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Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science debate -
Tuesday, 5 Jul 2022

Ireland Prison Education Strategy 2019-2022: Discussion

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Caron McCaffrey, director general, and Mr. Fergal Black, director of care and rehabilitation, Irish Prison Service, and Mr. Stephen O'Connor, organiser, City of Dublin Education and Training Board educational service to prisons, Mountjoy Prison, and Ms Lorraine Higgins, assistant principal, Cork Education and Training Board education service to prisons, both representing Education and Training Boards Ireland.

The witnesses are here today to discuss the Ireland Prison Education Strategy 2019-2022. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Ms McCaffrey to make a brief opening statement and she will be followed by Mr. O'Connor. This will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has a five-minute slot to ask their questions and for the witnesses to respond. As our guests are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statement on its website following the meeting.

Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against a person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that may be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if a witness's statement is potentially defamatory with regard to an identified person or entity, he or she will be directed by the chair to discontinue his or her remarks. It is imperative that witnesses comply with any such direction.

The Joint Committee on Autism meeting is clashing with this meeting and we are missing at least three or four members as a result. It is hoped we will be joined by more.

Ms McCaffrey may begin. She will be followed by Mr. O'Connor.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address the members today on this important issue and to discuss the positive collaboration that exists between the Irish Prison Service and the education and training boards, ETBs, in the provision of prison education.

As the Chairman mentioned, I am joined today by my colleague, Mr. Fergal Black, who is the director of care and rehabilitation in the Irish Prison Service. Mr. Black has responsibility for the provision of prisoner services, including education.

There are currently more than 4,100 people accommodated in our prisons daily. In terms of education, the Irish Prison Service provides a broad range of services and activities in which prisoners can participate daily. These services provide daily constructive activities for those in prison while serving their sentence and are very much designed to target the root causes of offending. They provide an opportunity for prisoners to address their educational needs or skills deficits through participation in education or work and training, which supports their eventual reintegration back into society. I am happy to discuss the provision of these services in more detail today and to answer any questions the members may have in this regard.

I record my appreciation to all of the head teachers and teachers who support and encourage prisoners every day and specifically to recognise their efforts on behalf of people in custody over the past two years during the pandemic in what was a very challenging environment within our prison system.

The Department of Education provides an allocation of 220 whole-time teacher equivalents to the Irish Prison Service through the education and training boards. We are very grateful for this provision. Education in prisons is delivered in partnership between the ETBs and the prison service with a focus on providing education that is quality assured, student centred and facilitates lifelong learning. There are outstanding teachers in all of our prison schools and our prison schools represent a positive learning environment.

In general, education programmes are adapted to take account of the diversity of the prisoner population and the complex nature of prison life, including segregation requirements and high levels of prisoner turnover. The partnership between ourselves and the ETBs endeavours to meet the needs of prisoners through helping them cope with their sentence, achieve personal development and prepare for life after release.

Prison education includes a core element of basic education incorporating reading, writing, numeracy and IT literacy. Indeed, our education staff are particularly vigilant in identifying basic education needs. It is important to highlight the significant fact that over 70% of people in custody are early school-leavers. The median school-leaving age of those in our care is 14 years of age. It is an unfortunate fact of life that many people who come into our care have had a negative experience of education in their past. That is why the provision of quality education and regular and consistent access to the prison school is so important. As W.B. Yeats once said, "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."

Anybody who has visited a prison education school will have seen the fire in the eyes of the students there and their burning ambition and hopes for their future. The prison school is their gateway to a better life for themselves and for their families.

One of the key challenges for the IPS is to ensure that our students have regular and consistent access to prison schools to provide that opportunity and hope. Unfortunately the loss of a substantial number of staff on a daily basis to support prisoner escorts can have a detrimental impact on the opening of schools. This is an area we are committed to addressing and we will seek additional funding through the 2023 Estimates process to strengthen the number of staff in our prison escort corps and thus alleviate the draw of staff away from prisoner services.

The Prison Education Strategy 2019-2022 is a joint strategy between the Irish Prison Service and Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI. It reflects and acknowledges the unique nature of prison education in terms of the target population and the environment in which education is delivered. It sets out a commitment to broad-based education provision and includes supporting integration and sentence planning. The strategy details agreed actions for prison education under seven strategic priorities. Good progress has been made in all of the actions and these priorities will remain relevant in the coming years.

In the three years, 2019 to 2021, more than €3.7 million has been spent by the IPS on supporting the prison education services. During this period, the use of technology to support the delivery of prisoner services including the delivery of education was increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the IPS continues to work with the ETBs to make greater use of in-cell learning opportunities, remote teaching and education delivered via our prison TV channel. Balancing the demands for digital literacy among prisoners with security constraints is also another key challenge for the service and an area we hope to address in the coming years. Embracing technology and providing a blended approach to learning increases the ability of teachers to extend education provision to students, especially to those on restricted prison regimes or confined to cells due to Covid-19 measures. Innovation and embracing technology will form a central part of the next Irish Prison Service strategic plan to be published next year.

Greater linkages between the work and training area in the prisons and the prison schools are being encouraged and there have been a number of good examples of this collaboration in recent years including barista training, Football Association of Ireland coaching certificates and more recently a pop-up restaurant in Cork prison in collaboration with the Munster Technological University. In the past year the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science met with representatives of the ETBs, IPS and Solas to discuss how we can ensure that all students in custody are provided with appropriate pathways and links to further education on release, through the ETB adult guidance network throughout the country. Work is ongoing to formalise and strengthen these arrangements, which will offer great potential for our students into the future. Both the director of care and rehabilitation and I will be happy to take any questions members may have.

Mr. Stephen O'Connor

On behalf of ETBI and the 16 education and training boards, ETBs, that we represent, I am pleased to make this submission to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the current and future education provision in Irish prisons. ETBs are Ireland’s leading statutory providers of education and training and are unique in providing whole-of-life education and training to all. Collectively, the 16 boards have responsibility for 27 community national schools and 246 postprimary schools with over 110,000 students. ETB postprimary schools are the largest provider of education through the medium of Irish with 47 schools. ETBs deliver further education and training, FET, to over 200,000 unique learners each year across in excess of 200 FET colleges and training centres and play a central role in the delivery of apprenticeships and traineeships in partnership with employers. The ETB sector employs more than 32,000 people and has a combined annual spend in excess of €2 billion.

It is this expertise and tradition of service that ETBI brings to its work in the prison education service.

Prison education in Ireland is delivered through a partnership between the Irish Prison Service, Education and Training Boards Ireland and organisations such as the Arts Council, Open University and Gaisce. A joint strategy statement details the strategic objectives for the prison education service and the high-level actions to be undertaken to deliver on the agreed objectives through the 2019-22 period. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science provides, through Solas, an allocation of 220 whole-time equivalent teachers to the ETB education centres across the country. The aim of the prison education service is to deliver a quality-assured, broad and flexible programme of education that helps people in custody cope with their sentence, achieve personal development, prepare for life after release and establish an appetite and capacity for life-long learning. The service seeks to deliver relevant programmes that cater for a wide variety of needs, ensure broad access and prioritise those with basic education needs.

Historically, many of the learners attending education centres in Irish prisons have suffered extreme levels of social, economic and educational disadvantage. In a sociological profile of Mountjoy prisoners in 1997, Paul O’Mahony of Trinity College found that 80% of the prisoners in his study had left school before the age of 16 years. In the prison adult literacy survey carried out in 2003, Kett and Morgan reported that, within the general population, approximately 25% of people scored at level 1 or below, whereas within the Irish prison population 52% of respondents scored at that level. More recently, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has drawn our attention to research that suggests the prevalence of people in prison with severe mental illness is four times that of the general population, while an estimated one in two prisoners presents with substance misuse or dependence issues. Anecdotally, there is evidence that many of the prison population report having experienced several adverse childhood experiences. For these reasons, a priority for our education centres is to create a warm, supportive and welcoming environment for our learners. In recent inspections of the four City of Dublin Education and Training Board, CDETB, prison education centres carried out by the Department of Education inspectorate, it was remarked that the teaching staff enjoy a very positive relationship with their learners. The emphasis is on building the confidence of learners who often have had negative experiences of education, characterised by feelings of failure, so that they can re-engage with the world of lifelong learning.

