Learning Behind Bars

I spoke in Parliament yesterday about the issue of education programs in prisons. I'm grateful to Emily Murray, a volunteer in my office who helped with the speech.

Prison Education Programs
17 November 2010

Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (7:35 PM) —I rise tonight to acknowledge the importance of prison education programs for both prisoner rehabilitation and the welfare of Australian society. I commend the efforts of prison staff, justice staff, volunteers and detainees, who are working together to develop and implement prison education programs across Australia. The current incarceration rate in Australia today is 175 prisoners per 100,000 adults, up from 112 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 1990. For the most part, the growth in Australia’s prison population has been driven not by a rise in crime but by law changes, such as tougher bail conditions and mandatory non-parole periods.

On 2 November 2010, I spent a morning behind bars at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, Australia’s first ‘human rights jail’. The jail operates in compliance with the ACT Human Rights Act as well as with the World Health Organisation’s Healthy Prison concept. The concept provides that everyone within a prison must feel safe, be treated with respect, have opportunities for self-improvement, have the chance to maintain contact with their families and be prepared for release. However, despite the dedication of Australia’s corrections officers and corrections management departments, some prisoners lose trust in the officers’ capacity to protect them and uphold their basic rights. Some prisoners do not believe that the officers believe that the prisoners can make a positive contribution to society. Such prisoners have a real prospect of losing all respect for the Australian community and legal system, and of losing all fear of breaking the law.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre aims to rehabilitate prisoners. However, such reformation cannot occur without intervention in the prison culture—the mentality and the way of life that may protect the inmates while they are detained but that presents real dangers both to Australian society and to the inmates themselves once they are released.

Many prisoners have not completed high school. Research by David Deming of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania indicates that formal education drastically reduces the arrest rate among adolescents that are most at risk of committing crimes. Work for the Australian Institute of Criminology by Jason Payne and Jeremy Prichard has found that prisoners with lower educational attainment are more likely to reoffend. Increasing the educational opportunities available to people at risk of reoffending would reap huge rewards for the community. After all, the costs of repeated incarceration and of future crimes are far higher than the cost of better education programs.

Prison education programs, when well designed and implemented, can reveal to prisoners the possibility of an alternative mindset to the prison culture. Prisoners are encouraged to realise that the prison culture need not define or limit them. Education programs offer the detainees an insight into the world, their community and the people who work to improve it. Prison education programs are run by prison staff or independent teachers, often on a volunteer basis, and vary in content across different prisons. Detainees may commence or resume their schooling, covering any topic from initial literacy and numeracy skills to the qualification requirements for secondary or tertiary graduation, or trades such as welding or carpentry. The programs may be aimed at re-educating sex offenders, alcohol or drug addicts, violent offenders or prisoners with behavioural disorders. Prisoners may be offered financial planning advice or legal literacy education to help them understand their rights and responsibilities within the prison and the wider community.

Ultimately, prisoners are offered an alternative perspective on the world and aided to understand how their behaviour sits in the context of the wider community. By facilitating contact within the prison population and the wider community, prisoners are re-engaged with society and can develop respectful relationships with people on the outside. However, education programs must be designed to target prisoners’ needs effectively: the subject matter should be applicable to prisoners and presented in a way that prisoners can understand. As a society, we need to work harder to increase the take-up of prison education programs. For example, in the case of private prisons, governments should consider writing contracts that pay providers more when they succeed in raising inmates’ education levels.

For Australia, the total cost of prisons is nearly $3 billion per year, or about $100,000 per prisoner. Yet the real cost of incarceration comes afterwards, with ex-prisoners more likely to commit further crimes and less likely to find a job. Sexual violence in prison probably is not as common as in the 1990s, when New South Wales magistrate David Heilpern estimated that one-quarter of young male prisoners were raped, but the rate is likely higher than in the outside world. It is critical that we make prisons safe if we are to make rehabilitation programs work in Australian jails. The continued success of prison education programs relies upon Australians’ support. Getting prison policy right is not easy, but if there is one country that can show the way it should be Australia: the nation that showed the world that if they’re given a chance, convicts can do just as well as anyone.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.