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Generating learning contexts in prison - do we need European standardisation?

The right to education for all has been established by a number of European and International conventions. In Europe, the right of prisoners to access and participate in educational opportunities while in prison has been supported by a number of policy documents such as the European Prison Rules (updated in 2006) and the Council of Europe’s Education in Prison (1990) document.

In 2010 the European Commission organised a conference on the subject of prison education entitled Pathways to Inclusion – Strengthening European Cooperation in Prison Education and Training. As a result of the conference a comprehensive review of prison education was commissioned in which it is acknowledged that there is an increasing understanding of the legal and educational rights of prisoners in Europe and that more and more countries had recognised the need to solve the challenges of prison education through European co-operation (Hawley, 2011). However, Alan Smith, former director of the Directorate General for Education and Culture (DGEAC), still notes that ‘…despite the right to education anchored in international agreements, provision is very unequal between and within European countries’ (2012).

Topping this challenge, the situation gets more unclear when we look at professionals delivering this education. And what about the ones dealing with informal and non-formal education, that are prison professionals with no pedagogical background. Can you guess who is in sight?

European Prison Rules state that “Prison staff carries out an important public service and their recruitment, training and conditions of work shall enable them to maintain standards in their care of prisoners” and “The duties of staff go beyond those required of mere guards and shall take account of the need to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners into society after their sentence has been completed through a programme of positive care and assistance.”

And yet when we do a quick search to see how this industry has evolved, we can easily see that from 1998 to 2011 and 2014 things are not moving in a very positive direction: “Unsafe detention conditions are a crime, it is bad for inmates as well as for workers, conversely unsatisfactory working conditions will reduce active assistance in rehabilitation and limit seriously the role model that employees in prison represent for inmates – prison officers are charged with the security but also with the rehabilitation of inmates. Poor working conditions, low pay, low status, or indeed a feeling of “impuissance” have a negative impact on the quality of detention conditions” (European Parliament report, 1998).

“It is well-known that many prisons are facing major common challenges in Europe such as overcrowding - the source of many problems mainly due to the excessive use of imprisonment -, under-staffing, poor detention conditions with access to quality healthcare as a central area of concern, heavy workload and inappropriate or insufficient training of staff notably in dealing with an increasingly diversified and complex prison population. These have grave consequences for prisoners and staff, and ultimately for public safety, whilst they make prison services probably one of the most complex and yet undervalued public service.” (EC Green Paper Strengthening mutual trust in the European judicial area- application of EU Criminal justice legislation in the field of detention (COM(2011)327/3)).

Having all these in mind we believe it is essential to develop a set of European standards for all prison professionals that one way or the other generate a learning context in prison. And the most relevant but overlooked in prison officer.

One would be tempted to look at all the projects and resources available, declaring considerable progress. But what happens when we dig beyond the obvious?

In 2010 we had the first catalog of projects dealing with prison education in general, with the occasion of "Pathways to inclusion" Conference. This Catalog looked at a number of 113 projects (95 Grundtvig, 16 Leonardo, 2 Accompanying Measures and Joint Actions). Searching the Catalog using "prison officer", a number of 14 results appear, but all make reference to the same 3 projects where prison officers are a secondary target group: drama methods in prison, vocational training for catering services and resettlement preparation. None focus on prison officers as main target group and non see them as learning / educational "agents".

In the 2011 "Analysis of research on prison education" we find out that "The second is the role of the prison officer, which is of crucial importance in motivating and supporting prisoners to access learning opportunities. Furthermore, the prison governor and senior management equally have a vital role to play in promoting prison education and shaping the positive learning environment in which it can develop." Nevertheless the projects exemplified in the research all have as target groups prison educators rather that prison officers. One of the conclusions of the research states "There seems to be a need for initial and on-going training for prison teachers and prison trainers as well as prison officers and management. Training not only in the methodologies and approaches most appropriate to the prison population, but also in the aims and objectives of the provision. This could be tied into a survey of the different role and functions of teachers, trainers, officers, etc., in order that the most effective and appropriate training is provided for all concerned"

"Mapping of prison education in Europe" from 2012 brings to focus only prison staff working directly in education and learning activities: teachers, educators, social workers, case managers, counselors, psychologists, overlooking the essential role of the prison officers.

The latest report on prison education and European investments is from May 2013 "PRISON EDUCATION AND TRAINING IN EUROPE". Their conclusions on the European projects working in this area is: ".... wide variety of themes were addressed, the most common being ‘transition and reintegration’, followed by ‘adult basic education’, the ‘prison as a positive environment for learning’ and ‘arts and cultural creativity’. The majority of the projects worked with all types of prisoners and not specific sub-groups. Many projects also worked with staff supporting (ex-) prisoners, e.g. prison educators and prison officers. "

If one searches the ADAM database, using the key word "prison" 12 projects appear as registered, from 2007 to 2012. Six of them have included prison staff (non-speciffic) as target group, and non of them focus on prison officers.

On the DG EAC new Dissemination Platform covering the Erasmus+ and Creative Europe programmes as well as all the projects financed under the Culture, Lifelong Learning and Youth in Action programmes (previously available in the EVE, EST and ADAM databases), when making the same search, we can find 38 such projects (some overlapping exists). One is focused on the relation between guards and teaching staff, acknowledging the importance of prison staff in teaching and another one includes prison officers among others in a complex training to manage minor offenders' learning.

What can we conclude on this short introductory argument for professionalization of staff in education? That there is room to grow, people willing and able to work on this and E+ ready to back us up with funding. Any one up for the challenge?

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Idea uczenia się przez całe życie staje się kluczowym zagadnieniem w dobie wiedzy i kształtowania się społeczeństwa informacyjnego. Doskonalenie kompetencji nabywanie nowych umiejętności jest warunkiem koniecznym, by nadążyć za tempem nieustannie zachodzących zmian, zrozumieć otaczający świat i radzić sobie w przekształcającej się rzeczywistości. Dlatego też jestem zdania że należy dążyć do osiągnięcia standardów europejskich dla wszystkich profesjonalistów związanych z więziennictwem.
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Uważam,że polskie społeczeństwo nie jest jeszcze gotowe na podjęcie edukacji więźniów. Nasze myślenie na temat osób przebywających w zakładach karnych jest w dalszym ciągu stereotypowe. Sądzimy,że to osoby pozbawione perspektyw na przyszłość, a pobyt w zakładzie karnym ma być dla nich bolesną karą. Często zapominamy,że te osoby opuszczą mury więzienia i będą musieli powrócić do życia w społeczeństwie. Myślę,że należy dużo czasu poświęcić na przełamywanie stereotypów, a wtedy znajdzie się więcej chętnych osób do prowadzenia edukacji w więzieniach. Uważam,że powinniśmy dążyć do osiągnięcia standardów europejskich, co na pewno nie będzie łatwym zadaniem. Niestety, ale sądzę, że mam za mało doświadczenia, aby podjąć to wyzwanie.
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