Forum fosters dialogue around “Education Behind Bars”

Because prison programs prioritize high school diplomas, inmates receive few options for post-secondary education.

While students often joke about SFU looking like a prison, many real inmates desire access to post-secondary education.

SFPIRG’s forum “Breaking the Cycle: Education Behind Bars” on October 1 sought to address this issue; students, teachers, and former inmates came together to engage in a dialogue about the lack of, and need for, educational resources within prisons.

“We really need to think seriously about the tools we give people in prison.”

According to SFU criminology professor Brenda Morrison, educational resources in prisons are seriously lacking. Correctional Services Canada (CSC) prioritizes high school diplomas, leaving inmates few options for post-secondary education.

Morrison stressed the positive impact that higher education could have on both inmates and society: “If we want people to be coming out of prison making good decisions [and] keeping themselves and others safe and productive, then we really need to think seriously about the tools that we give people in prison.”

Morrison credited university-based programs, rather than the CSC, with driving post-secondary education in prisons. One such program, Inside-Out, offers university-credit classes to groups of university students or ‘outsiders’ and incarcerated people or ‘insiders’ within prisons across Canada and the US.

Shoshana Pollack, Inside-Out coordinator and professor of social work at Wilfrid Laurier, was one of three speakers at the event.

Pollack described Inside-Out’s unique approach to education as offering multi-disciplinary classes that focus on the knowledge and experience that both groups of students — insiders and outsiders — as well as instructors bring to the table.

The event also featured Liz Fulton Lyne of the Greater Edmonton Library Association (GELA), and Kim Williams, career development coordinator in the criminology department at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Fulton Lyne highlighted GELA’s Prison Library and Reintegration Project, which includes book lending programs, book clubs, author visits, and a storybook reading program for incarcerated mothers.

Williams talked about the importance of fostering strong relationships between inmates and staff when working in prisons. Pollack agreed, saying, “Normally as a society [. . .] these two groups of people don’t often have the opportunity to talk with one another as equals, as peers, in a classroom.”

Pollack’s recent study of Inside-Out participants, however, suggests that reservations exist on both sides of the prison walls.

When it came to implementing education systems in prisons, Pollack found that insiders were typically afraid that they would be studied or scrutinized, and that outsiders would treat them as unintelligent or dangerous. Outsiders felt open to the experience but, Pollack said, many had assumptions about the degree of difference between themselves and inmates.

What these outsiders soon realised, Pollack explained, was that, “had it not been for a couple of factors in their lives, they themselves could quite easily end up within a prison or jail.”

Carla Stewart, the forum’s coordinator, said she hoped that the event’s participants left with a new awareness of the issues surrounding education behind bars.

Stewart stressed, “It’s important that the information gained goes beyond questions of ‘What can I do to help?’ or ‘What can I do with my criminology degree?’ and enters a deeper consider-ation of why prisons are such broken systems to begin with.”

Morrison concluded, “The only right that prisoners lose when they’re charged with a crime [. . .] is the right to freedom. All other rights remain in place.” As “Education Behind Bars” hoped to address, the right to an education is not a right that should be taken for granted.