Learning behind bars

While cleaning out some old papers and documents the other day, I came across a notebook I had used for a short while in 1974. Written in big letters on the cover were the words ‘Gedanken im Gefängnis‘ (‘Thoughts in Prison’). Yes, it was a prison diary. Not what you might think, though. In fact, exactly 35 years ago today, on January 29 1974, I visited a prison for the first time in my life. The institution in question was a small prison, not far from where I was living at the time in Germany. It contained a mix of inmates, some of whom were there on remand, and some were there for the long haul; a significant proportion had been convicted of murder.

How did I get there? A friend of mind was the prison chaplain, and in conversation with him I had indicated that I was interested in finding out more about it, and about prison life, and about what we as a society could do to help rehabilitate prisoners (this was a phase of my life in which I was very committed to political and social activism). On that day, and on a few occasions over the following months, I visited this prison, usually to join the prisoners for their evening meal. At the end of each visit I wrote down my impressions in the notebook. And what came up most in the conversations was the prisoners’ desire for more education. As you would expect, most of them were poorly educated, and back then there were no real opportunities to make up for that while serving their sentences. So I would come back with various educational books, and would also outline to them some of the more basic bits of education I had enjoyed myself.

In my life as an educator in various universities I have, at least on and off, maintained my interest in prisons and in the potential of education to make a difference. When I was Dean of the Law School in the University of Hull, I set up an agreement with the Governor of Hull Prison (which was largely a remand prison) under which staff from my Law School provided evening courses for prisoners. The two most popular options were family law, as many prisoners had family issues of one kind or another, and (this being a remand prison) the law of evidence. My colleagues joined ion this, initially with some enthusiasm, but over time found it difficult because the population changed so frequently, making it difficult to establish a rapport with a class. But I did get a visit one day from a former prisoner in my office, who told me that what we had offered by way of legal education in the prison had changed his life, and that if I ever needed anything – anything, he stressed – I needed only to ring him.

We are not, so we think, a Victorian society, and yet we have made remarkably few changes to the basic principles of prison life. We sometimes talk about, but in reality seem not to care about, the rehabilitation of prisoners, and we seem content that once they first enter through a prison gate they are likely to be regulars. Ireland has, by international standards, a small prison population, but as a society we care very little about them, and it takes vocal and courageous people like the Governor of Mountjoy Prison to remind us from time to time that we are failing these fellow members of our community. Maybe it is time for me to take an interest again.

Explore posts in the same categories: society, welfare

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One Comment on “Learning behind bars”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I’ve just come on this post. I knew there was a reason why I liked reading your blog.


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