My name is Ana Ferrando and I was born in Barcelona, Spain. 14 years ago, I came to Belgium with an exchange program of the Spanish Ministry of Education. I turned 40 this year and I have 20 years of experience teaching students of all ages, from toddlers to pensioners. In Barcelona I taught in primary and secondary education. In Belgium I have been working in adult education since 2006.
For the last 10 years I’ve been teaching Spanish and English in two prisons in the region of the Kempen. Together with my school management of the center for adult education CVO Edukempen I was able to participate in Grundtvig and Erasmus + projects (KA104 and KA204). As a result, I have been able to share my experiences with colleagues in other European countries with regard to the education of prisoners and how they deal with their students in the specific context of a prison.
Teaching has always been a vocation for me, I enjoy every moment, regardless of the circumstances. Furthermore, I am sure that education can have a positive impact on the reintegration of (ex)prisoners. That is why I ensure that my lessons are always of the same quality regardless of whether they are given inside or outside the prison walls.
I learned about EPALE through one of its most enthusiastic ambassador's, Alan Smith. He has devoted his entire life to education and played an important role in the founding of Erasmus and Grundtvig projects in the 1980s. I heard him talking about this platform during the EPEA conference in Antwerp in 2015. I have since discovered that the platform offers many interesting materials, resources and articles on adult education. I encourage everyone to visit the platform because it opens the doors to teaching throughout Europe. Especially now during the Covid-19 crisis, teachers are being forced to become experts in distance learning in record time. EPALE can be an important source of information. I have noticed that there are also many webinars available that I personally find very useful. You get to know a lot of people, you exchange experiences and you feel that you are part of a wider community that faces the same challenges as you.
The Covid-19 virus and the measures taken meant everyone had to stay at home. In the meantime, we were in a transition phase where we were gradually being able to do more.
The prisoners are still doubly locked in in our prisons. Lockdown means no visits from family or friends, few opportunities to communicate, limited help and services, less work opportunities and education is put on hold.
Fortunately, since the third week of May prisoners have been allowed to receive visitors again, but lessons remain suspended. In the region of the Kempen, as teachers of CVO Edukempen and the education coordinators of the Flemish Support Center for Adult Education, VOCVO we felt very sorry for the prisoners. Together we decided to look for an alternative solution. During the week starting May 10th, we started distance learning.
Same problems across Europe
Education in our Flemish prisons is brought in from outside the prison walls. For example, the teachers of the centers for adult education and the centers for basic education teach different modules from their regular offer to prisoners, just as they do outside the prison walls. It should come as no surprise that in these times it is “ not the done thing ” to start teaching inside the prison. But what can you do when you lack the digital resources in prisons to communicate with your students to teach from a distance? Not an obvious issue…
This is an issue that people not only struggle with in our Belgian prisons. I followed some of the webinars organised by EPEA (European Prison Education Association) in which experiences were exchanged about education in detention centres during lockdown. From these exchanges I concluded that almost every European country is facing the same problems. The only exceptions are Norway and Switzerland. In Norway, people work within small living units, security staff have a coaching role, there’s internet for prisoners, and so on. In Switzerland, teachers in prisons work independently within a non-profit organisation, so not under the umbrella of the education or justice department. And in the prisons, they have their own space.
When it comes to education in prison, you often have to work with what you’ve got. And in our - sometimes antique - prisons with a cumbersome organisational structure, personal commitment and initiative can make all the difference. This was clearly the case among everyone involved in prison education in our center for adult education: our director of CVO Edukempen Gert Hurkmans, my five colleagues and the education coordinators Sofie Luyckx and Geert Van Dun. A lot of organisational work was involved in our project.
Also before the Covid-19 outbreak, teaching in prisons challenged us as teachers. Not only is there a lack of digital resources which have gained a prominent place in education in recent years, but also the prison system can complicate matters. For example, prisoners sometimes need to choose between working or studying because the two activities clash. By offering distance learning, a prisoner can continue studying after working hours and during the weekends. This CVO Edukempen initiative therefore certainly provides food for thought for the post-Corona era.
Is distance learning practical?
Eager to get started with distance learning, during the week of May 10th we launched the first round of modules ‘Dutch as a second language’ in the prison of Turnhout, ‘Spanish’ and ‘Introduction to accounting’ in the prison of Merksplas and 'French' and ‘Dutch as a second language' in the prison of Wortel.
'Digital' is not even mentioned in this story. Certainly not when it comes to transferring the teaching material from outside the prison walls to inside and vice versa. The teachers prepared the teaching materials and assignments, which were printed at the secretariat and bundled in an envelope for each student. These envelopes are delivered twice a week to the doormen of the three prisons. The completed assignments are then taken back and returned to the teachers for feedback. And then again, the same steps are taken from our center to the prisons. It went well. On Thursday May 14th, the first filled envelopes were returned for feedback, and the envelopes keep coming!
I consider challenges as something positive. Everything is about trial and error. You should always try to learn and be creative.
Thanks to committed people like our colleagues at the center for adult education, at VOCVO and in the prisons, we try to bring much-needed education to the prisoners. They are certainly asking for it and trying to work on their future and do something meaningful, despite the ups and downs. To be at home 24/7 is mentally tough. We all know that by now.
Nothing is straight-forward in prison
How will it continue? There is no straightforward answer. It depends on many factors. The teachers, the management of the school, the management of the prisons, the staff in the prisons and the prisoners themselves. For example, they simply need to have a ballpoint pen to participate in distance learning. But in prison even that is not a given.
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