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Providing effective education and training in prison would seem to be crucial in helping prisoners live appropriately once they leave the penal system. Quite a bit of research points to the positive effect of education on outcomes for prisoners. More than seventy percent of the people who enter the federal prison system in Canada have less than high school education. Yet federal government reports show that education and training opportunities in federal prisons are very limited, and most prisoners exit with little in the way of usable skills or credentials.
In 2015 the Correctional Service (CSC) released an evaluation of its own education services. The first point to note is that the only formal education now provided in federal prisons consists of basic education or high school completion. With rare exceptions there is no longer any support provided for post-secondary education.
Report on schooling by a former prisoner
The schooling provided is also often of dubious quality. A recent article by an anonymous author who worked a prisoner-tutor in the Canadian system describes the many problems in these schools. For example, schools lack special education supports even though a very large number of prisoners have special needs. Students may be forced to attend school even if they have no interest, or are old or infirm. Most students have a history of unsuccessful schooling and poor study skills, yet in the prison schools, students work individually on computers, with limited support. Materials are often old or of limited relevance to the real issues in prisoners’ lives. Teachers are restricted from bringing additional materials into their classes. Teachers get little professional development, training, supervision or support despite dealing with a high need population. There is no internet access despite the ubiquity of the internet in all areas of education in the community.
Education is a low priority
But more importantly, the article describes a system in which education is a very low priority, with long waiting lists, classes often cancelled, and in general little support or attention from prison officials. The Correctional Service spends about 1% of its budget on education. The cost reported by CSC in its 2015 evaluation is about $2,900 per prisoner per year, compared with well over $10,000 per student per year in Canadian public schools – and some $120,000 per year to keep someone in a federal prison. Not surprisingly, then, completion rates are poor; the Auditor General reported that only one-quarter of prison students completed their high school diploma prior to release.
The article from the former prisoner makes five practical recommendations for improvement: more support for teachers and teaching; more options in what and how students learn; stronger incentives for students to work hard and make progress; build on the skills prisoners already have; and provide some degree of internet access.
Vocational training is weak
Another important aspect of preparation for release is vocational training. Many prisoners have few work skills and have difficulty finding and keeping a job once released. However here, too, opportunities in prison are very limited, and have got more so in recent years. A 2014 reports by Public Safety Canada showed that fewer than half of federal prisoners got any vocational certification and of those only 30% got any kind of job within 15 months of release. The most common programs were fork-lift operating and construction safety, neither of which provide much advantage in finding or keeping a job. It’s no surprise, then, that there was little connection between whatever training was provided and actual jobs in the community.
In short, evidence from the federal government itself suggests that education and training in prison is inadequate and failing to help prisoners after their release. Redirecting attention and resources to this area would almost certainly produce better results.