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Prison Education – A Privilege or Human Right?  

Miranda Trouabal
Valoda: EN
Document available also in: FR

In Ireland The Irish Prison Service (IPS) works in conjunction with various education agencies community colleges, public libraries and ETB’s (Education and Training Board) to provide work-training and educational options for prisoners (Donavan, 2008).There were 4,015 people in prison custody in Ireland in 2019, half of whom left school before they were 15 years old (Community Needs Analysis, Meaney, 2019). The rate of imprisonment in Ireland is approximately 81 per 100,000 of the general population (Irish Penal Reform Trust, 2019). Trying to ascertain figures for prisoners currently participating in education is difficult as the information is ambiguous. In a five-month period Jan 2018-May 2018 the figures in 13 of Irelands prisons consistently changed, making it very difficult to find accurate reports. Percentages can be found on the Oireachtas website.

Barriers to prisoners' education have been created by public attitudes of ignorance, fear and indifference, in addition to problems within the individual institutions. Prisoners are met with reluctance from politicians when it comes to embedding their right to education in legislation. The United Nations (U.N) adopted a policy in 1990 stating that prisoners have the “right to take part in cultural activities and education aimed at the full development of the human personality” (United Nations, 1990).

Surely governments, politicians and societies, globally, can ascertain the positive power of educating and up-skilling prisoners? Since 1990 literature has demonstrated prisoners whom are educated while incarcerated are far less likely to re-offend. Studies have indicated recidivism rates decline when inmates are appropriately educated (Brock, 2017). So why in the current era of inclusive education and best practice within governments and institutions worldwide have prisoners been marginalised, and their right to education viewed as a privilege, or worse, allowed to be withdrawn as means of a punitive exercise within individual institutions?

Furthermore, when prisoners complete a training/education programme for the purpose of progressing to a particular area of work, they are then punished further when garda vetting eliminates the opportunity entirely. This continually affects their quality of life and morale, compounding their time served and is therefore in affect a lifelong sentence. The correlation between formal education and prison has been made by Clemson 2015, which begs the question whether the quality of education offered in certain areas of the country is representative of the correlation with prisoners from the same areas. The majority of the prison population consists of people from socio-economically disadvantaged areas (Donavan,2008). This is representative of underlying systematic issues and inadequacies. Educational disadvantage is highly correlated and marginalisation in some form is also contributory to the propensity for people to offend and reoffend (Community Needs Analysis, Gilcreest, 2019).

This is highlighted in a short interview with a former prisoner. “He should be teaching the class and he was pure street when he came in. Then he decided to change. He done the work himself; using the dictionary when you were in the gym, he would tell me to pick a word a day and I wouldn’t remember them, but he would. I only remember the words that I would use.” “Forebode: sense of trouble in the air” “Flaccid: soft and limp” “Mendacious: the teacher didn’t even know what it meant… she had to ask him when he used it.” “I have completed city and guilds courses inside and can’t get a job because “the look”. People send me up to a place for a job they say I have it sorted and then I get there, and they tell me they’ll get back to me and they never do…. I was someone in there but I’m nobody out here”. (Anonymous, 2019).

Participatory inclusivity is what these citizens are denied, usually from their first experiences of society. They are marginalised for some reason; usually because they are generationally affiliated to some marginalised group. The susceptibility for them to offend is arguably as a direct result of their experience with the education system (Community Needs Analysis, Meaney, 2019).

Another problem posed to prisoner education is present day neo-liberal ideology, which is ruling society. Prison’s and other institutions which incarcerate people are run on a business model (Hartnett, 1997). The notion of a UN charter which states that education is a human right for all people is becoming ever more obsolete in contemporary society, education is becoming ever more privatised, and run on a business model, not a human rights model (Brown, 2005). Prison is big business on a global scale, and concern for prisoner’s well-being, and how education can be used as a means to help improve their live situation, is not a top priority for these corporations. The running of the prison system as a business concern is mostly seen in western English-speaking countries such as the US, England, Australia and New Zealand (Mason, 2013). Private companies which run the prison system in much of the western world have no interest in the rights of prisoners, their only concern is making money from those incarcerated, not educating them. For e.g. Global Tel-Link provide phone services for prisoners in the US charging 17$ per 15 minutes, outside of prison the total charge for a call is limited to 25cents. It has been proven that the more inmates can keep in touch with their families the less crimes they commit whilst in prison, and the less likely they are to reoffend when they are released. This is clearly not a concern for these corporations any more than providing education as a human right is (Black 2015).

As cuts in public spending are seen right across civil society, expenditure for the construction of prisons grows. One of the major cuts seen is in the education sector in civil society, but also there have been huge cuts seen within prison education. At the same time there has been a huge increase in expenditure on the construction of prisons. This highlights the perverse relationship between the notion of education as a human right and the concerns of the privatised business model. It is shown that there is a greater risk of committing crime where people have low levels of education and literacy skills. But yet we see increased funding for building prisons and decreased funding for education within and without prisons (Curley 2017). The notion of education as a human right, or privilege is being subsumed into the mantra of neo-liberal ideology, which espouses the notion of competition and privatisation. When the ideal of education as a human right in the so-called free world is falling away, the question of education as a human right in the prison system seems naïve and redundant. Welcome to the corporate world, (Lynch, 2006).



-Brown, W. (2005). ‘’ Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics’’. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

-Curley, C. (2017). Educational programs in prison are a sound investment, so why do we keep cutting their budgets?

-Donavan. A, 2008, The geography of Prisoner Integration, Drugnet Ireland, Issue 28, Winter 2008 p18-19

-Hartnett, S. (1997). History is a weapon, Prison labour, Slavery &Capitalism in Historical Perspective

-International Growth Trends in Prison Privatization  [accessed 13/12/09]

-Irish Prison Service [accessed, 13/12/2019]

-Prison Education Service [accessed, 13/12/2019]

-Irish Penal Reform Trust, 2019 Facts and Figures [accessed, 13/12/2019]

Lynch, K. (2006). Neo-liberalism and Marketisation: the implications for higher education: European Educational Research Journal, Volume 5(1)

Mason, C. (2013). ‘International Growth Trends in Prison Privatization’

Meaney, S. (2019). Community Needs Analysis, College Connect, Maynooth University. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner 1990, Basic Principals for the Treatment of Prisoners

Black, N, 2008, Here are Six Companies That Get Rich Off Prisoners

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