HE in prisons still ‘patchy’ despite expansion of e-learning

The COVID-19 pandemic’s expansion of online learning has created new higher education opportunities to teach Africa’s prison inmates, but even the administrators of some correctional facilities and government officials have been reluctant to take advantage of these options.

The idea that prison can deliver personal growth and reform, as well as punishment and justice, is not universally accepted across the continent, restricting the potential of higher online learning for inmates.

It is unclear how many university students are among the 1,194,497 people behind bars in Africa, according to 2021 data included in World Prison Brief, released by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research.

However, Doreen Namyalo Kyazze, the Sub-Saharan Africa regional director for Penal Reform International, a United Kingdom-based organisation working globally to promote criminal justice systems, believes they represent less than 1% of the African prison population.

Kyazze said that most prisons in Africa may be about 300% overcrowded and 90% of inmates are illiterate or semi-illiterate, therefore adult literacy programmes dominate and only one or two prisons per country offer higher education in what can be described as a “really patchy” universe.

Despite the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4, to leave no one behind in tertiary education by 2030, and commitments such as in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), Kyazze sees “very little investment and deliberate effort” to make progress in delivering prison higher education.

The Nelson Mandela Rules, for instance, state that education should be provided in accordance with prisoners’ “social and criminal history, physical and mental capacities and aptitudes, personal temperament, the length of his or her sentence and prospects after release”, and inmates are entitled to one rest day a week and sufficient time for education.

According to the same document, education for young prisoners shall be compulsory, and overall prisoners’ education, should be provided, as far as it is practical, and should be integrated into country educational systems so that, upon inmates’ release, they can continue with their education unhindered.

Nelson Mandela, of course, famously used his 27-year jail term in South Africa to learn law through the world’s first distance learning institution, the University of South Africa, or UNISA.

Furthermore, despite the use of digital media being encouraged to educate inmates by international organisations such as the Council of Europe, the only investment in technology Kyazze has seen lately in prisons in Africa was, not to support education, but to improve security and to support the hearing of [court] cases during the pandemic.

South Africa in the lead

Sindile Ngubane, the head of the Institute for Open and Distance Learning of UNISA, said her country is “doing better” in providing prison education in Africa due to its comparative economic wealth and the fact that South Africa’s correctional system is focused on “rehabilitation and restoration”, instead of being merely “punitive”.

In the 2020-21 financial year, the South African Department of Correctional Services “enrolled 361 students at higher education institutions”, according to its annual report.

That said, in South Africa, offenders are told they must pay for their higher education studies, according to the department of correctional services, which says South African law mandates that inmate higher education studies “should be done through distance learning in the offender’s own time and at his or her own expense”, paying the same fees as students outside the prison system.

Ngubane is co-author of a 2021 article ‘Incarcerated students’ experiences of UNISA’s open distance e-learning at one Medium Correctional Centre’, in the South African Journal of Higher Education.

Here, she concluded that the pandemic brought “an opportunity for people to get into other universities because most universities have gone online” and has helped to improve the educational offer to inmates: from “just dumping things” online, lecturers had to start interacting with their students.

Yet, she stressed that more university and correctional centre staff should acquire specialised skills in information communication technology (ICT) to better assist incarcerated students.

Since security takes precedence over education, inmates could not, for instance, complete their assessments through UNISA’s invigilator app, because they had no cellphones, she said.

Also, their limited time allowed in the prison education area does not allow them to participate in online discussions with academics and other students, which usually take place after hours.

Moreover, correctional facility-based postgraduate students need to use that education centre time to type their papers and print documents, thus prisoners take four times as long as other students to complete their studies, said the researcher.

Hence, some prison staff, who “take pride” in their students, end up helping them by providing access to their own cellphones under their supervision, said Ngubane.

Where such assistance works, there can be real progress. Compared to many students who are sometimes getting education for the sake of employment only, or think they are doing the government a favour by going to school, inmates are grateful that they are offered an opportunity to have a new life, she said.

They also understand better that lifelong learning is important, she said, recalling comments such as: “I am the first at home to be in prison, but I will be the first at home to have a PhD.”

Another inmate told her that her children are now motivated about their own education, saying: “If our mother can study in prison, what will make us fail to do it?”

Therefore, Ngubane called for more learning analytics to better understand prison students’ needs and the potential positive impact on their lives.

Ghanaian offer relies on donors

Prince Solomon Stuff, the executive director of Ghana’s Prison Inmate Tertiary Education Programme (PITEP), stressed how, since 2019, his organisation has offered free higher education to prisoners.

This was based on an understanding that prison tertiary studies “provide hope for inmates, making them better people”, helping them become properly integrated into society after being discharged, thus reducing “recidivism because of the social stigma”.