A broad and flexible curriculum is offered so that learners have the best opportunity to study subjects in which they have an interest. In this respect, the visual arts play a central role, particularly for those who struggle with literacy issues. They function as gateway subjects to other areas of the curriculum, as well having an immense value for learners in helping them to cope with their sentences and allowing them to reflect on issues that impact on their lives. The approach adopted to the teaching of literacy skills is eclectic and follows an adult education model. One-to-one classes are available, as well as peer-to-peer programmes such as Toe to Toe. Family literacy projects such as Story Book Mums and Dads recognise that literacy can often be a generational issue within families and these projects play an important role in consolidating links between prisoners and their loved ones at home. The key priority of our literacy strategy, however, is to ensure that literacy work is integrated into all parts of the curriculum.

Digital literacy is seen by the prison education service as being of vital importance if learners are to be equipped with the competencies necessary to adapt to the needs and demands of society on release, while at the same time accessing knowledge for personal development. In common with ETB teachers, the Irish Prison Service is concerned that a digital divide will further disadvantage learners in prison education centres. As was pointed out by Ms McCaffrey, the teaching of ICT-based skills in a custodial setting presents unique challenges to educators and prison management alike. For this reason, there has been an increased level of collaboration between prison management and the ETB education providers to ensure solutions are arrived at that give learners access to digital education while at the same time minimising security risks.

While engagement with the ETB education centre can be transformative for learners in many cases, there is a need for support structures to help learners pursue progression routes post release.

To this end, prison education centres provide pre-release courses and guidance counsellors. In Dublin, the Pathways Centre provides a range of supports, including counselling and peer support to scaffold learners as they negotiate the complex challenges they face as they continue their learning journey in further education colleges, at third level and other places of learning.

For those re-engaging with education, the prospect of undertaking courses leading to formal examinations can be daunting and off-putting and, therefore, ETB prison education centres across the country offer a range of non-accredited courses alongside courses that offer learners the opportunity to pursue accredited learning. The State second level junior and leaving certificate courses are available but increasing numbers of people in custody require a more flexible curriculum that has multiple entry and exit points. QQI accreditation is, therefore, widely used with assessment by portfolio compilation.

All prison education centres meet the quality assurance standards demanded by QQI and for many learners this is their chosen route to accredited learning. The Open University has had a long relationship with the IPS and the ETB prison education centres. Just two weeks ago, I attended the first Open University graduations held in a Dublin prison since the ending of lockdown, when two students were conferred with degrees in environmental science.

The prison population as a whole can be seen to suffer significant disadvantage across a range of indicators but there are a number of discrete groups for whom disadvantage is particularly acute. The Traveller community is one example of this. According to the 2016 census, 57.2% of male Travellers had only primary school education, a figure four times higher than the general population. Only 13% of Traveller girls completed second level education; for the settled community, the figure is 69%.

For the past number of years, the various ETB education services have joined with the IPS and the Traveller justice initiative to help improve outcomes for members of the Traveller community. Teachers have received training in diversity and inclusion issues. Traveller champions have been appointed in each education centre to ensure Traveller culture is recognised within the curriculum. In this regard, Traveller pride events have been organised in prison education centres, which celebrate the cultural contribution of the Traveller community to society.

As the director general has outlined, the challenges facing the prison education service include a shortage of prison staff, and it can be the most frustrating for prison management and education staff. These are the staff who ensure learners are brought to education centres.. In an attempt to remedy this, the Irish Prison Service, together with ETB education centres, is developing a system of in-cell delivery by which educational courses are delivered to learners through the Prison TV channel. A total of 150 video courses and accompanying activity booklets have been produced by CDETB teachers, who are at present working with prison staff to have the TV channel ready for the next academic year.

This is only the start of this and we are on a long road. Ultimately, the holy grail is to have synchronous learning taking place whereby we can have live classes in cells. This will be the new horizon for prison education over the next five to ten years. I am really confident that with the support we are getting from the IPS, we will arrive at our destination.

That was really interesting. I acknowledge the work of Mr. John Lonergan, who has highlighted many of these issues over the years. I did some work with him quite a number of years ago and he continuously spoke about the prison population. There are really good things being done and I will speak to them in a moment but there is really a failure of the education system when we see 80% of the prison population is made up of early school leavers and those who did not see a place for themselves in an education setting.

That issue is beyond the scope of today's conversation but how we address it must be a consideration at the forefront of our education committee. How do we make it so that young kids of 13, 14 and 15 do not give up and feel there is no place for them within the education system? It is a fault of the system when we see such high numbers. We need to make changes.

Studies have shown that a significant number of young people have been failed by the mental health services. My goodness me; we need to be rescuing much earlier in people's life cycles. We must put our heads together to ensure we do that. I commend the work of the education and training boards, ETBs, whose openness I am very familiar with. We need such openness at secondary school. The openness in addressing many of these things needs to continue and to be supported. When I see what the curriculum is made up of, I think it is no wonder that people feel there is no place for them there. We need to look at that and examine how it serves people. Not everybody learns the same way. We must consider how to adjust our curriculum in a more timely way to enable learners to learn in an environment that suits them.

I will ask a couple of questions around those issues. Mr. O'Connor's submission to the committee states that 4.6% of people in prison have literacy issues, which is far above the national average. What are the challenges around assessing literacy levels? I note that one of the actions in the strategy was to complete a literacy and numeracy audit of the prison population. Has that been completed? Relatedly, what progress has been made in compiling the education statistics? Do we have any figures on enrolment in education courses after release? Perhaps we will talk about what happens after release in a moment and first we should concentrate on getting the statistics we need.

Mr. Stephen O'Connor

We have noticed that many people are still presenting in our centres with literacy issues. It is difficult to come up with a panacea. The reasons people are not able to read and write when they get to the end of compulsory education can be many and varied. There is no single cause. Assessing that can be quite a challenge. A number of years ago, before the pandemic, I made a request to repeat the 2003 adult literacy survey in respect of prisoners. The original survey was conducted by Mark Morgan and Mary Kett. We put out a tender for people to conduct that survey but were unsuccessful. Covid then came along. It is something we are going to pick up again. We are only just getting back on our feet in the education service. That is something I would dearly like to see repeated and for us to have another go at.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

I visit schools regularly and there is such a wide offering that everybody can see something for themselves. There is a big focus around art and music. People generally come to school because they have an interest in art or music. I know our teachers are very skilled in using that as a hook to help people to deal with literacy issues. People might be taken out of a class for 15 minutes to do literacy work. I am sure Ms Higgins has had a lot of experience in Cork Prison in that regard.

Ms Lorraine Higgins

I would like to add that we are very much supported by Cork ETB and Education and Training Boards Ireland across the country in terms of continuing professional development for teachers and how to provide appropriate literacy support to our students. We have an emphasis on adult basic education within our centre. We place an emphasis across the various subject departments on integrating literacy across all subjects that students are engaging in, including the practical subjects. A significant emphasis is continually placed on literacy and numeracy within our education units.

Mr. Fergal Black

To pick up on the Deputy's broader point, people who come into custody are poor. They are not just poor economically, however; they are poor educationally, poor in respect of their health and poor psychologically. Working with our colleagues in the education and training boards, psychology and drugs treatment services, etc., we are trying to build people up and get them to see a different pathway in life. We are dealing with people who have either been failed by the education system or in the education system. Education, as our colleagues said, is a good hook to get people involved in the system again, through arts and ceramics, for example. We have had a significant number of very good success stories where long-term prisoners have got that initial hook to go back through psychology and education, and who have then gone on to do third-level courses and master's degrees, etc. I was here with the director general of the Prison Service at the Joint Committee on Justice recently, and one of the prisoners linked into that meeting from the Loughan House open centre. He spoke articulately about his experience of prison and education and of looking at a different pathway.

My time is up, but perhaps the Chair will allow me back in later.

It just so happens that an Oireachtas football team is going into Mountjoy Prison today to play a match, so it is appropriate that the witnesses are here to discuss this topic. I remember reading an article by Neil Gaiman in The Guardian some years ago in which he wrote that the prison service in the US had been outsourced to private providers. When an attempt is made to assess what the capacity needs of the prison service will be in 15 years' time, the literacy rates of ten-year-olds are examined. There is a correlation between the literacy rates of ten-year-olds in any given jurisdiction and the need that will emerge 15 years later for prison places.

