Education for prisoners with the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

Unesco UIL

In this interview, meet Marie Macauley, Programme Specialist at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.

Marie, can you tell us more about you and your role at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning?

Of course! I am a Programme Specialist at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, where I lead a number of exciting projects. More specifically, I work on the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities, the programme on the recognition, validation and accreditation of prior learning, and an international project on the state of prison education around the world. These projects allow me to explore the potential of lifelong learning across various geographic scales as well as look at groups with differing degrees of access to educational tools.

Why is it so important for prisoners to have access to education?

Education is a fundamental human right, of which prisoners should not be deprived. It is this assertion that underpins the fundamental importance of improving prisoner access to education. Accordingly, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners – otherwise known as the Nelson Mandela Rules – stipulate that, while in prison, individuals should be able to engage in opportunities to continue learning.

Furthermore, from a prisoner perspective access to education provides the opportunity to broaden knowledge and acquire new skills that facilitate sustainable (re)integration into the labour market and society. Education also provides personal fulfilment, helping open up a world of reading, culture, history, and identity that can give meaning to the lives of prisoners and help them make sense of the world around them. The subsequent societal benefits are plentiful, with prison education programmes reducing recidivism and the attendant economic and social costs.

UNESCO Prison Education
© HMP Wandsworth, London, United Kingdom.

Some programmes are currently available for prisoners but they encounter barriers to access these programmes. How come? 

Prisoners face significant barriers in accessing educational programmes for a variety of reasons including insurmountable eligibility requirements, lack of information, long waiting lists and tedious application procedures, poor learning conditions and limited resources. The main reasons for these barriers seem to be the logistical, security and financial constraints that prioritise running the prison over prisoners’ education needs. Addressing these barriers to participation in education programmes is crucial to ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to reap the aforementioned benefits of learning.

How can we improve and expand education in prisons?

To expand education in prisons, it is important to increase funding and resources for educational programs, address barriers to access, and collaborate with educational institutions and organisations that specialise in education in the penal system. Where access barriers are concerned, specific restraints facing illiterate and female prisoners – among other groups – should be considered and, where relevant, language barriers should be addressed.

Regarding improving educational programmes in prisons, there exists a need to tailor programmes to the specific needs of prisoners, incorporate vocational and job training into these, make use of available technology to enhance the learning experience, and think innovatively about how to make the best use out of available resources.

Do you have any big news to share?

This is a particularly exciting time for the institute’s work on education in prison. We are working on coordinating and developing an international survey on prison education in six countries. This study will work to further identify the variety of challenges and successes that exist in this space, and involve participants working to share best practice and solutions moving forward. Moreover, we are conducting a series of interviews with prisoners and former prisoners on their personal experiences in prison education programmes.

The main objective of these interviews will be to generate testimonies of the benefits and impact of education in prisons, to supplement the research findings of UIL’s ‘Education in Prison’ project. Finally, we are also continuing to work collaboratively with individual countries to improve the provision and quality of prison education programmes, based on extensive research of best practices around the world and context-specific challenges.

Will you be participating in the Learning Planet Festival this year? Can you tell us more about it?

Yes! I am delighted to share that I will be participating in the 2023 Learning Planet Festival which begins on the International Day of Education. This event is organised in collaboration with UNESCO, as well as various organisations that specialise in education, culture, science, and social and environmental impact.  The diverse array and number of events are almost dizzying,  and provide a platform to share ideas and showcase current projects. Above all, the Learning Planet Festival unites those individuals and organisations who are passionate about harnessing the power of education to solve global challenges.

More specifically, the UIL Director, Mr David Atchoarena, will be participating in the roundtable titled “Les organisations et territoires apprenants”, which will take place online, Friday, 27 January from 11 AM to 12:30 PM. To prepare their future and find the keys to solving their internal and societal challenges, organisations and territories must transform into learning entities. This roundtable, organized by the Learning Planet Institute, will address what this means and discuss how can we facilitate cooperation and learning among all the actors concerned at the level of an organisation or a territory. UIL will proposes concrete city-level solutions to help we remove the obstacles to the development of learning ecosystems.


Prison education
Learning behind bars: Realizing the benefits of prison education

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