundholm thinks that especially the prison visits have clearly highlighted the differences of opinion related to different cultures and womanhood that affect practical work. A prison reflects the attitudes and practices of the surrounding society and culture in miniature.
Counsellor Ulla Sundholm (on the left) from Hämeenlinna Prison, guard Maria Neophytoy from the Prison of Cyprus, artist and student Sini Svahn and English teacher Leslie Beaufort from the prison of Bordeaux returned to their work full of new ideas after a rewarding conference day.
Letting female inmates voice their opinions
At the beginning of the project, each participating country conducted a survey on the needs and wishes of female inmates and staff.
“The results gave me a pause. Before study motivation can be kindled, it is crucial that the female inmate, broken and scarred in various ways, can be successfully made whole and rehabilitated. In this, the starting point must be everyone’s individual needs. Female inmates often do not know their strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, they need help and support in finding themselves,” was the idea expressed in many of the conference presentations.
Education must also be considered at the level of the education system.
Female inmates account for 3–7 per cent of all inmates. In Finland, there are approximately 230 female inmates. The small number means that it is not easy to gather a sufficiently large group of inmates interested in the same studies. This is further complicated by the varying length of the sentences. When a female inmate begins studying in the prison, another challenge is the completion of the studies after the release from the prison. In this field, too, more support and encouragement is needed.
Pilot experiences put into practice
The intention is to seek continuation to the FEFI project in the current Erasmus+ programme. In that programme, the idea is to put first-phase pilots into practice and to try to affect political decision-makers.
In Finland, the cause of female inmates is promoted in the planning of a special prison for female inmates in Hämeenlinna, for instance. Its vision for facilities includes aspects such as being close to nature, gardening, physical exercise and retreat—all factors that aim to provide inmates with building blocks needed in getting started with personal growth and development.
The FEFI pilot projects carried out at Hämeenlinna Prison
*The testing of the mentor programme in the Monikko activity centre that has been opened in the prison and is intended to serve as a meeting place for former and current inmates.
*A retreat in which six selected female inmates were given the chance to stop everything for eight days and thoroughly contemplate any issues that occupy their minds, together with a multiprofessional team. At the retreat, communicating was only allowed with the counsellors, which allowed everyone to concentrate fully on what is on their mind.
Text and photograph: Eija Laine and Marjo Rautvuori