The work the witnesses do is crucial. What happens in the Prison Service reflects wider society, and the witnesses are trying to grapple with that. As has been said, we have issues in respect of educational disadvantage that are not the fault of those in the Prison Service; its members are just trying to deal with them. Having such a number of people in the prison system with poor rates of educational attainment tells me two things. One is that some people have been forced down the road of crime by poverty. The other is that middle-class people who commit crimes do not end up in prison. It is important to say there is inequality there as well.

I am interested in the literacy perspective and the comments on the need for in-cell tuition. In the Prison Service, there is obviously a need to balance the security needs of the prison with the digital needs of education. In wider society we have a functional illiteracy rate of about 17.9%, which means one in six adults is functionally illiterate. While people in that situation may be able to get through their day and hide their literacy levels, for example, by pretending they cannot see something because they forgot their glasses or whatever, when it comes to filling out forms or engaging properly in Irish society, people who are functionally illiterate will struggle. Equally, if the rate of functional illiteracy is 17.9% in wider society, I can only assume it is much higher among the prison population. Surely it is fundamental to identify what that level is to enable us to deal with these literacy and numeracy issues. Do the witnesses find that there is a need for more enjoyable hooks to act as a gateway to get people to address their numeracy and literacy needs? Learning to read is not fun. Addressing literacy deficiencies is not going to be fun. Art, for example, is going to be more enjoyable, as are activities such as sport and drama.

On literacy rates, how can we get an assessment of what the needs are in this regard? It was mentioned that literacy permeates the curriculum. How far are we from in-cell tuition? People in prison are dealing with a level of trauma and humiliation, thinking about what is going to happen to them after their sentences have been served and wondering how society is going to view them. There may be a sense of pointlessness in this respect. People might think they are always going to be tarred with the taint of the time they spent inside prison. How is it possible to break through those types of barriers?

I suggest to the Chair that it might be a good use of members' time to visit a prison, with the required co-operation, and observe at first-hand what is being done there.

Education is a great liberator. It changes lives. It is the only thing that has been proved to break people out of poverty. Surely at the most intense level of need is when the resources and the imagination of the State needs to be invested so that it can be the great liberator, not just at the walls of the prison but also about the walls of the mind as well.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

I will take the question on in-cell learning and where it came from. We have vibrant education centres in all our prisons. The purpose of in-cell learning is not to replace that but to supplement it. Given the limitations within the prison day, the education unit runs in the morning and afternoon but many people spend much of their time in their cells during the evenings, weekends, and on summer holidays when school is not running during July and August within our prisons. When Covid-19 hit and our schools closed there was a huge gap in terms of participation in education so in any given week about 45% of the prison population engages in the prison schools. This demonstrates how valuable and central they are to the provision of services.

Would it not be ideal if there was not that two-month gap in the year? Teachers are teachers, I understand that, but is there a way of being flexible and working around that? If somebody is getting into and enjoying something, beginning to enhance and empower themselves, that two-month break can be-----

Ms Caron McCaffrey

It is a huge gap. I know from the learners it is difficult to pick it up. Obviously teachers have a particular contract of employment. We have a lot of flexibility. We have a summer provision for the month of June and into July which is helpful. Mr. O'Connor might talk about the summer provision. It is not ideal, however we get a good deal of flexibility from our teaching staff to cover some of those summer months that would traditionally be seen as time off for schooling.

Mr. Fergal Black

The reality is that this is akin to adult learning. As the director general has said, our colleagues working for the educational training boards, ETBs, have certain contracts. It is testament to the flexibility they operate that the school operates in June, there are summer programmes throughout July and essentially most schools are only closed for the month of August. It is fair to say there would be reduced capacity in July

Ms Lorraine Higgins

We work through June and July but there is decreased capacity. However the option is there for students to engage. During Covid-19 we also developed materials for the communication channels which are delivered to students throughout the summer months. We also have booklets that students can engage with over the course of the summer if they so wish.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

With the advent of Covid-19 and the closure of our schools, in-cell learning which was something we had aspired to became much more important as a service for us and for the people in our care. We have developed a television channel where material can be played. We have not yet seen the full benefit. The ETBs have done a great deal of work. As Mr. O'Connor mentioned there are 150 courses that can be delivered through the television channel with an accompanying booklet. We are working very hard over the summer months to get that up and running. It is not to replace the work that happens in our school but to augment it.

There are also harder-to-reach populations. I always say that 45% of people come to school, they have taken that step, have been hooked in and are engaging in education. We would like to get to the other 55% of the population. By the television channel the reach of the school becomes broader. We can open education up to even more people within the prison. It is the route out of poverty for many people, as the Deputy said. It gives people a great chance of employment when they leave prison. From a higher education perspective we have also been successful in recent years with working with some third level institutions. Munster Technological University, UCC and Maynooth University have been to the forefront of working with us and the ETBs to allow people in custody who are engaging in education to see a pathway for themselves into third level education. In many of those cases lecturers and students from those institutions are coming into our prisons and are having classes co-delivered with people in the education units. That is also really transformative, allowing people in custody to see that actually third level education is a pathway for them to take.

It involves a great deal of work to make the transition from custody into third level education more seamless. I might have mentioned the pop-up restaurant we had in Cork Prison recently. That was extremely successful. That was a course specifically developed by Munster Technology University to be delivered to people in the school in Cork. Some of those participants have since left prison and they went straight into employment. Much more can be done to access third level education and employment opportunities. There is a particular focus in Cork on linking students in with employers and not only third level education opportunities on release. That is very important from all our perspectives.

Mr. Stephen O'Connor

It is also worth remembering that at the start of the pandemic our teachers had never previously had the opportunity to develop a technological approach to education and use many of the apps and devices available to them for security reasons. When the pandemic arose, it got us all thinking that this was a new situation and we had to respond to it. The word people use these days is "pivot". The prison teachers did so magnificently. In Dublin we enlisted the support of the curriculum development unit from the City of Dublin Education and Training Board, which provided the most wonderful range of courses in technology such that our teachers are now playing a leading role in Dublin city in the development of technology enhanced learning, TEL. They have done that in a short period of two years. They put a great deal of effort into retaining to deliver these apps. We hope to expand the demands on the Irish Prison Service over the next five years to become leaders in Europe in the way we deliver that. We are engaged in conversations with other jurisdictions on the way they approach the delivery of in-cell learning. The technology exists for us to do this. It is a question of us having the will and resources to do it but there is no question that we can do it.

I take on board the director general’s point that it will never be a substitute for face-to-face learning. There is something about two or three people together in a room communicating. It makes it a human experience. It is the human transaction that goes on in education that keeps people in education. Many people go to education for social reasons. If one goes into a prison education centre, one will often see students and teachers having a cup of tea at the end of class. That is as essential a part of their learning as anything they study in books or course material.

Although there are many challenges, there is space to have hope for all those people who are coming into our prisons because we see the transformation that takes place in individuals. Every teacher in a prison will be able to tell a story of a student who came in not being able to read and write and going on to achieve academically at a very high level. It is not the norm, and I do not want to mislead the Deputy on that, but it is an example of what can happen with the correct policies, approaches and resourcing of education.

I am pretty sure we are going to get hammered in this match today.

If only I was playing.

So I believe. I thank the witnesses.

I will ask a few questions before going back to members. Do the witnesses have any data on the benefits of education in bringing about improved behaviour? When prisoners go back into the community do they continue their education? All of us in our lives, not only prisoners, have a light-bulb moment. It is like lecturing a son or daughter. Eventually they will have a light-bulb moment and start listening because they realise this is the key and what they want because it will change them forever.

Do the witnesses have any experience of that?

Mr. Stephen O'Connor

Our knowledge of desistance theory tells us that maturation is often one of the key points at which people decide they do not want their current lifestyle and want something else. The job of education is to provide the opportunities for people to realise that opportunity of making changes in their lives but we cannot do that as educationalists only. There are a myriad of other supports that are required to help people adjust when they get out of prison. That is why the Pathways Centre in Dublin has played an enormous role in helping students realise their potential post release as they attend further education colleges, third level colleges and other places of learning.

It is remarkable and wondrous to see somebody who one knew in the early part of a sentence and maybe an officer has come forward to say this person could do well on one of these courses and he or she just needs a little guidance. They come up to us and after a very short period of time, they get imbued with the enthusiasm that is always part of the adult learning experience. They achieve wonderful things.

