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Writing essays and passing exams… in jail

 L'Itinéraire - Canada 26 September 2019

Thousands of inmates serve time in Quebec’s prisons, but only some take advantage of their confinement by taking up university studies. Despite the meagre support and numerous obstacles, the jailed students are putting their money on the fact that these qualifications will allow them to find a better place in society when they leave. (1153 Words) - By Louis-Samuel Perron


L'Itinéraire_Writing essays and passing exams in jail

Prison services in a growing number of countries now offer educational programmes for inmates. Filipino prisoners wear graduation attire as they chat with fellow inmates before a graduation ceremony in Muntilupa city, south of Manila. Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

"An A!" Christian* shouts. "I got an A in prison; I'm not going back there!" Astounded at having passed his course in human biology with flying colours, Christian is finally beginning to see a rose-tinted future for himself. The erudite forty-something has just finished his Bachelor degree, against all the odds, after 20 years. He had never managed to finish it before, even though he only had three courses left to complete. It was in jail that he finally passed it. "Maybe the outside was more of a prison for me than being in here," he suggests on the phone, proud of his success. Year in, year out, a handful of prisoners in Quebec cherish the hope that they will find it easier reintegrating back into society with a higher education qualification in hand.

Christian was able to study thanks to Téluq, an Open University-style organisation in Quebec that offers a range of university-level courses. "Demand has come from within the prison system," explains Luc Bouchard, the access-to-learning coordinator. "It's a service that we've put in place to help social integration." However, Bouchard had to win over institutional scepticism in order for prisoners to have access to the university. "I think it's an essential service. It's our mission from an educational point of view".

Prisoners in Quebec have access to a multitude of resources to help them finish their secondary school education. At Bordeaux Prison, for example, teachers from the Montreal Commission for Education come to the prison to teach courses. There is an enormous need for these services since 4 out of 5 prisoners don't hold any secondary-level qualifications. But for the rare souls who want to be university students, the available resources are slim pickings.

"The prison system does absolutely nothing to accommodate you," complains Pierre, interviewed at the Laval Federal Training Centre, a minimum security penitentiary. "To them, university studies are unnecessary". Aged 46, he has been serving time over the last ten years in different Quebecois institutions. Since he was incarcerated, Pierre hasn't sat idly by. He finished the 3rd, 4th and 5th years of secondary school in 8 months, and completed a BA in Administration in 5½ years. Additionally, he has completed an HND in IT. "With a life sentence, I knew that I wouldn't be able to make a living from crime anymore," he is keen to underline. "When I get out, I want to get myself together and give myself a reasonable quality of life".

Pierre, who will be eligible for conditional release in two years time, has been preparing for his release for several years. He is conscious that he's going to have to face up to numerous prejudices. "With a criminal record, I know that it'll be difficult to find work. I've never been in the job market. I told myself 'if I leave prison without any qualifications, what am I going to do exactly? Work for minimum wage?' With a BA in Administration, I want to make my own way when I leave." Christian, newly qualified, is counting on doing the same thing and working for himself when he's released. Despite the pitfalls and the prejudices, he remains convinced that studying represents a means of reintegrating yourself back into society. "The more knowledge you have, the better you can be rehabilitated", he claims.

An affable and pleasant interviewee, Pierre estimates that he would have been able to finish his degree quicker, in three years, even. However, in contrast to the inmates who study for secondary-level qualifications, he was obliged to do daily chores to earn the salary that working prisoners are entitled to, even if it's a meagre five dollars a day. "I asked the management in every institution I was in if I could study full-time and still earn the salary, but none of them were for it!" It may sound like a derisory sum of money, but for Pierre, it meant being able to avoid the dismal food in the canteen and buy meat and vegetables to cook himself. Nonetheless, Pierre is full of praise for the tireless work of the employment support organisation OPEX, which serves as an intermediary between him and Téluq. He is scathing, however, about the prison system. "They claim that the system is based on reintegrating you back into society. What could be better for reintegrating than going to university? Why are they so desperate for me to mop floors?"

The rocky road to a career

The challenges which the students face are immense: a difficult environment, insufficient resources and a lack of support are all on the cards. "When I arrived, the first thing I saw was someone who'd had their ears cut off," Christian remembers, stunned. "In prison, you try and survive. The environment I'm studying in is awful. The officers tell me they don't know how I do it". Additionally, the inmates are denied access to lots of courses because they don't have access to the Internet for security reasons.

"Students studying in prisons have less access to services than regular students", explains Luc Bouchard, the access-to-learning coordinator at Téluq. "There's lots of constraints around using IT. That limits the services that we can offer a student". Although he didn't have access to a computer at the start, Christian persevered and gained the trust of the guards, who let him use them sporadically. "I did my lessons with only a pencil, a ruler and a dictionary. I wrote at least 400 pages by hand and I got 92%!"

It's also difficult to get in touch with the tutors at Téluq. For Pierre, it could sometimes take up to two weeks, just to discuss something over the phone. "That's why I only called my tutor 3 - 4 times during my BA," Pierre points out proudly. "I always got on fine by myself and it went well". Pierre remains convinced that access to a tutor could have been facilitated. "They could keep the name of the tutor confidential, but let us call them. That would save days of delays." At the moment, this is impossible for security reasons. Moreover, many tutors refuse to work with prisoners, to Luc Bouchard's dismay. "There's a lot of prejudice. People are scared, for example, if a prisoner is violent and he isn't happy with his grade".

According to Pierre, he would have never got beyond the second year of high school if he'd stayed "outside". In his eyes, one thing is clear: social reintegration comes hand-in-hand with education, so the State should move from empty words to concrete action in order to help inmates along the way. "If they really say that the system is focused around social reintegration, they should do something about it!" he points out. "They should let people have the chance to educate themselves so they can do something when they get out. That way you can make sure that you won't see them again!"

* Names have been changed

Translated from French into English by Anna Currie

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