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Prisoners’ right to education

We cannot imprison a person for many years without providing an avenue for change… Indeed change will have occurred but certainly not how it was envisioned. For we will have created an envious, frustrated, delusional, pent-up, angry and de-humanized individual who will certainly seek revenge.”

Vernor Muñoz Villalobos addressing the Human Rights Council, 11th session. © UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre“These words come from a prisoner interviewed by the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Muñoz for his recent report to the Human Rights Council on access to education in prisons.

It is estimated globally there are more than 9 million people in prison, either as pre-trial detainees or as sentenced prisoners and in a majority of countries, prison populations are increasing.

In his report, Muñoz refers to the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, a resolution adopted by the United Nations in 1990, which states that people in prisons retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the “right to take part in cultural activities and education aimed at the full development of the human personality.”

“Human dignity, core to human rights, implies respect for the individual,” Muñoz says, “in his actuality and also in his potential. As education is uniquely and pre- eminently concerned with learning, fulfilling potential and development it should therefore be a fundamental concern… not simply a utilitarian add-on should resources ‘allow’ it.”

One of the major barriers to the education of prisoners identified by Muñoz is public indifference and ignorance. “These (public) attitudes”, he says, “are fuelled by an often equally ill-informed and ill-advised media which… focus almost exclusively on unrepresentative individual violent events.” Add to that the “ready willingness of politicians to reflect these fears in penal policy” and the result is a general reluctance to embed prisoners’ right to education in legislation.

The correctional institutions themselves often link education opportunities to prison management rather than treating education as a fundamental right.

Even in those institutions that have education programmes there are many problems which are described in the report by prison inmates: courses interrupted or terminated on the personal whims of prison administrators; the absence of libraries; waiting lists of up to three years for programmes; limited or no access to training in information technology; vocational courses that are dated paths to nowhere; indifference to needs associated with specific disabilities; and the withdrawal of educational “privileges” as a punitive measure.

The number of women in prison is far fewer than men, on average four percent of the total. They are generally young, poor, unemployed, with little education and very few basic skills. In many States the quality and quantity of programmes is less than those provided to men, and where they are offered, often reflect very traditional female roles, such as sewing, kitchen duties, beauty and handicrafts.

Children, including juveniles, also make up part of the prison population. Current global statistics estimate at least a million children in detention, most of them boys. For the most part these children receive inadequate education, ill-suited to their needs, and upon release more than two thirds of them do not return to school.

Muñoz has made a number of specific recommendations in his report to assist governments address these problems and develop best practices. Most important, the report recommends education for people in detention should be guaranteed and entrenched in Constitutional and/or other legislative instruments; education programmes for prisoners should be publicly funded; and at the least, the curriculum of compulsory education at the primary level should be offered.

Muñoz cautions that, “it is too frequently forgotten that the consequences of what does or does not happen to those who experience [detention] will also be felt by the community to which the majority of prisoners are released.”

28 July 2009