Since its launch, “142 inmates have, so far, been enrolled on the programme”, noted Stuff, who is also president of the Plan Volta Foundation, the local non-governmental organisation funding and managing the PITEP in partnership with the Ghana Prisons Service and Ghana’s University of Cape Coast.

Currently, it is a distance education programme, in which self-explanatory study materials are provided and every two weeks lecturers go into the Nsawam Medium Security Prison, north of the capital, Accra, to facilitate face-to-face sections, he said.

Stuff added that the service has also used part-time lecturers and some inmates who possess the requisite qualifications to provide tutorial services.

Soon, inmates will be able to download, under supervision, lectures uploaded online to a drive that will allow them to play such lessons on electronic devices at a convenient time, he added.

“We are looking forward to extending the programme to other prisons, to reach out to 120 students per year in enrolments, but our challenge now is funding,” he stressed.

The Plan Volta Foundation raises funds through applications to a wide range of donor organisations, but the pandemic made it harder to secure funds, as many other worthy recipients have also been struggling financially.


The supply of higher education in Kenyan prisons is also patchy, even though lower-level education is provided in all prisons within the country.

“Our correctional facilities [prisons] allow inmates to pursue primary and secondary education. However, higher education is limited and left to non-governmental organisations,” Wilson Kinyua, who once served as a prisoner for 19 years at the country’s Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, told University World News.

“While in prison, I was able to enrol for a law degree, which helped me defend myself and successfully appealed a death penalty against me,” Kinyua said.

Kinyua, at 22 years old, was sent to jail in the year 2000, having been convicted of robbery with violence. After successful self-representation, he was released in 2019 in his final year of the LLB degree. Today he is a lawyer in Nairobi.

Sylvia Morwabe, the programme director at the justice reform campaign group Crime Si Poa, said the only available higher education option for Kenyan prisoners is the LLB degree offered by the University of London, in collaboration with the African Prisons Project.

She said Crime Si Poa promotes “legal awareness and empowerment in prisons, where we do paralegal training and award certificates for successful candidates”.

Morwabe called on the Kenyan government to take a more active role in supplying higher education to prisoners: “To make meaning of reforms and rehabilitation, the government of Kenya, through the ministry of education, needs to make sure that they offer not only basic education to inmates but allow them to pursue higher education in various fields so that, after they complete their sentence, they can be integrated back into society as professionals in various careers,” she told University World News.

Kinyua, who graduated with an LLB degree from the University of London in 2021, said higher education is offered only at Kamiti Maximum Prison. He called for investment in higher education and a diversification of courses across all prison facilities in Kenya. His course involved distance learning with some onsite lectures.

Inmates who want to pursue different degrees can become demoralised, as the only available option is technical and further education, enabling them to become mechanics, tailors or carpenters, he said.


According to José António Moreira, lecturer at the Open University of Portugal, the only Nigerian prisoners who have access to computers are students who attend higher education courses at the National Open University of Nigeria, but they cannot access the internet, except during the nearly eight weeks of exam season, when network and proxy servers are installed in prisons. Education resources are provided in print and digital versions and students usually complete their work in manuscript format, he wrote.

The National Open University of Nigeria has been offering degree programmes to inmates since 2016, providing computers, books and materials specifically produced for prison students.

Before then, tertiary education was available to Nigerian inmates, but delivered in a rather ad hoc way, with non-governmental organisations providing basic facilities such as chairs, tables and libraries, aiding prisoners with applications, registrations, funding and other support services.

Professor Nebath Tanglang, of the open university’s directorate of academic planning, said these services did not meet appropriate standards: “When we went into the prisons, we discovered that the way they were receiving their own study [material] was different from their counterparts who were not in prison,” he told University World News.

Tanglang completed a study in 2016 which exposed the limited access to higher education in Nigerian prisons and recommended that the open university provide free access to degree programmes to all qualified inmates wanting to undertake higher education.

“We had a firm that the university engaged for e-learning. Because the internet is not allowed in prison, we recorded lectures and loaded all the lessons on the computer. So prisoners saw that this thing was real. They started coming in numbers because of this,” he said.

Now, some have graduated and some are pursuing their masters programme through the university.

The Kirikiri prisons in Lagos served as a pilot but, now, more than 12 prisons are delivering open university courses to qualified inmates.

Tanglang said the university is currently assessing how to improve the current prison system, working with the UK-funded Research and Innovation Systems in Africa, or RISA.

“We want to have an e-learning model in place where we can link up with a telecoms provider. It would be a dedicated line in which the prisoner would not have access to other people outside. But we are still talking with the prison authorities [to discover] if they will allow us to do that.”