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University in prisons – The ‘best rehabilitation tool’

Prison services across Africa are joining forces with local and foreign universities to provide higher education programmes for inmate students in a bid to rehabilitate prisoners and improve the effectiveness of incarceration.

According to Johannes Matata Mokoele, senior director of human resources at the Durban University of Technology, South Africa, university higher education could be considered as “the best rehabilitation tool” available to correctional services, producing as it does social and correctional benefits, including reducing recidivism and ensuring that former inmates constructively and legally contribute to economic development when absorbed into jobs post incarceration.

"The rate of recidivism is lowest for those prisoners who are engaged with higher education instead of numeracy or literacy, vocational, primary or secondary education," said Helen Farley, project leader of Making the Connection, a programme based at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia which delivers modified higher education programmes to incarcerated students.

"The greatest reductions in recidivism occur for those who spend longer times engaged with higher education," she told University World News.

According to Farley, higher education helps prisoners develop higher cognitive skills such that they become more reasoned, more articulate and are better able to negotiate better outcomes for themselves as higher education is thought to act as a form of dynamic security which manifests in a reduction in violence, anti-social behaviours and assault rates, and causes positive shifts in the culture of the entire prison.

Shift in thinking

"Prisoners engaged with higher education report a shift in their thinking from being reactive to becoming longer term thinkers, reimagining their lives and those of their families," Farley said.

Farley's views are in line with a recent report entitled Education Programmes for Prison Inmates: Reward for offences or hope for a better life? which investigated the value of prison education at two correctional service facilities in Pretoria, South Africa, and found that education for prisoners is not a waste of taxpayers’ money but has socio-economic value – through "the promotion of social cohesion; the re-integration of ex-inmates into the community as reformed members; the provision of knowledge and skills for employment and self-employment through entrepreneurial activities".

According to Mbongiseni Mdakane, based in the department of psychology of the University of South Africa or UNISA, people who study while incarcerated perform exceptionally well despite their circumstances. "This speaks directly to the resilience and desire to learn," he said.

The author of a 2016 masters dissertation entitled Defying the Odds of Recidivism: Ex-offenders’ narratives of desistance, Mdakane said ex-offenders who have participated in correctional education accrue a multitude of benefits for themselves. “In return, the diverse backgrounds and experiences brought by these students enriches the university community as a whole," he said.

Prison-university partnerships – A global trend

According to Nina Champion, head of policy at the United Kingdom-based Prisoners’ Education Trust and member of the steering committee of the European Prison Education Association, prison-university partnerships are an emerging global trend. They are well established in the United States and are growing across the UK, Europe, Canada and Australia, as well as being developed in Kenya and Uganda through the African Prisons Project.

The African Prisons Project offers formalised sponsorships that enable prisoners to study law through the University of London’s distance learning programme. The aim is to equip them with formal education, legal training and exposure to global best practice to ensure that prisoners’ rights are upheld.

Masters and postgraduate study linked to penal development and the provision of basic services such as education, health and access to justice are also available to senior prison professionals. For example, in partnership with the African Prisons Project, the UK-based University of Westminster offers a scholarship for a member of prison staff from an African country in order to encourage prison reform in Africa.

The African Prisons Project is the subject of a six-series documentary, Rebel Education, looking at innovative learning models in challenging environments such as prisons. Episode five follows the African Prisons Project into Kenyan prisons to see how their work is transforming the lives of prisoners through education and leadership programmes.

Alexander McLean, founder and director general of the African Prisons Project, told University World News: "Our experience working with the Ugandan and Kenyan prison services is that tertiary education in prison, and in particular legal education, for prisoners and prison staff together, can be transformative of the prison environment as prisoners and prison staff learning law together, learning from each other, can contribute to a sense of mutual empowerment, collaboration and transformation."

McLean said the African Prisons Project is working to establish a prison-based law college and law firm to train a generation of lawyers to use the law to serve the poor and work for more just nations.

"We want to see those who have first-hand experience of conflict with the law becoming the ones who make and implement the law," he said.