At our presentations each term, it is incredible to see the amount of affirmation given by the rest of the prison population to the students who have achieved something academically. I feel as happy and as joyous about somebody achieving a level 2 in QQI as I do about somebody getting an Open University degree. The level 2 qualification is the bread and butter of the adult educator in that sense because those people have come from a place where they were not part of the adult education story and now they are part of it. For those students who do not take any examinations, success is sometimes measured in the fact that they get out of bed, are not depressed and take part in an educational class. They interact with other prisoners and talk about the kinds of things people outside can take for granted, such as the arts, culture and a range of other subjects they would never be introduced to otherwise.

On one occasion, the Abbey Theatre gave a performance of The Risen People in Wheatfield Prison. I think it was ten years ago. One of the prisoners in the audience was interviewed after the performance and appeared on "Morning Ireland". The prisoner was asked how he responded to the play and whether he enjoyed it. He said it was the first time he had ever been to a play and that he found it engrossing. It was fantastic. If we are talking about measuring the success of education, we have to take more into account than examination success. Getting people imbued with an enthusiasm for learning is probably the biggest achievement in a prison environment.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

What goes with that, as Mr. O'Connor said, is that high levels of educational attainment are not the norm but what everybody who engages in our schools gets is a sense of self-worth, self-belief and achievement, which is incredible. For many of the men and women, it is the first time they have ever had a positive achievement. We invited families in to celebrate those successes pre-Covid and we hope to do so again soon. The Gaisce programme, which is active in our schools, is all about giving people that sense of self-belief and self-worth and that there is a different pathway for them to take.

As I mentioned, all of the services within our prisons are aimed at reducing the issues that gave rise to the offending. In some cases, it is low levels of educational attainment. In many cases, there are addiction issues. Approximately 70% of our population have addiction issues. A great deal of work goes on in trying to help people address their addiction issues so that they can take part in education. Mental illness and mental health issues are very significant in the prison population. We have an excellent psychology service. A holistic approach is taken to the people in our care to address all of the underlying issues that gave rise to their offending. As people are on that journey of addressing those issues, they blossom in our schools and go on to achieve great successes.

As Mr. O'Connor said, accreditation is one measure. We have been having this conversation with the Department of Education inspectorate. In prison schools, the class is made up of the most complex people with the most complex needs in society. Measuring against educational attainment or certificates is not necessarily the measure that should be used. As Mr. O'Connor said, it is much broader and richer. The one point I would make is that many people who come to our prisons come for very short sentences. This can be difficult for the education centre, our psychology services and our healthcare services as they need a sufficient period to help people address the issues that gave rise to their offending. When people come for three, four, five or six months it can be quite difficult. It can be quite difficult from the school's perspective with regard to engaging this cohort of prisoners while they are with us for a short period of time.

A prisoner might be completing the leaving certificate. What provisions are put in place for this? Someone in third level education could get a two- or three-year sentence, perhaps for drug offences. Students who leave home and go out into the wild can, all of a sudden, find themselves in prison for two or three years. They could have been halfway through first or second year in college. Is there a basis for online learning? Have we learned from Covid about online learning in third level education? Have we reach this point?

Mr. Stephen O'Connor

We need to be able to deliver synchronised online learning. We have the Open University system. The IPS in its wisdom going back many years introduced the Open University to prisons. It was probably one of the first places in Ireland that Open University courses could be taken by students.

Mr. Fergal Black

It has been there since 1985. The numbers doing Open University courses have increased in the past three years, with 69 people completing courses in the past year. People doing their leaving certificate are facilitated by the education units, which are very flexible in their approach. There is no difficulty with doing an Open University course. People may not be able to continue a course they were studying in a third level education facility but we can link them into courses very easily.

We also make laptops available, subject to security considerations. People can do their coursework in their cells. We have to be mindful about giving Wi-Fi access to people who have committed certain offences and we have to be mindful of victims. All of this comes into the mix. From time to time we encounter learners who have stuff on their laptops that they should not have. We deal with them. This is how we approach it. If one person digresses, it should not mean that everybody suffers. We do not approach it this way. We deal with the transgression. There is very much an openness on our part to facilitate people at the point they are at with the appropriate learning, be that at a basic education level or with the leaving certificate, junior certificate or third level education.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

I mentioned the partnership between Maynooth University and Mountjoy Prison. We have had prisoners leaving the progression unit on temporary release on a daily basis and attending university in Maynooth as part of the general student body. Covid hit us but it is certainly something that has great potential and benefit. People may do one year of a three-year course from prison. When they are released, they can continue with that education. The access office in Maynooth University and Dr. Seamus Taylor are hugely supportive in allowing people in custody see they have a route and access to third level education.

There is an opportunity to further this with other third level colleges. I know of examples in my constituency where people aged 19 or 20 go from living with their parents to being out. All of a sudden they get involved in drugs and a bad group and end up in prison. That could be for six months, 12 months, 18 months or two years.

I believe those people will make progress and while they will serve the time, they should be given an opportunity. I know there is an outside constituency almost saying we should throw away the keys but that is not solving anyone's problem. We are not teaching anybody any lessons in that sort of scenario. Years ago, people very much thought we should lock the door and throw away the key but if we want to teach anybody anything, we have to give them an opportunity to prove themselves.

If a prisoner has a background or history of being in and out of prison and a family member grasps the educational opportunities, is there any evidence that this goes back to the other members of the family? If one person says "I am after grasping this and look where I am now", do other family members get any sort of teaching from them on that?

Ms Lorraine Higgins

We spoke about the successes and personal development our students achieve from engaging in education but there also tends to be a knock-on effect on the wider family where we help to break down barriers and stigma that may exist around education. In Cork we have the Dillon's Cross Project, an outreach project for female relatives of people in prison. It has been running for the past 27 years. While people in prison are given the opportunity to engage in education, imprisonment does not often occur in a vacuum but is often compounded by experience of disadvantage. We would like to give the families the opportunity to engage in education and receive the supports and services they need. This is not just educational, although that is a key element of what we do. It is also about the social and emotional support we provide to our students. It is that cup of tea in the morning when people who have a family member in prison come in and are able to have a conversation with people who are in the same situation as them in a non-judgmental way.

In the Dillon's Cross Project we offer participants the opportunity to engage in phase 1 and phase 2, where they participate in full QQI level 3 awards as well as other life skill courses such as the Red Cross, food and nutrition courses. It is very much a learner-led service. This year, with the support of Cork ETB, we also provided Lámh training, so students were able to communicate using sign language. This has been running really successfully and we have had many successes out of it. We also have students who have progressed to further education and employment. We have strong links with the further education colleges and the ETB. One student who did a full colouring skills award in the Dillon's Cross Project is now doing a level 5 qualification and is in full-time employment. This has a knock-on effect on the whole community and the whole family. These women become positive role models for their children. They get that shared experience of education with their children as well, where they and their children are engaging in education and the partner in prison is engaging in education as well. It is really breaking that barrier and helping them to navigate educational pathways, which is crucial. For a lot of people, the education system can be a very daunting experience, particularly for parents who did not have a positive experience of education themselves. That is a really positive part of what we do.

I have one last question before I go back to Deputy Conway Walsh and then Senator Flynn. Is there any European country or colleagues in Europe, the UK or further afield with the absolute perfect model that the witnesses would like to see us aiming towards?

Mr. Fergal Black

We hosted the European conference of prison educators in 2019. Mr. O'Connor will probably be better able to speak to this than me but the construction that we have around the delivery of education where the prison service works in collaboration with the State provider for education, the ETBs, would be regarded across Europe as an excellent model.

Mr. Stephen O'Connor

The external model has been one of the great successes of policy in respect of prisons over the last 30 to 40 years. It has allowed us to tap into all of those educational services that are available to the community.

Providing education of a standard commensurate with that which exists in the community is a key objective of the Irish Prison Service. We look at a particular place's facilities and, while, for security reasons, we do not provide those facilities exactly as they would be outside, there is no question that we work to make it work. That is what we do; it is not about having everything be perfect.

