Expert in criminal reforms
Education was recognized as a human right that should be available to everyone. It is also one of the core principles of the Education 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4). Do prisoners have the right to education and learning behind the bars? While courts in India have ruled that the right to life includes the right to read, write and print facilities, the fact remains that security concerns prevail in the design and management of prisons.
Prisoners’ right to education is often overlooked or disregarded. Prisoners are also rarely part of the educational discourse. There is now a convergence in the goals of rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners.
The Mandela Rules (2015), which are the minimum standards for detainees, state that the purposes of a prison sentence are primarily to protect society from crime and reduce relapse. These goals can only be achieved if the detention period is used to ensure the reintegration of these people into society after their release so that they can lead law-abiding and self-sustaining lives. The rules also state that prisoners should be provided with education, training and work.
A disproportionately large number of people from poor and marginalized parts of society live in prisons around the world. In prisons in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, 54 percent of people entering prison have reading and writing skills equivalent to those of an 11-year-old child.
India’s 2019 prison statistics on inmate training shows that 41.5 percent (1,98,872) of inmates were trained below grade 10. Up to 1,327,729 (27 percent) of the country’s 4.78,600 inmates were illiterate. Around 43 percent of the prison population are between 18 and 30 years old.
The effects of providing education and training opportunities are enormous and challenging. Eventually prisoners are released and return to society. How they spend their time in prison becomes important. Are they developing positive new skills or identities?
Only locking up perpetrators in order to punish them is a futile exercise. Prisons can be criminogenic. The continuing failure to educate prisoners comes with enormous economic and social costs. Youth involvement is important in preventing crime and promoting the rule of law.
Educational corrective measures in prisons enable inmates to lead a crime-free life after incarceration. Knowledge is power, but does the system want to empower prisoners? Trapped knowledge and imagination can be a challenge.
Educational programs are being run in the country’s prisons to convert illiterate people into literary figures. It’s encouraging to see them learn to sign their names, read newspapers, and even write creatively. Secondary education is provided to them by the National Institute for Open Schooling (NIOS), and graduation and postgraduate courses are offered by the open universities.
Many of the juvenile offenders incarcerated have a break in their studies. I remember meeting two bright students from a prestigious law university in a prison. They couldn’t even complete their three-year degree and thought their lives were pointless.
Isolation, insecurity, and a lack of positive engagement have detrimental effects on mental health. Prisoners tend to join gangs or turn to addiction. Education and qualifications help them to plan new life courses. Some prisoners have trouble taking exams and end up losing their most important years of education. It is crucial to give them the opportunity to continue their education when society desires positive change.
While the prisons lack financial resources, the existing human resources have to be tapped. Educated prisoners are a useful resource in prisons. Only six percent of the prison inmates were graduates. Around 8,000 prisoners had a postgraduate course.
In some prisons in Delhi, the “Padho aur Padhao” (learning and teaching) program for illiterate people has been started in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. Permanent study centers of the NIOS were opened in various prisons.
Around 47,860 inmates benefited from the elementary school programs. The Indira Gandhi National Open University has initiated a program to set up 94 special study centers in prisons across India for the benefit of approximately 25,000 prisoners.
I was delighted that a lifelong convict was doing a PhD in prison. He proudly shared his thesis and began teaching in college after his release. Giving released prisoners a second chance is important for crime prevention.
There are several barriers to learning behind bars. No teachers, poor motivation or insufficient basic equipment such as books, papers, pens and of course space. Some of the prison libraries in India serve as study centers to facilitate distance learning for prisoners enrolled in various courses. The availability of textbooks and reference works is important and access can be done in partnership.
It is disturbing that prison manuals are scarce in prison libraries. Legally informed prisoners can also be seen as challenging. Many of the prison reform judgments come from the writings of prisoners such as Sunil Batra, Prem Shankar Shukla, and Rama Murthy.
It is a tremendous pleasure to have access to reading material, not just for education, but also for self-reflection or just recreation. Autobiographies are popular with prisoners. Mahatma Gandhis The story of my experiments with the truth changed many lives. While running a prison reintegration training program for prison staff, I invited an ex-prisoner, Laxman Gole, who was previously a gang member but is now a great motivational speaker. He shared how his life had changed after reading Gandhi’s works.
Technology is also changing the dynamics of learning behind bars. The Prison Cloud project in Belgium only offers inmates limited internet access. Learning opportunities in prison must be designed with a holistic approach. The responsibility for reintegrating prisoners into society rests on both sides of the prison walls.