Open and distance learning

In line with the recommendation of a recent report, Empowering Female Prisoners in Africa: The open and distance learning option, which called on African distance learning institutions to be ready to offer different major educational programmes, several universities are extending their distance education services to prisoners to give inmates who qualify access to university education.

The National Open University of Nigeria, which is a federal open and distance learning institution and the first of its kind in the West African sub-region, has established six study centres in Nigerian prisons for the training of prison inmates in various prisons across the country towards the award of university degrees, certificates and diplomas in several disciplines, according to a 2016 GLOKALde report entitled Delivering Digital Higher Education into Prisons: The cases of four universities in Australia, UK, Turkey and Nigeria.

Presently, all the National Open University of Nigeria incarcerated students enjoy a 50% discount on all fees payable on registration, the report said.

While the National Open University of Nigeria may not be able to bear the burden of full sponsorship for all interested Nigerian prisoners, the prison authority is being encouraged to seek support from relevant governments to subsidise or sponsor well-behaved and interested prisoners.

With reference to South Africa, Mokoele of the Durban University of Technology, who is also the author of a 2015 report entitled Correctional Sentence Plan: A pathway to adult correctional education, said the South African Department of Correctional Services does not support free education beyond vocational level, although inmates are allowed to study through long distance to pursue academic programmes offered by universities if they can raise study fees.


"Unfortunately in South Africa, the government still has to resolve the ‘Fees Must Fall’ or free university education issue before even considering inmates, who are already enjoying government-funded education up to post-matric vocational education level – over and above free meals and medication," Mokoele said.

In order to raise awareness of the opportunities available for offenders, the University of South Africa has established a South African correctional interest group called Inside-out Outside-in, which serves as a clearing house for information on initiatives such as the development of tertiary education opportunities for offenders, issues of social reintegration and recidivism after release and issues relating to the families and relatives of offenders.

According to news reports from Ghana, that country’s prisons service is on the verge of introducing distance university education programmes to eligible inmates who want to improve academically, through cooperation with three universities, namely, the universities of Ghana and Cape Coast, and the University of Education, Winneba.

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges facing prisoners seeking higher education is the move towards more accessible learning through online technologies.

"Universities are moving increasingly online which presents a barrier to those prisoners wanting to engage with higher education as prisoners in nearly all global jurisdictions do not have access to the internet," said Farley.

However, although many universities have moved away from the hard-copy model of distance learning, there are still some that have retained the system, for example, the Open University of the UK.

In addition, Australia's University of Southern Queensland has developed a system that moves away from hard copy materials, but does not rely on the internet. The project Making the Connection offers specially adapted courses and programmes preloaded onto servers or notebooks which prisoners can access without having an internet connection.

"The most popular of these technologies are the notebook computers which prisoners can use in their cells after lock away at night, and the use of notebook computers also removed the need for prisoners to move around the prison, often very difficult in situations of overcrowding," Farley said.

The way forward

While funding university prison education may not seem a priority, research suggests that it may pay for itself in the longer term.

"The cost of keeping inmates without exposing them to leaning experiences through university education programmes may prove to be even more costly when the inmates are released as research suggests that they tend to revert to their old ways," Mokoele said.

Citing the reinstatement of the Pell Grant for prisoners by former US president Barack Obama’s administration should serve as a cue to African countries as to how education of inmates in higher education academic programmes will reduce crime, save funds and make communities safer, Mokoele said.

He said the advent of massive open online courses or MOOCs could be used to ensure the exposure of inmates to higher education and suggested that African correctional facilities partner with local institutions of higher learning and universities to access teaching staff.

Kofi Poku Quan-Baffour, chair of the department of adult education and youth development at the University of South Africa, called for a change in attitude.

"Efforts should be made by all African countries to change their attitude towards prison inmates. If we leave them only to serve time we all will lose when they re-join society, but if we educate them we shall all benefit covertly or overtly from their knowledge and skills,” Quan-Baffour said.

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