We had a visit just four weeks ago from a group of Norwegian prison educators. They came to look at one of our programmes in Mountjoy Prison relating to community philosophy. They want to roll this out in Norwegian prisons. We have strong links with the Scandinavians. Their prison policy has enlightened views on imprisonment. I have visited some prisons there, including Halden Prison in Norway. It would be hard to see it as being a prison when one visits it, yet some of the highest security prisoners in Norway are housed there. It has the most remarkably humane facilities. We do not have the resources or the oil dollars of the Norwegians, but we try to compensate for that with how we treat people. I have noticed a significant improvement over the years I have spent working at prisons. When I first came to work at prisons, many years ago, there was a debate about whether we could have in-cell sanitation. Today, the debate is about whether we can have in-cell education. That is maybe a reason for hope.

We would like to borrow many ideas from systems around the world. Preparing people for the world of work is one area we can do better in by making the connection between education, training and work. We have become involved in barista training in the progression unit and Dóchas Centre. That is a new initiative for us. I thank the City of Dublin Education and Training Board, CDETB, for funding that through its continuing professional development programme. We get significant support from ETBs all around the country. We can borrow from other jurisdictions. We use the Erasmus projects to do that. One year, there were approximately 60 Norwegian prison educators here to look at what we were doing. We built personal friendships with them. We want to see that develop and prosper in the coming years.

We could have the dollars from oil and gas if we did things differently, like Norway. That was interesting. I commend everybody who is involved in this. This is the kind of innovative, common-sense, long-term thinking that we need across the board. Ms McCaffrey said the IPS spent €3.7 million over three years. How does that compare with the prior three years? How many additional service employees have been trained and assigned to the role of school officers, additional teaching staff or library officers in the past three years of that strategy?

Ms Caron McCaffrey

I do not have a comparison of each three-year period. Maths was not my strong point in school. We spent €1.07 million in 2017, €1.16 million in 2018, and then the number increased to €1.38 million in 2019 and €1.42 million in 2020. There is certainly commitment from our perspective. The point about school officers is good. I visit our schools often. Where there is a good, active school officer who sees himself or herself as part of the prison team, the prison works seamlessly, because that person will go into the prison to find somebody who should be in class.

It is helpful in making sure people are at school on time, that if they are missing they are followed up and that people do not just drop out of the prison education system.

We have school officers in the majority of our prisons, with the exception of Limerick Prison. We are opening new accommodation in Limerick Prison and looking at a school officer post as part of that provision. In some cases, they are on a back-to-back roster, which works less well because there is not a consistent person Monday to Friday. Sometimes it is difficult to fill a Monday-to-Friday post. Our staff predominantly work on rostered arrangements and premium payments go with that. Ideally, we would have a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. post but there is a great working relationship between the school officers and the education teams.

It is important that the prison management team see the value in education. I have been meeting all the school principals with the prison governor in each of the prisons over the past two months, just to see the issues, blockages and constraints in each prison, how we could work better together and making sure everything we can do from a service perspective, we are doing to support prison education.

It cultivates the space for hope and the enthusiasm for learning when everybody is involved in it. How many of the 13 education centres have been upgraded since 2019?

Ms Caron McCaffrey

We have done very little capital work since 2019, given the limitations relating to Covid. Some of our schools have good facilities and some do not have great facilities. In Cork Prison, our newest purpose-built prison, the education unit is great. In Mountjoy, for example, the conditions are far from ideal. Every time I go in, Anne Costelloe, the principal, tells me she does not have enough space. They need a better hall and have issues in terms of having music classrooms. There are areas that require investment.

We are looking at building at Cloverhill Prison and already seeing clearly we need a new education centre as part of that build. It is not good enough for me to say we support prison education; we need to demonstrate that by investing in facilities. There is a strong commitment from our perspective in terms of investing in facilities.

Has a directory been complied of all the prison education available across the Prison Service?

Mr. Fergal Black

We have a directory now. I do not know how up to date it is. It is updated regularly.

Mr. Stephen O'Connor

It outlines the subjects that are taught in each centre, the teachers that are----

It would be good to give it to the committee. The witnesses gave good examples of people successfully transitioning into employment and further education and training. Have any longitudinal studies been carried out in the context of obtaining evidence for the correlation between those who have taken up education and training opportunities in the prison population and those who have not in terms of outcomes?

Ms Caron McCaffrey

We are having conversations with the Central Statistics Office. It does a comprehensive study for us on recidivism rates. We would like to be able track to people. We had some innovative programmes, for example, the Red Cross programme. We would love to be able to track people involved in that programme, which gives a person a sense of agency within a prison context which we hope they build on when released. We have a data analyst now assigned to the Prison Service who is part of the data analyst team in the Department of Justice. The area requires more research but there is a huge commitment from our perspective. We know what does not work but we would like to be more scientific about what does work so we can focus our attention there.

Sorry I was a little bit late but I read the briefing coming up the road. I have done bits of work in the Dóchas prison in my role with the National Traveller Women's Forum. We know the Traveller community makes up 1% of the general population and 10% of the prison population; 15% of women in prison are members of the Traveller community.

We have to look at the root causes of this. It is a big problem in our justice system.

It is important to see education in our prisons. I am curious about the celebration of Traveller Pride. Will the witnesses speak about the work done on this? It was mentioned in the briefing. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on it. Do the prisoners come up with their own education programmes? Do they have any say in the matter? Are they involved in education in prison? We say "nothing about us without us" and it is the same for prisoners. Are they involved in decision-making on education in prison?

We see a lot of poor people in prison. We see a lot of people from ethnic minority groups in our prisons unfortunately. Do the witnesses have hard figures on how many people are successful after they complete a course and get a certificate? When they come out of prison do they go on to jobs and employment? How does this work for people? Is it difficult for them? The Chair had a similar question on the success rate of people not going back into prison and not reoffending. We know it is a big issue for people with addiction. Many mothers are in prison. Are there courses for mothers and children? Is there a way classes could be used to bring in the children and make them part of it? If we know better we go on to do better. Is this type of education in the prison system?

I ask the witnesses to answer within the time provided as we have another group to come before the committee.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

I will answer some of these very quickly and I am happy to follow up afterwards with specific data. In terms of recidivism we know that after three years 61.7% of people reoffend. For me this is 40% of people who do not reoffend. Many of those who do reoffend are stuck in a cycle where they do not have access to employment on release and they still have addiction issues. It is about taking a holistic approach to addressing people's needs in prison and not only education. With regard to what success looks like, from the Prison Service's perspective, and I know our colleagues in education will agree, what we need is society to give people a second chance when they come out of custody and for people not to be labelled because of their conviction. Many people who invest time and energy in developing themselves in custody come out very different people. We have an employment and social enterprise strategy. We are trying to work with employers to give people a second chance. This is having some positive benefits. We are looking forward to working on this.

With regard to prison involvement what we have learned during Covid is that peer involvement is critical. Among the programmes we deliver is the peer mediation in prison course in conjunction with the Traveller Mediation Service. I was at a graduation last week where there was talk about using the graduates to develop and deliver the class in future. We know the peer-to-peer element is very important. The curriculum is not static. It evolves and it is down to the needs, desires and wishes of people in the classrooms. I will ask Ms Higgins to speak on Traveller Pride. I am happy to follow up on some of the other questions that we have not had time to address.

Ms Lorraine Higgins

With regard to Traveller Pride I want to highlight that Traveller culture is celebrated and encouraged in the prison education unit. Education is a very inclusive space for people of all cultures, backgrounds and minorities including Travellers. For the past number of years we have had a Traveller Pride week. It was halted because of Covid but we will recommence it. We have various teachers who work very closely with members of the Traveller community. As Ms McCaffrey mentioned, last week we had the graduation for the peer mediation in prisons course. This is funded by the Traveller Visibility Group in Cork. We constantly look at how we can link in with the outside community and support our Traveller students.

Traveller culture is something we support through various art and literature works done in prison. It is something that we celebrate. A few years ago we produced a voices booklet that celebrated the experiences and culture of Travellers. The book told their stories and celebrated their artwork. Travellers are also supported in many of the literacy classes. There is a huge emphasis on how we can support them. Prison education is a very inclusive space and many of our success stories are Traveller students. Many of them did not have a particularly positive experience of education but it is amazing to see how they progress over the years. Our first Gaisce gold awardee in Cork Prison was a Traveller student. He had left school at 14 or 15 years of age. In prison he was able to achieve a full level 3 award, progress to his leaving certificate and continue with Gaisce. He engaged with peer mediation, the listener scheme and the Red Cross. We really support our Traveller students as best we can.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. They are doing very important work. The opening statements underline the fact that so much to do with criminal justice and the prison system is tied into poverty and disadvantage. In many respects not that much has changed since statistics were produced in 1997, which are now 25 years old. Perhaps some things have changed but not that much has changed.

