Prison education group looks to benefit inmates and society


The Klasbak network aims to improve education for prisoners and reduce the risk of re-offending, taking lessons from European neighbours like Norway

Life after release

When the European Prison Education Association (EPEA) held its biennial congress in Antwerp last month, it was glad to see that its host country had initiated its own prison education network. “We were one of the few European countries without a national division,” says president Liesbeth De Donder, a professor and doctor of adult educational sciences at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).

Klasbak is now the official Flemish branch of this organisation that aims to exchange expertise about the development of prison education.” Klasbak existed a few years ago on an informal level, uniting people who teach in prisons, but this year it became an official non-profit organisation.

“The biggest difference with the past is that our perspective has become much wider,” explains De Donder. “We’re focusing not just on formal education but also on non-formal and informal learning. Courses in aggression control or training about how to take on a mother or a father role in prison: it’s all education, just like any other social-cultural training, going to the library, doing sport…”

In Belgium, a programme already allowed prisoners to follow the same courses as they could outside the detention centre. In the future, Klasbak also aims to collect data about the effects of the education received by the prisoners.

More specifically, they’re interested in the link between education and recidivism. “International research shows that the chance of recidivism is smaller when prisoners participate in these educational programmes,” says De Donder. “But in Belgium and Flanders, there is simply no data available.”

A second chance

It’s also not always easy for prisoners to study what they want to. “All prisons have different systems, and a prison director often has the last word,” she says. “On the other hand, the situation in detention houses, where people are waiting for trial but have not yet been sentenced, differs from the situation in prisons.”

Dorien Brosens, a researcher at the VUB, recently studied the reasons prisoners take part in educational programmes. “People might think prisoners do these things so they can spend time out of their cells or because their lawyer tells them to, thinking it will help them get released earlier,” De Donder says. “But we found they did it for goal-orientated reasons: a new chance in life, a degree or to help them get a job after they’re released.”

One of Klasbak’s main goals is to remove the mostly organisational obstacles prisoners encounter when seeking education. “Sometimes they don’t even know they have the opportunity to study. Sometimes there’s a waiting period of three or four months before they can participate. Sometimes they have to choose between work and study.

Outside jail they would almost never follow courses, but in prison you can reach them

- Liesbeth De Donder

“Don’t forget prisoners are a very vulnerable social-economical group,” De Donder continues. “They are poorly educated and have mostly had low-paid jobs. We know for sure that outside jail they would almost never follow courses, but in prison you can reach them, which gives us hope.”

A role model for the development of educational programmes in the Flemish detention system is Norway. “It’s the most developed country for prison education in Europe: 40 out of the 170 participants of the EPEA congress were Norwegians. Unlike the Belgian voluntary system, education is obligatory for Norwegian prisons.”

Next summer, Klasbak wants to be ready with its process of policy planning. An external bureau will guide the organisation in gathering a mix of people involved in prison education. “Now, there’s not much exchange,” explains De Donder. “Vocvo, the Flemish Support Centre for Adult Education, co-ordinates all teaching in prisons, but we also aim to involve more informal learning.”

The organisation also wants to become a platform for expertise, collecting data and initiating new research. “As a university, we have experience doing internships in prison, and we want to pass on that expertise.”

Take Foriner, a new European project on which the VUB is already working with Vocvo. “We are following up Belgian prisoners in other prisons, such as in Poland. But, of course, it would be a big improvement if we could develop, with the support of EPEA and the federal prison institutions, a real European project that would also include Polish people in our prisons, so they can follow courses in Polish. At the moment, such things depend too much on people’s goodwill.”

The prison courses offered by non-profit organisation De Rode Antraciet have a wider potential, says De Donder, setting up specific initiatives in the prisons of Antwerp, where an open learning centre replaced the odd classroom, and in Bruges, where prisoners can obtain a certificate after they have worked for a certain period in the prison kitchen.

“It’s our role to translate all these small-scale initiatives into a wider policy. But above all, Klasbak is a multi-disciplinary organisation and open to new ideas.”

Photo: S Vincke