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inquiry project

peacock's picture

My placement at the correctional facility has led me to challenge what I think about education and what it means to be a good educator. Although our reading group is held in the “education room” and we configure the room to look very similar to the set-up we have in our Multicultural Education class, it is hard to ignore that we are in a correctional facility and that there are certain unique challenges that come with the environment.

The John Howard Society of Alberta in Canada published a guide for educators interested in becoming involved in the prison environment, and it framed some of the issues educators need to be aware before they begin, or when they are creating their lesson plans. Many of these include the inmates’ grade levels (which are often far below the national average), learning disabilities, and disabilities developed from substance abuse:

“Over 82% of offenders test below the high school level upon admission to correctional facilities (Correctional Service of Canada, 2001). In addition, 37% of inmates have an education of grade 9 or less (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1999, p. 9). Therefore, correctional education programs need to be tailored to the education levels of offenders, beginning instruction at an offender’s current achievement level. Furthermore, learning disabilities pose a challenge to prison education because they are more prevalent among offenders than the general population (Fisher-Bloom, 1995). Between 5% and 10% of the general population have learning disabilities, whereas the incidence of learning disabilities among offenders in federal institutions is between 7% and 25% (Lysakowski, 1980, Folsom, 1993, as cited in Fisher-Bloom, 1995). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) may also be more prevalent among the correctional population, although this prevalence has not yet been established by the research (Correctional Service of Canada, 1998)” (p 1-2).

However, even though they are likely meant to be helpful in increasing awareness of the difficulties of this population, statistics like these may skew one’s perception of what each individual population is like in each individual facility. As an educator, it is good to perform your own research in order to form an image of the environment you’re stepping into, but one must remain open and willing to have their preconceived notions challenged. Before I even attended the first visit to Riverside, I was worried that the age of the students and (what I imagined would be) the multitude of experiences they would have had would affect my ability to help facilitate a class. I questioned my capacity to provide any real contributions to the group when faced with people who had many more life experiences than I. However, after actually going there and getting to know the participants of the reading group, I realized that I had built up a false image of them, and that in doing so, I had also created a false dichotomy between “me” and “them.” I think this is one of the most important issues one needs to recognize before entering a prison environment: the concept that inmates are not different from the rest of the population on a basic level. They may have had different experiences growing up or encountered different environments or been victims of certain kinds of abuse, but they are still have all the basic needs of any other person, both in and out of prison. In addition, one cannot predict what a classroom will be like based off of vast generalizations, and it is important to be aware of the ideas one holds about a certain population before you confront that population in order to make sure one doesn’t lower expectations or enact a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy (in which the population adheres to lower expectations because they can feel that there’s little expected of them.)

This leads to another factor that is very important in teaching, not only in an environment like prison, but all kinds of classrooms: self-esteem. The John Howard publication goes on to say that “offenders often have a history of failure in school, which typically leads offenders to assume that they will not succeed in their present schooling (Mason, 1993). Offenders’ beliefs that they will fail in school will seriously limit their ability to learn by ruining their self-confidence and willingness to learn. Therefore, offenders’ beliefs about their potential for success in school must be addressed in any inmate education program” (p 2). This takes me back to the “what you wish you learned in school” assignment we gave the participants of our reading group at Riverside; many people in correctional facilities have not always had positive experiences in schools (a large number drop out at various stages) and it is therefore crucial to create a space that is inviting and that is built around the abilities and needs of the students involved. The John Howard university proposes this strategy:

“In order to improve inmate students’ learned notions about their ability to succeed in school, Mason (1993) recommends that prison educators help inmate students to understand why they previously failed in the school system. Educators should try to point out concrete examples of the student’s present successes to encourage the belief that the student can be successful. In addition, inmate students’ achievements in correctional education programs should be based on competency (i.e., meeting goals and objectives) rather than on comparison with other students (i.e., bell curves), since “adult students in the prison system have no doubt been told clearly many times that they are not as good as most and clearly have no desire to hear it again” (Mason, 1993, p. 77). Therefore, inmate students’ negative experiences in mainstream education suggest the need for unconventional teaching methods (John Howard Society of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia (JHSLM), 1995). For example, one study has indicated that inmate students prefer community tutors over other instruction possibilities (John Howard Society of British Columbia, 1992, cited in JHSLM, 1995)” (p 3).

However, I feel that the idea of “pointing out why they previously failed” is a problematic notion; most of the time, institutional inequalities (like racism, lack of resources in parts of the country that house those of a lower socioeconomic status, lack of understanding from educators and others in the educational district, familial difficulties, etc.) can highly contribute to the inability of one to succeed and move forward in the educational system. Unless this “pointing out of failure” includes a discussion of these issues and affirms and validates the student’s experiences, then it can be harmful to the student’s psyche and further perpetuate ideas that education is not for them, or that they are destined to fail once more.

The next two ideas proposed by the John Howard University are also important for any classroom environment and have come up in conversations in our Multicultural Education class several times; first, the University addresses the importance of providing resources that are not just academic, but also pertain to different aspects of their lives:

“Third, effective literacy programs have been found to contain program content that provides valuable information relating to the offender’s future life in the community, such as nutrition, housing, parenting and employment (Ryan, 1991, as cited in Lilly, 1996; Thomas, 1993). Reading materials should be relevant to the lives of inmate students (West, 1994). Inmate students should be given the choice of subjects, audiences and materials to bring meaning to instruction and to promote individual responsibility for learning (Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (S.I.I.T., 1990). For example, an inmate student newspaper could be used as an inspirational tool by promoting student responsibility for learning to write (Hadden, 1993)” (p 3-4).