It occurs to me that we have very stringent and restrictive spent convictions legislation that potentially has implications for prisoners after they leave prison and are applying for jobs. Are there challenges in motivating prisoners to take up courses if they are concerned that no matter what they do they will not be able to find a job at the other end? Is it in fact the case that people are very taken with the opportunity that exists in the prison system, whereby they have time to gain skills and turn their lives around? Where do issues with motivation sit?

Ms Caron McCaffrey

We have been inviting employers into our prisons to meet the students and see the level of training available. This has certainly been successful for us at a smaller level. We are also working with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on a bespoke apprenticeship programme or a pathway for people in the criminal justice system. Again, this would work with employers willing to give people a second chance. As I said earlier, people completely transform themselves and are very different when they leave. They are dependent on people in their communities giving them that opportunity to leave their past behind them and have a different way forward. It is very important from our perspective.

With regard to motivation, each year 67% of the people who come to prison come for less than 12 months. They have a lot of complex needs such as addiction, potential co-morbidity with mental illness and low levels of educational attainment. They are more than likely unemployed. Approximately 14% of the population that comes to us are homeless. We need a sufficient length of time when somebody is in our care to help them address the issues that gave rise to their offending. We find that people serving longer sentences are more motivated and stable whereas it is far more difficult to get people serving sentences of two, three, four or five months to engage because they have an eye on the gate and are just doing their time and hoping to get back out. Where we have people for longer sentences we have much more success with addressing the issues that gave rise to the offending in the first place.

Mr. Fergal Black

For many prisoners it is about making their time in custody constructive. As well as education, psychology and drug treatment something we have also focused on to stabilise people when they are in custody is the transition from custody to community after release. We now have a protocol with the Department of Social Protection. The day prisoners are released they receive a social welfare income. If prisoners have served a sentence of longer than six months they will receive a medical card on the day they are released to ensure their prescription for ongoing medication is not interrupted. These are very important protective factors that help people. We still have a difficulty with linking people to accommodation but it is no different than it is on the outside.

In collaboration with our partners and voluntary partners, we are trying to make the transition from custody to community safer and better.

Ms Lorraine Higgins

In Cork, we are looking at setting up a transition to employment scheme supported by Cork ETB. Two employees of Cork ETB will come into the prison and work closely with students before release. They will help to link students with various employers and educational supports. It is important to have wraparound support for our students when they get out of prison and for students to be aware that people are willing to take them on as employees and that educational opportunities are available to them. That is a positive step which we are looking at for next year.

I raised the spent convictions legislation. I imagine it needs to be overhauled. Do recommendations relating to it fall in the witnesses' remit? Do they have a view on it?

Ms Caron McCaffrey

The stigma of having a conviction or having spent time in prison follows people into the community, notwithstanding the investment they have made to turn their lives around. We certainly need to give people a second chance to give them hope for their future. That is as much as I can say.

I thank the witnesses for coming before us today. The discussion has been productive. I hope it will benefit both committee members and the witnesses, having heard members' views. I admire their passion for the work they do daily, the goals they want to reach and the journey they want to take. If the committee can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me or any member. I firmly believe that education is a key enabler and cornerstone of rehabilitation for prisoners. It provides a clear pathway to a better future. I admire and commend the witnesses for their continuing work.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

We would be delighted to facilitate a visit by the committee at any stage if it wishes. That option is always open.

I was going to suggest that the clerk speak to Ms McCaffrey about it. We can do that in October or November.

Ms Caron McCaffrey

We would be delighted.

If Ms McCaffrey wishes to hold an event for the prisoners themselves, we would be delighted to take up the offer.

Sitting suspended at 12.32 p.m. and resumed at 12.37 p.m.
I welcome Ms Claire O'Connell, chairperson, and Ms Catherine Byrne, steering committee member, Irish Prison Education Association, IPEA. The witnesses are here to discuss the current and future provision of prisoner education. I will invite Ms O'Connell to make a brief opening statement. This will be followed by members' individual slots of five minutes, to ask questions and for the witnesses to respond. As Ms O'Connell and Ms Byrne will probably be aware, the committee will publish the opening statement on its website following the meeting.
I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with such direction from the Chair.
As Ms O'Connell and Ms Byrne will probably be aware, we had the Irish Prison Service and the education and training board, ETB, before the committee, briefly, which was very beneficial. We look forward to hearing views on the IPEA's performance.

Ms Claire O'Connell

The IPEA is very grateful to the committee for the invitation to join the session this morning. The IPEA was founded in 2004. It is a voluntary organisation which has consisted of people from various backgrounds, including prison teachers and researchers and others. Membership is open to all who are interested in prison education. We receive financial and practical support for our activities from the Irish Prison Service and the education and training boards.

The IPEA promotes the view that education in prison is a moral right that meets a basic human need. Within this perspective, personal development is considered to be an aim, a process and a result of prison education. Education in prison has the power to transform prisoners' lives by enabling them to understand, critique and question their previously unquestioned perceptions, assumptions and world view. Prison education can facilitate the prisoners successful re-entry into society by cultivating the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation necessary for active citizenship.

The aims of the association are: to act as a recognised branch of the European Prison Education Association, EPEA; to promote education in prison according to the recommendations of the Committee of Ministers to the member states of the Council of Europe; to promote education in Irish prisons as set out in the joint Irish Prison Service-Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, Prison Education Strategy 2019-2022; to support and assist the professional development of persons involved in education in prison; to act as an advocate on behalf of education in Irish prisons; and to support penal reform.

The activities of the IPEA include annual conferences, memorial lectures, newsletters and networking events, both online and in person when possible. We promote the work of support agencies outside the prison such as the Bedford Row Family Project in Limerick, the Childhood Development Initiative in Tallaght and the Dillon’s Cross Project in Cork. As the Irish branch of the EPEA, we have hosted its biannual conference on several occasions, most recently in the Technical University, TU, Dublin in 2019. The IPEA supports the work of teachers working in prison education centres across the county. Prison education teachers are innovative, constantly flexible and always client-centred, reflecting the ethos of their centres.

In terms of future developments in prison education, the IPEA would like to see more work and discussion around the area of digital literacy. There is a significant potential to develop and grow online learning in prisons if learners are given access to personal learning devices, with restricted access, in their cells. Thus, the promotion of digital literacy is fundamental to our efforts in the coming years. The recently issued Adult Literacy for Life strategy outlined a vision in which we have “An Ireland where every adult has the necessary literacy, numeracy and digital literacy to fully engage in society and realise their potential.” The Council of Europe prison education rules state "the education of prisoners must, in its philosophy, methods and content, be brought as close as possible to the best adult education in society outside", as our learners in prison are entitled to the same educational opportunities as adults returning to education in the community. Thus, it is a basic right that our learners should be provided with the opportunities to learn about and to develop their digital literacy skills, notwithstanding appreciated Irish Prison Service IT security concerns. During the Covid-19 lockdown, several blended learning courses were developed by City of Dublin Education and Training Board, CDETB, prison education teachers and teachers in centres across the country. Ideally these courses could be made available to students not just via a prison TV channel, as is currently planned, but also on in-cell devices. We look forward to evolving technologies and prison education practices which will open the door to developing further innovative study programmes for prisoners in Ireland.

The development of progression pathways for our students upon release is another area that the IPEA believes is of great importance. We welcome the work of initiatives such as the Mountjoy Prison Maynooth University partnership, MJMU. The recently launched Kickstart scholarship scheme, which will provide funding opportunities for people with prison experience to attend university, is a particularly welcome development. The Unlocking Potential project will not only provide support to students progressing to university studies, but will also guide third level institutions in the development of fair admissions policies, which are vital in ensuring that applicants with prison experience will be treated fairly.

I thank Ms O'Connell. I call Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

I thank the witnesses for appearing before us to share their expertise and experience. One of the things that came up in our previous session on this subject was the quality of the existing physical spaces and infrastructure. On the other hand, Cork is a prison that has had a modern rebuild. I have not seen this myself, but it has been said that the facilities there are of good quality, whereas Mountjoy might be in a less positive situation. Do many of the prisons require significant investment in respect of their education units and physical infrastructure? Aside from those aspects, is there also a need for significant investment in resources, whether in books, materials, technology or whatever? Is there a significant shortfall in this area?

