Why on Earth Should We Bother Educating Prisoners?

An Australian named John Braithwaite wrote a book titled Prisons, Education and Work.  His book was published in 1980.  In his book, Braithwaite presented a number of very cogent and persuasive ideas concerning prisoners and education. 

At the time Braithwaite wrote, the general consensus in Australia was that prisoners should not receive any benefits greater than those given to the lowest and poorest people in Australian society.  In other words, if poor people didn’t have it, then prisoners certainly shouldn’t have it.  Poor people didn’t have access to educational opportunities, therefore prisoners shouldn’t either.  If prisoners were granted advantages equal to or greater than law-abiding citizens then something was wrong somewhere.  Put simply, prisoners were to be punished, not rewarded.

Braithwaite disagreed with this viewpoint.  In Braithwaite’s opinion, the fact that those living in poverty were denied educational opportunities pointed to the failure of the Australian government.  He argued that prisoners were more qualified for benefits than any other underprivileged group because prisoners were – generally – the products of impoverished circumstances, upon which the added burden of incarceration had been inflicted.   According to Braithwaite, mankind’s inherent sense of fair play demanded that the government make every effort to educate and rehabilitate prisoners.  Once prisoners were released, Braithwaite contended, they had paid their debt to society and were entitled to gainful employment.  To deny them the right to become productive, responsible members of society and the nation was a moral injustice.

“Most prisoners,” wrote Braithwaite, “have missed out on the excitement of learning, the sense of achievement at mastering a branch of human knowledge, the wonderment of discovering new ideas and challenging old one, the feeling of being able to contribute to a democracy as an informed citizen.”

Braithwaite viewed correctional education as merely another facet of alternative education, which was designed to target marginalized and neglected groups of people in Australia.  He categorically rejected the notion that prisoners were evil people.  Braithwaite insisted that inmates, once the opportunity for education was provided, were pro-social people, who, for lack of schooling, behaved in a socially unacceptable manner.

Braithwaite’s concepts were controversial and provoked passionate discussion.  That was thirty years ago.  Not much has changed over the years.  Correctional education is still a controversial subject.