I think this idea of making education relevant on a broader sphere is essential for a few reasons: first, it allows the students to incorporate different aspects of their lives into the classroom and apply the values individually to their own experiences. Second, it makes them think about what they want to accomplish when they are no longer in the prison environment, and provides with certain tools and ideas to work with. Last, it allows them to imagine a different future for themselves - and although “imagining” can be dangerous and sometimes detrimental to an inmate’s experience, if the opportunity to “imagine” is offered in practical terms and alongside achievable goals, it can have positive effects on an inmate’s psyche and offer them not just hope, but something to work towards and spend their time on. The other idea involves language and culture:

“Other characteristics of successful correctional education programs include sensitivity to cultural differences and language instruction for offenders with poor English (Lilly, 1996; S.I.I.T., 1990). In Canada, the inmate population is multicultural and there are distinct cultural learning differences. Therefore, ‘correctional educators need to obtain skills related to multicultural instruction’ (Platt et al., 1993, p. 68). Instruction and teaching materials that are sensitive to cultural learning differences have been found to be more effective in promoting achievement (Gooden, 1993, Ramirez & Castaneda, 1974, Witkin, 1962, as cited in Glasgow, 1994; S.I.I.T., 1990). Educational programs need to be delivered in a language understood by inmate students, as a program can only be effective if students understand the content (Dillon, 1995). Lessons also need to be modified to accommodate different learning styles (S.I.I.T., 1990)” (p 4).

This is an interesting debate, however, because it goes back to the value of teaching the canon - can teaching in a language that inmates understand include languages like African-American English? Is there space in a prison education class for that to be part of the curriculum? Is that helping inmates reach their educational goals? And does a prison curriculum even need to adhere to the standard used in a more “typical” classroom? When I think of these questions, I think of the correctional facility we go to and the way the reading group has been going; I like to think that we, in many ways, do not adhere to the canon - our books and readings are not those deemed “classics” by the larger society and are not, in essence, written by white men no longer on this earth. Many of them do not use language that would be termed “grammatically correct.”  Whenever we receive written assignments from the participants, we make no moves to correct their “errors.” However, the books we’ve discussed involve richly woven stories which the participants are creating productive and meaningful conversations around, and the readings lead to writing assignments that, while at times may be challenging, can also be very creative and allow the participants to express themselves in interesting ways. There is a lot of implicit learning to be done from just reading and discussing those readings; it shapes the mind and leads one to pick up certain patterns of thinking - often, critically. To me, this goes back to the debate of “teaching the basics” versus the “dialogical method,” and the fact that there can certainly be an intersection of these two ideas. Teaching the basics doesn’t have to be an explicit laying of groundwork, but can also be achieved through dynamic and worthwhile activities.

Another important thing to remember about the mental health of those in the prison environment is the amount of stress that the environment can create. A group of volunteer mathematics teachers in a prison in Italy wrote about their own experiences with this issue:

“It might be wrongly believed that prison is a restriction of space, balanced by an abundance of time. As a matter of fact, prisoners witness how this alleged abundance of time, far from being a factor of balance, rather becomes their main source of affliction. Degradation of self-esteem, loss of interest in mental activities, loss of contact with the external reality and depression are very strong among prisoners. Intellectual activities in prison are therefore of fundamental importance for mental and psychological survival, and human contact with teachers is necessary” (Frezotti et al.).

They also mention that the stress caused by the environment can affect learning and understanding by inhibiting ability to communicate, concentrate on work, and memorize certain concepts. However, they also go on to say that education can have a very uplifting effect on this population and that studying mathematics, in particular, can actually strengthen and enhance participants’ ability to focus and memorize. They also acknowledge that participants in an education program may have different reasons for being involved and that adults may propose an interesting challenge:

“Sometimes people in prison follow school courses – including classes of mathematics – to get a certificate that might be of some value in the future search for a job. But it may also happen that they study just to keep their mental activities in exercise and for pure cultural enrichment. For this reason adults in jail are very special students, often very exacting and inspiring ones. They may possibly learn slowly, like all adults when compared to younger people; but, on the other hand, they tend to absorb more deeply and to make immediate use of what they learn as part of their knowledge and language. This peculiarity represents a particular challenge for teachers who are confronted with the problem of finding and explaining the fundamental concepts in the easiest possible ways, providing non-trivial and convincing examples and applications.”

The idea of students questioning concepts is true for any educational environment, and an educator should be prepared to offer a way to approach these questions - if an answer is not possible, further exploration should be encouraged (perhaps by both educator and student).

A last important concept that I think is important to be fully aware of is the “savior” mentality - and that it should be avoided if one pursues work in this environment. Going back to Tuck’s idea of the harmful abilities of “damage-based” thinking, one should keep in mind that the identity of those in the prison population should not be based off of their environment, and that educational resources provided in these environments are not for the purpose of “saving” the population. Education in prison should serve the inmates in the current state that they are in and provide them with resources they can make use of immediately. Education is not merely a preventative measure to keep one “out of trouble” or to help one “become a better person”; every human wants to gain knowledge and self-growth, and that is what the purpose of education should be in this environment. One can still change and explore and be intellectually stimulated in prison, and educators should remain consistently aware of this fact, and use it as a driving force in their approaches in the classroom.


Canada. John Howard Society of Alberta. Inmate Education. N.p.: n.p., 2002. Web. <>.

Europe. European Commission. GHK Consulting. PRISON EDUCATION AND TRAINING IN EUROPE. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. <>.

 Finland. Lifelong Learning Program. Education and Culture DG. Grundtvig Project : Effective Induction for Prison Teachers. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Frezzotti, Aldo, Federico G. Lastaria, and Stefano Mortola. "Through the Bars. Learning and Teaching Mathematics in Jail." N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

West Virginia. Adult Basic Education Program. Office of Adult Education and Workforce Development. Teaching Adults in a Correctional Facility. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. <>.