To ensure these programmes are successful there must be certainty that it will be possible to recruit people of sufficient skill, expertise and experience. Are there challenges in this regard or is there a reasonably healthy stream of recruitment and retention at present?

Ms Claire O'Connell

I will take this question first. There are certainly recruitment challenges, but this is not just a problem in the prison education area but right across the whole education sector. There is a serious shortage of teachers in some subjects, such as in home economics, mathematics and Irish, in certain cases. Therefore, it is a challenge to be able to provide education in every subject area. Our teachers are incredibly flexible and innovative and will often turn their hands to virtually any subject. The reality, certainly in the prisons where I am based, is that most learning happens at Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, levels 2 and 3. Most of our focus is on the more modular learning QQI awards. Frequently, because this is adult basic education, teachers will turn their hands to virtually any subject to ensure it is facilitated. It becomes more challenging if there is a need to facilitate a leaving certificate maths class and there is no maths teacher available. There are recruitment challenges then, but this is an issue across the entire education sector. There are many reasons for this. In Dublin, the cost of living is certainly a significant factor in attracting teachers to employment in this area.

Opportunities could be presented by digital learning. Sweden, for example, has a fantastic e-learning programme. My understanding is that a teacher is based in a computer classroom in a prison. The learners are all online but they are taking classes with a teacher in another prison somewhere else in Sweden. The teacher co-ordinating the room could be a geography teacher but the students might be online with a maths teacher from a prison elsewhere in the country. It is a fantastic way of delivering classes. It would not replace face-to-face learning, but it would complement it. It would also help to address the shortage of staff in certain areas in prison education centres.

What about the physical infrastructure?

Ms Claire O'Connell

On the physical environment, and again I am not familiar with every prison, but the physical environment in the older prisons is not ideal. I can speak for the situation in Mountjoy Prison, where classroom space is at a premium. It is a difficult challenge for the head teachers to manage timetabling classes in rooms big enough to facilitate them. In the earlier session, it was mentioned that the music classrooms are tiny and can barely accommodate one or two people. Therefore, improvements are needed in the physical infrastructure we are working in. That said, the teachers do wonderful things in their classrooms to make them as welcoming a learning environment as possible. While the physical spaces are small, there is a great sense of learning in the classrooms because of the way the teachers have decorated and presented them.

Turning to resources and learning materials, we are well provided with those in respect of books and those types of materials. Regarding technological resources, our education centres in Dublin have had some fantastic widescreen TVs installed in the classrooms and those are linked with our computer systems. It allows us to broaden the way we provide education. One thing prison education teachers have been training in as part of continuous professional development, CPD, is universal design for learning, UDL. Core to that approach is the ability to be able to provide learning materials in many ways. In that regard, then, we are well resourced.

It occurs to me that prison is a very structured environment.

There may potentially be a case of a prisoner who might have for the first time taken on education in a determined way. They may get some qualifications but then they exit the prison system. Do challenges exist for when they reintegrate into mainstream society outside the prison in terms of continuing with or keeping a handle on education and keeping that connection? Is that a challenge? Do the prison educators work on the transition to ensure they have half an eye on where they can go next?

Ms Claire O'Connell

It is a challenge. It is a challenge because of a multitude of other factors that exist outside of education. Addiction is a major challenge, as is homelessness. I work as a guidance counsellor. I have often asked where person was going to be based when they were due to be released. Initially, the motivating factor for that was to establish where a person might be living to facilitate him or her to do a course. Now, when I am asking it is primarily to ascertain whether he or she has accommodation. Frequently, the answer is “No”. There are challenges, as I said, in pursuing education upon release. They mainly arise outside the actual education sphere. We have pre-release programmes. We carry out individual pre-release planning with students. This might start 12 months or more before they are released. Frequently, people have an ambition to take on a level 4, level 5 or level 6 course. They need to be working away at the earlier levels with us in the prison. We always have an education plan for all our students. Part of that would involve post-release planning and linking them in. It is not just a matter of making applications, but also of linking them in with other colleges they might wish to attend.

We do a great deal of work with the Pathways Centre. Even if everything is in place, the process of being released back into the community is a very challenging and difficult one to manage for our students. This is especially the case if they have been in prison for a long time. There needs to be a transition programme for them. The Pathways Centre is fantastic at providing that. We also link them in with many other agencies, such as Jobcare and Care After Prison, which provide practical supports that are needed before education can even be considered. For example, trying to open a bank account is a major challenge if you do not have photo identification. If you have been in prison for a number of years, you do not have a driver’s licence and you do not have a passport. Some students with whom I have worked with have never had either. We link them in with services such as Care After Prison, which physically go into the banks with them and help them to work out the very practical issues which need to be in place before somebody can really engage in continuing with their education.

I call Deputy Crowe.

At the outset, I am delighted to be on this committee. I moved onto it this week. I am a teacher by profession. I have put down the books for a few years to hopefully serve my county in the Dáil.

I have a few questions that I would like to put to the witnesses. Before coming in here today I read a report by the Regional Educational Laboratory in the US. It identifies that 41% of inmates there have disabilities, many of which are learning difficulties. Some 60% of them have communication difficulties. I would like to know if any empirical evidence has been gathered on the prevalence of learning difficulties among our Irish prison population.

Ms Catherine Byrne

This was touched on earlier this morning. To date, there has been no formal, structured analysis of the levels of learning difficulty. It is all anecdotal. In the UK there has been a more structured analysis of this aspect of the matter. There are two kinds of responses, concerning people who have been assessed formally and people with self-declared learning difficulties. In our experience as teachers, we meet people in both categories. We meet people who are aware that they were diagnosed as children with an issue, such as dyslexia. There are also people who feel that they could never learn in school and could never engage with the process, but they always wondered if something was there. This is particularly the case for older people. In the past, there was not the same level of analysis of learning difficulties as is probably happening now.

Anecdotally, it is assumed that there are big numbers and a higher proportion of people.

As educators, would the witnesses like that to move from an anecdotal basis to empirical evidence? There are many causal factors behind someone ending up in the penal system, such as drug addiction, which was mentioned a moment ago, family situations and a whole number of factors that we cannot quantify because they are individual factors. Another reason is one's unmet needs as one was growing up. Are the teachers pushing for the Government or for the Irish Prison Service to fund a study that would quantify this?

Ms Claire O'Connell

The Irish Prison Service put out a tender. However, it was more to look at literacy difficulties. That has stalled with Covid-19, but I know that they are looking to repeat an adult literacy survey across the prison service in Ireland. Hopefully that will come to fruition. Having the evidence and having the proof is not necessarily as relevant now. The interventions need to be made much earlier.

Ms Claire O'Connell

I tend to find that it is never one issue or just one condition. There are co-occurring conditions. Often the person who might have dyslexia might also have ADHD. There might be a significant history of adverse childhood experiences. They might come from a disadvantaged background. There are so many factors that can result in this.

When the teachers are educating in the prison context there may be a range of telltale signs that someone may have dyslexia or dyscalculia. In that moment the teacher will have a hunch. When I was a primary school teacher, we had a referral mechanism to get someone screened and diagnosed. Is there a similar pathway for an adult, if the teachers suspect that the man or woman in front of them has dyslexia? Is there any way of getting diagnostic questions answered and of putting them on a pathway to address that, apart from differentiated teaching?

Ms Claire O'Connell

At present, no. We have access to screening tools which help us to identify the difficulty. However, we do not have access to a service that would provide an official diagnosis from an educational psychologist. It is just not something that is in place. The resources are not in place at present.

Ms Catherine Byrne

It does not tend to be available in adult education in general. Maybe it is available in higher education. However, in the further education sector and in the adult community education sector it is not really the norm in our experience. We find sometimes that there can be an emphasis on the label, although this does not take away from the importance of learning the label. When a person comes in, there are many reasons they need to do basic literacy or basic maths. They may be starting again. They may be filling in gaps that were never met in primary school. As Ms O’Connell says, there are many reasons. They could relate to addiction, to the culture of the schools, or to individual factors in that person. They may relate to adverse childhood experiences, as was mentioned this morning. We do not look at the disability as such. We say, “Here is a person. What do we want to do together?”. Informally, we will make a learning plan. It could be done if somebody is with us for a few classes. We will walk on a journey with that person. As much of our work is individualised, that person will often say they have never actually sat with a teacher who has listened to them-----

That is a good thing.

