‘I felt ashamed’: Prison education boosts confidence, helps find jobs

Summary

Flanders’ education minister has announced reforms to prison education to give inmates a better chance of finding work after release

Lesson learned

Most people hope that prisoners are being rehabilitated in prison so that when they are released, they will no longer be a danger to society. But something known as detention damage – the professional or social deprivation experienced by inmates – seriously hampers their chances of reintegrating into society, even if they’re unlikely to pose any risk.

For this reason, Flemish education minister Hilde Crevits has decided to turn all of the region’s prisons into official, though off-site, departments of adult education centres (CVOs). She has also introduced a new financing system to encourage prisons to concentrate more on the needs of the inmate population. 

Prisons serve as both punishment and deterrent. But practically everywhere, they fall short on preventing recidivism, or re-offending. It’s no different for Belgium: 44% of all convicts end up back in prison, half of them in under two years.

Most ex-prisoners who re-offend lack education and training that could help them find work. Research shows that joblessness is one of the biggest obstacles to reintegration. Education inside the prison walls could, therefore, decrease their chances of ending up back behind bars.

Time to graduate

While partnerships between schools and prisons have existed for decades, Flanders began funding the co-ordination of teacher exchanges in 2007. Since 2015, the Flemish support centre for adult education Vocvo has taken over the co-ordination of prison education across Flanders and Dutch-speaking Brussels. 

With Vocvo’s help, thousands of inmates every year embark on tailor-made educational programmes. They can study French, English and Dutch or follow computer classes. In some prisons, inmates can sign up for officially recognised vocational training and become masons, bakers, forklift drivers, cooks or small business managers.

In 2015, 2,554 inmates in Flanders and Brussels – nearly 20% of the inmate population – enrolled in these courses. Some inmates go as far as completing secondary education.

This diploma is my message to the world. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through. If you really want something, you can do it

- Inmate Robert Mauamba

At the Poort van Beveren correctional facility in East Flanders, a group of 30 smartly dressed men cheers as Robert Mauamba shakes his teacher’s hand and proudly displays his secondary school diploma. 

Poort van Beveren is a heavily guarded concrete building, completed three years ago to house inmates with sentences ranging from nine years to life. Many of its prisoners have been charged with fraud, drug trafficking and organised crime, but also sexual offences, manslaughter and murder.

The mood at the graduation ceremony is exuberant and festive. There are mocktails and cake prepared by the graduates of the cooking class. The garland over the stage keeps falling to the ground, but nobody seems to mind, as the teachers and inmates carry on with casual conversations.

A diploma and a plan

To motivate prisoners to learn, schools in Flanders’ prisons have been made to resemble those on the outside. The graduation is also modelled on ceremonies in normal schools – with the exception of a sealed-off glass booth, where four armed guards sift through paperwork and inspect security footage.

“Not many people could have pulled this off,” says 21-year-old Mauamba at the end of the ceremony. “Especially considering what I’ve been through.”

Mauamba doesn’t shy away from talking about his past. At 16, he was sentenced to 18 months for burglary. At 18, he got arrested for attempting to rob an insurance broker at gunpoint.

He was sentenced to 54 months in prison, but will likely be freed later this summer. This time with a diploma and a plan.

‘All about self-respect’

“This diploma is my message to the world,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve experienced. If you really want something – as long as it’s realistic – you can do it.”

He plans to look into university colleges in Ghent and Brussels, intent on studying communications management.

Aside from helping a former inmate enter higher education or secure a job, the long-term psychological effects of the programme are just as important, says Inge Van Acker, general co-ordinator of prison education in Flanders and Brussels.

Our work stops at the gate. Most inmates do not wish to remain in contact once they’ve been released, and we respect that

- Inge Van Acker

“It’s all about self-respect,” she explains. “Some win it back, others get to know it for the first time in their lives. As children in school, most of the inmates suffered from repeated experiences of failure that have put a mark on the rest of their lives.” 

When they graduate, she continues, “they see things differently. They focus less on blaming school and themselves and more on the contextual factors that led to their incarceration. This adds to their self-confidence and helps them grow resilient when returning to the outside.”

At this point, there is no data yet to back up her claims. “But we have stories confirming our hypothesis,” she explains. “Our work stops at the gate. Most inmates do not wish to remain in contact once they’ve been released, and we respect that.”

Pragmatic

In the absence of concrete evidence, others warn of too much optimism. “Employers aren’t exactly lining up to hire ex-convicts,” says Beveren’s prison director, Wim Adriaenssen. “Will learning basic Dutch really help these people on the labour market? The answer is no.”

He also says it’s not all about education. “Don’t underestimate how pragmatic the inmates can be.  For the criminal courts deciding on their release, of course it looks better if the inmates can show they’re trying to improve themselves.” 

And yet, Adriaenssen understands the value of inmate education. “Prisoners have a lot of free time, and the more of it that is filled constructively, the better. Educators at our facility are a win-win for everyone, regardless of their impact on the inmates’ chances of landing a job.”

Most inmates, too, are grateful for the opportunity. Peter Callens grew up in a travelling carnival and never learned to read or write. At 40, he’s spent the last seven years in prison. Six months ago, he decided to teach himself to write. He purchased a pen, took to the prison library and started copying books.

The world has changed

He had to work up his nerve to finally enrol in a course so he could learn the meaning of what he was writing. “I felt ashamed at not knowing how to read or write at my age,” he says. 

Earlier this year, Callens left prison on temporary release and experienced culture shock. “Today’s world revolves around writing on Facebook, email and messages,” he says. “I had no idea. The world has changed. It wasn’t like that before I went to prison.”

Pedro Aguial’s story is equally inspiring. Having already served seven years of his 14-year sentence, he became fluent in Dutch, learned to read and write and has now finished a course in mathematics.

I thought for a long time whether or not I wanted to – or could – teach this man

“This is better than just walking around or playing on the PlayStation,” he says. “That’s the one positive element in prison life, the only little freedom we’re granted.” 

On top of that, he continues, “it is beautiful to succeed in something and have the feeling that you’re investing in your future. Because I want to be a father to my children and a husband to my wife.”

As the prison education programme expands, there’s no foreseeable shortage of teachers. While most describe the job as extremely interesting and rewarding, there remains the question of how to deal with the students’ criminal past.

A human side

On condition of anonymity, one teacher talked about a student who was convicted of multiple murders. “I thought for a long time whether or not I wanted to – or could – teach this man,” the teacher says. “In the end, I decided not to treat him differently from other inmates. There’s no use in me punishing him more; he’s being punished already.” 

The prisoner “committed gruesome crimes”, the teacher continues, “but that could be the case for any of my students. I run into him in the hallway. Flanked by guards, he says ‘hi’ in a very friendly way. But it still feels strange.”

As a rule, teachers don’t delve into their students’ past. “It is normal to ask yourself the question of what they have done,” says Dutch-language teacher Ellen Theewes. “But we never do. After a while they’ll talk about it anyway, but by then it doesn’t matter anymore. All of them have a human side, and that’s the side you get to know first.” 

All prisoners’ names have been changed at the request of Vocvo

Photo: Stephen Vincke