Education in prison | David Dorson

By David Dorson

Law360 Canada (May 12, 2023, 10:37 AM EDT) -- I was fortunate enough to get a job in the prison school. Federal prisoners are required to have a job — even if you are fully retired on the outside. Most prison jobs, though, are mindless, like cleaning the same little bit of hallway or the same bathroom for several hours every day. Only a few jobs have any intrinsic interest to them, and they are generally hard to get. Once a lifer gets into a good job, he is understandably going to try to stay there, and about 25 per cent of the prison population was lifers. 

So I was fortunate to meet, sitting in the library in my first week there, another prisoner who was already working as a tutor in the school. For some reason he took a liking to me and introduced me to the teacher he worked for, who also took me on as a tutor. I had a strong education background, so that made sense, but making sense rarely seemed to be basis for anything that happened in that place! And in fact the guy who was in charge of the school in the minimum did not think I could or should be a tutor; I only got the job because the teacher insisted.

This school, serving a population that was in need of really good education, was, to put it bluntly, ridiculously bad — well below any educational standard that would be accepted in the general community. There were multiple problems.

First, students were forced to go. If you could not prove that you had graduated from high school (because, for example, you graduated 40 years ago, or in another country) you were forced to attend school — or to go on the waiting list. Enrolment was strictly limited, so quite a few prisoners who wanted to go, could not. Meanwhile, those who did not need or want to be there were taking up spaces.

Going to school counted as a half-time job. You went to school half the day and did some other job the other half. School was generally an easy place to spend time because most of the teachers were supportive, and the atmosphere was much less oppressive than in most prison activities. So students were often in no hurry to complete their program and leave.

The school occupied several rooms in what was called the “programs building,” a nondescript, fairly modern (’70s? ’80s?) building. 

There were only two educational offerings — adult basic education and high school completion. No meaningful vocational training was available, and the high school program was very limited. There was no opportunity for students to pursue their own interests, or for prisoners with skills to teach them to other prisoners.

One classroom where I assisted, with 10 places, offered adult basic education for those whose skills were very poor. According to Correctional Service Canada about 80 per cent of federal prisoners have not completed high school and many have very low literacy skills. Like all the classes, this one lacked high quality or recent learning materials and teachers were prohibited from bringing any materials into the prison. Most of the students in this class were from other countries and were going to be deported as soon as their sentences were completed. Few of them had any interest in the program but most were happy to spend a couple of hours a day there doing very little.

Three other classrooms offered courses towards high school completion — English, mathematics and social studies. Students did this work individually using a computer. There were very few actual classes or active teaching or group discussions, so little to engage student interest. Students came in, logged into the computers (which of course had no Internet access) and worked on their assignments. The content, materials and learning tasks often had little relevance to prisoners who began with many educational challenges and little confidence in their ability to learn. 

Students who were struggling could ask for assistance from the teacher or from prisoner tutors like me, though some of the tutors didn’t have a lot more education than did the students. There was no provision at all for special educational needs even though many prisoners had diagnosed learning difficulties or had been out of school for years if not decades. 

The problems with the school were not due to the teachers, who were working with little or no support, were forced to use an irrelevant curriculum and had few resources. The school had no leadership. The head of the school seemed, like many prison staff, to be trying to work as little as possible while meeting bureaucratic requirements. (Ironically this was also the approach of most prisoners.) In more than a year I never met the person who was the “principal,” the warden or any of the assistant wardens. The most talented teachers would have struggled in that setting. 

Additionally, the school was often closed. In my last few months there I kept track. In that time at least one of the two classrooms where I worked was closed at least part of the day more than half the time. The reality was that the institution did not care if the school was open, if it was operating well, if students were benefiting or learning or even completing their programs. Again, this was how the prison operated in regard to just about everything. I couldn’t help thinking that schooling in prison could be so much more — building on students’ interests, increasing their confidence and giving them some real credentials. It did none of those.

And this was in minimum security. One of the teachers told me about his experiences teaching in a max prison, where there was always an armed guard on a catwalk above the classroom. Not exactly the ideal setting for learning. Medium and maximum prisons also have many more cancellations of programs, so students would have attended even less often. So this was prison education at its best — a very low bar indeed.

Despite all that, I liked working there. I was treated well by the teachers and was able to help some students. The classrooms were calm places. When there was nothing for me to do (which was not infrequent) I could read, or just yak with other prisoners. I was able to spend quite a few hours a day in a setting that was a lot less difficult than many other parts of the prison. And it looked good on my prison record, which mattered for parole.

David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. Law360 Canada has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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