Ms Catherine Byrne

-----and worked out with them the plan they wanted to do. That has been documented in some of the analysis in recent years. For many people in our society, it is a reality that as children they did not have a positive experience. Their first positive experience has been in prison. Personally, I believe that we give them time. If somebody has a difficulty or a challenge or has had negative learning experiences, it is important to have time with them. Sometimes they can be quite strong in their perceptions of what education should be. Therefore, as teachers we are led by the students. I teach maths. Some people say to me that they want to learn division. If that person wants to learn division, that is our goal. We as teachers do not have the right to say, “Well, hold on. You are supposed to do this course or this certificate”. It is led by the student. The impact of that on students is that they feel it is the first time the education system actually heard them and connected with them.

I thank both witnesses for their contributions. I will remain for the rest of the meeting.

I apologise as I had to step out between sessions. Is Ms O'Connell talking about an individual plan for each person?

Ms Claire O'Connell

Yes, an individual learning plan. It probably varies somewhat on how it is approached in every education centre. From my experience of the process where I am working, when students come to school, they are interviewed by one of the teachers or deputy head teacher to establish a bit about their educational background and what they would like to do. We try to establish if the students have any difficulties with reading or writing that they would like to work on. Our literacy teacher does a literacy assessment and I link in with the students as a guidance counsellor and put together a plan moving forward. If students are starting a QQI level 2 award, we get them started on it and see if they can get through a full award. That process is part of an individual learning plan. We check in with students at least two to three times a year, which is documented, to see if they achieved the goals that were set, if we need to re-evaluate their goals, and whether there is anything else they would like to do.

What proportion of prisoners refuse to participate in education?

Ms Claire O'Connell

Some prisoners are not particularly interested in coming to school. It could be because they are on such a short sentence, they do not think it is worthwhile. In some of our prisons, there are prisoners who cannot come to school because of protection arrangements. They are literally in their cells 23 hours a day. Those are the prisoners who would really benefit from in-cell learning. We do our best to do in-reach work with them and provide them with materials but we are limited in what we can do. For example, in Mountjoy Prison where the population is around 500, between 150 to 200 might attend school. Our difficulty is that it is greatly split. Due to protection arrangements, we have different landings so we cannot provide a full week of classes to students in those situations.

Can Ms Byrne outline some of the actions from the strategy that have yet to be delivered?

Ms Catherine Byrne

That is a big question. Many actions have been carried through from the previous strategy of 2016. In general, they inform our daily practice. One area where we have a major impact is that we help people cope with imprisonment. Education is a safe space. It is a positive place. We hear all the time that people did not know this and that they only came to school because they wanted to get out of the yard or stay away from people. When they come to school, they find themselves in a new space that they never experienced before. It is quiet and bright. There is art on the walls and there are books available. People talk to you differently and some people do not wear uniforms. For the morning they are in school,, prisoners feel that they are free and are not in prison and can cope with the day. They also do subjects that challenge their brain. We do creative arts, general subjects, exams, meditation, mindfulness and well-being classes, all of which are part of the junior cycle curriculum and would be part of any education programme. That is a major area.

Developing an appetite for lifelong learning is hugely important and, as Ms O'Connell said earlier, we are very aware of that. A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. When we meet, greet and walk together with prisoners, we tell them that we can help them to address this. People come to school for all kinds of reasons. This may be the first time they have had the opportunity to take the lead in their learning. Even if we have this conversation with them and they are moved from our prison or released the next day, that is part of developing an interest in lifelong learning because they have taken a step in that direction.

Mr. Stephen O'Connor mentioned the long relationship with Open University and it is great to hear that two people have graduated in environmental sciences. Are the course fees paid by the Irish Prison Service?

Ms Claire O'Connell

Yes, the Irish Prison Service pays the fees for all our Open University students. We are lucky in that regard because it is not the case in other countries. Prisoners in England would be very lucky to be one of the few to have their fees covered by the Prisoners' Education Trust. In Ireland, every single Open University student fee is paid by the Irish Prison Service.

Did that relationship develop because there were no online options? Is that changing now and are more universities offering courses that could be done in prisons?

Ms Claire O'Connell

Yes, if our students had greater access to the Internet. Particularly since Covid, there are universities that offer courses such as in postgraduate studies. It is not possible for our students to engage with them yet because far too much is required in terms of Internet access, but hopefully it will progress in the future. In terms of doing a university degree, Open University arrangement is currently the only one that functions. Some students are doing distance learning with Kilroy's College or the College of Management and IT. That works well because they can liaise with a teacher and the material can be sent on in PDF format. Anything that requires interaction with live-streaming lectures is not possible at present.

Can Ms O'Connell provide further information on the Mountjoy Prison-Maynooth University partnership?

Ms Claire O'Connell

The Maynooth University partnership emerged from a college connect research project in 2019. People started to realise that different activities were going on between Maynooth University and Mountjoy Prison but they were not done in a co-ordinated manner. People were not necessarily aware that a particular lecturer was engaging with a student and working on a certain programme. A steering committee, which was established in October 2019, includes representatives from the CDETB, teaching staff, lecturers, and administrative staff from the access office in Maynooth University, who have done sterling work in getting everything up and running. While increasing the participation of students with criminal convictions in prison is one of the primary aims of the partnership, it is not the only aim. We also hope to create a learning environment in Mountjoy campus. Part of our plan includes inviting guest lectures to give lectures on all sorts of topics, from environmental science to climate change, to students in the progression unit and, hopefully, the prison. That had started off and was very successful until everything ground to a halt with Covid restrictions.

Would the IPEA like that extended to other third level institutions?

Ms Claire O'Connell


During the previous session, we spoke to the witnesses about the same topic. I spoke about students in their early 20s, who were in the middle of their third level course but end up in prison for different reasons - they have to do the time if they did the crime. They spoke with the Maynooth University partnership and are able to get out on day visits to attend university. Would the IPEA like to see that in place? Are there other conversations ongoing with other universities, such as in Cork, Dublin or Limerick, about such an arrangement?

Ms Claire O'Connell

Cork has very successfully piloted its own programme this year with training in the culinary arts. This is an area that needs to be expanded with all universities.

The Maynooth University partnership steering committee view this as a template for further partnership arrangements. Another important matter has arisen from the university partnership because people of like mind sat around a table and conversations happened. As part of those conversations, we examined how open and welcoming our universities are to people with criminal convictions. We had a discussion on fair admissions policies. Following that, with the support of the Probation Service, the Unlocking Potential project was established. This seeks not just to provide support and advice to students with criminal convictions who are looking to apply to a college, but also has a strong aim of assisting third level education institutions to redesign their admissions policies and create fairer policies that only ask questions about criminal history if they are relevant to the course of study.

Going back to what the Chair said about a student who has had college time disrupted, there are sometimes ways to continue the learning, depending on the college, when people are in prison. I have had second or third year students in a particular college. We have contacted the college, which has been keen to support us to help the students to continue their studies. It liaised with me to provide material. This is more relevant if a student is only going to be in prison for a short time and hopes to be able to re-enter the course upon release. Sometimes there is an opportunity for people to consider their studies and we are not necessarily looking at a deferral. It is not an official arrangement. It depends on the college, but it does happen.

It is only proper that arrangements are made. The committee would like to follow up on that.

Ms Claire O'Connell

There have been situations where somebody from Cork Institute of Technology has come to administer an examination to ensure a student gets over the line. It depends on the goodwill of the college.

Before I conclude, are there any further questions?

We are okay with that.

We are going to visit one of the prisons. That will be beneficial for the whole committee to see. As I said to the earlier witnesses, if we can be of any assistance in progressing the witnesses' work, we would like to. I believe that the days of locking people up and throwing away the key is long gone. Education is a key enabler to get people out of the quagmire of criminality or such that they may be in. I appreciate the witnesses' attendance and I thank them for coming. The discussion with both groups of witnesses has been beneficial and thought-provoking. I commend them on their work on prison education and for their Trojan effort, which often goes totally unrecognised. Their work is tremendously important to all of society and especially to prisoners and their families. We appreciate that.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.13 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 July 2022.