What is Prison Education?

What I had originally thought would be the most straightforward part of this project – defining ‘prison education’ – has in fact proved to be quite a challenge.

First, the penal reformers of the early nineteenth century rarely, if ever, used the term ‘prison education’. Instead, in order to ensure that prisons were places of reformation as well as punishment, legislators and proactive individuals in specific institutions introduced various forms of ‘instruction’ which they believed would reduce re-offending by transforming sinful prisoners into penitent and productive members of society. These included: moral (predominantly religious) instruction; scholastic instruction (that is, imparting the basic literate skills); and technical instruction (or training in a trade such as carpentry or shoemaking).

All three forms of instruction could be considered ‘education’, and thus be included in a research project on ‘educating criminals’. And so too could the organised efforts of charities and philanthropic individuals, such as the British Ladies’ Society for the Reformation of Female Offenders and Scripture Readers, who, from the early decades of the nineteenth century, sought permission to enter prisons either to read portions of religious texts to prisoners or even teach prisoners how to read these texts themselves.1 In fact, their efforts could easily be regarded as a supplementary form of moral instruction.

Thus nineteenth-century ‘prison education’ was potentially diverse and multi-dimensional. However, when I began to explore how I could include all these educative elements in the ‘educating criminals’ project, I quickly found that such an approach did not accurately reflect nineteenth-century penal thinking and practice. Moreover, such a broad and anachronistic definition of ‘prison education’ drew attention away from a deeper engagement with the specific development of prison education in the nineteenth century.

Therefore, various forms of instruction and types of activity that occurred in nineteenth-century prisons were quickly dropped from the project. Technical instruction was an early casualty. It had a fairly limited application in nineteenth-century prisons, not only because of the length of time required for prisoners to learn a trade (not to mention the expense), but also because of its fit with prominent discourses on criminality, which emphasised moral failings rather than deficiencies in skills needed for employment. Apart from a small handful of local prisons and a number of reformatories for juvenile prisoners, technical instruction was largely restricted to convict prisons, where offenders served longer sentences of imprisonment and were in need of skills to contribute to the development of the Australian penal colonies. Furthermore, contemporaries did not define technical instruction as a form of education but rather as a form of ‘training’.

Much more complicated is the relationship between moral instruction and scholastic instruction, at least in the thinking of penal reformers, policymakers and officials during the first half of the nineteenth century. That moral and scholastic instruction were often discussed as distinct forms of instruction, and even appeared in separate clauses in penal legislation, is a red herring to the researcher. Because in reality, the two were wholly intertwined. The prison chaplain was typically made responsible for the delivery of both moral and scholastic instruction, even when schoolmasters were employed to take care of the latter. The tools at their disposal were most often religious and or moral texts, either purchased by the chaplain or donated by local religious charities. The relationship was not just pragmatic, but also philosophical, as is clear when placed within the context of emerging schemes to educate the masses. Social elites supported the establishment of elementary schools for the working classes to protect the social hierarchy and stem the tide of secularisation. Mass education without moral (and typically religious) instruction was unthinkable. The interpretation of statistics on prisoner literacy by nineteenth-century statisticians and penal officials further highlight the importance of moral instruction to a broader scheme of prisoner education: even those prisoners who were technically literate and able to read and write imperfectly were grouped with those who were illiterate, and were redefined as uneducated and uncivilised because they had not been to school long enough to have received a proper moral education.

However, as the nineteenth century progressed, the close relationship between moral and scholastic instruction in prisons began to unravel. From about the 1860s the term ‘prison education’ not only began to appear in discussions about penal policy, but when it was used it typically referred to scholastic instruction only. In some ways, this seems reflective of a parallel movement in mass education, whereby increasing government funding to approved elementary schools was accompanied by a new focus on the delivery of the 3Rs and a reduction of religious content. But it also seems to have been pragmatic. It was useful to confine ‘prison education’ to skills delivery that aligned with mass elementary schooling because outcomes could more easily be measured and the public could better understand the rationale for its inclusion in the penal regime. This narrowing of the definition did not mean that moral instruction was less important; rather, it was now a more distinct activity and goal.

That narrow definition of prison education persists today. Discussions of prison education are always prefaced by statistics which highlight the scholastic deficiencies in the prisoner population – namely, the high presence of illiteracy, lower levels of engagement with educational institutions, and the lack of qualifications. Organisations such as the Open University and charities such as Prisoners’ Education Trust provide access to higher level qualifications, but the great majority of official prisoner education schemes focus on the delivery of basic skills, the rationale being that increasing the literacy and numeracy of the prison population will give ex-offenders greater employment opportunities and so cut rates of recidivism. Although basic skills are important and necessary, focusing exclusively on basic skills delivery to ‘correct’ deficiencies gives a ‘negative’ tone to prison education.

Recently, the new Justice Minister, Michael Gove, declared his intention to overhaul prison education.2 I think a good starting point in this mission would be to completely rethink the current definition of prison education. The nineteenth century offers a useful starting point for this. The Oxford English Dictionary defines education as something much broader than just scholastic instruction; it is also about shaping and forming character. This is something I think the early penal reformers understood in their broader approach to ‘prison education’, even if the tools they applied were somewhat restrictive. The narrowing of the definition of ‘prison education’ in the nineteenth century is not something we need to persist with today. If nineteenth-century elementary education teaches us anything, it is that literate skills not only need to be taught but students also need to be encouraged and given the creative space to experiment with how such skills relate to their own lives and development.



1 The British Ladies Society, in common with other societies established for the care of discharged prisoners, also devoted much energy to ensuring that the female offenders who came under their care had non-criminal pathways open to them on release from prison.

2 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-treasure-in-the-heart-of-man-making-prisons-work

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