Should we educate our prison population?

One of the speakers at TEDx Auckland this year was Paul Wood, a man who spent 11 years in prison for murder and graduated in June with a PhD in psychology.  He completed his Bachelors and Masters degrees entirely behind bars, began his doctorate on the inside and is the first person in New Zealand to complete three degrees begun in incarceration.  He now works as a development and change specialist, helping others to turn their lives around.

I saw a short interview with Wood the other day on Campbell Live.  The reported asked him what I thought was a very interesting question: “Do prisoners deserve the privilege of education?”

This seemed like unusual phrasing to me, since I’ve never thought of education as a “privilege”.  I’ve always thought of it as a basic human right, like food, shelter, and medical care.  But I can understand that when someone commits a crime, particularly a serious one, that they forfeit certain rights for a designated period of time.

The issue is, as Wood said, why we are sending people to prison.  Is the aim of a prison sentence retribution for the victims of the crime, or is it rehabilitation for the prisoners?

I think it depends on how we view criminals.  If we think they are inherently evil people, then we may want to lock them up and throw away the key.  We think they should be denied all freedoms, including the chance to further their education, because such opportunities are only wasted on them.  We assume that they have no desire to better themselves or be of benefit to society.

But what if we think of them as victims of circumstance?  The majority of those who are incarcerated have grown up in situations where violence and criminal behaviour are normalised, and suffer from addiction and other serious mental health issues.  They typically have very low levels of education and many are illiterate.  Then, shouldn’t we be using prison terms partly to help such people turn their lives around?

I find Wood’s story of studying behind bars remarkable.  His studies allowed him to become aware that he had some control of the choices he was making and the impact his actions had on others.  It allowed him to rehabilitate himself, change his outlook and choices, and become a contributing member of society upon release.

Personally, I think education should be mandatory for prisoners.  Ideally we would help those who are disadvantaged before they hurt other people and end up behind bars, but for those who slip through the cracks anyway, it may be our best chance to reduce reoffending.

It’s a controversial issue.  What do you think?

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