News & Views

Upskilling prisoners is key to reintegrate them into society and work

Marios Vryonides
Prof. Vryonides is the Dean of the European University of Cyprus. He is a sociologist who specialises in the sociology of education and research methods. A teacher himself, Prof. Vryonides is an internationally renowned academic who has spent many years researching education programmes in prisons across Europe and working with educators and convicts. He also collaborates closely with the Cyprus Prison Department and he has forged strong links with the Central Jail in Nicosia. Both Vryonides and his colleagues from Nicosia’s Central Jail are partners in the Erasmus co-funded Convicts Upskilling Pathways (CUP) project alongside other partner organisations and prisons from Italy, Greece and The Netherlands. We asked Prof. Vryonides to tell us more about why educating and upskilling convicts is important and what the CUP project has set out to achieve.

Victor Hugo once said: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”.  What does this mean? What is the added value of education programmes in prisons in the 21st century?

“Victor Hugo’s famous words are still very relevant today. Education offered in prisons is a way to empower individuals by offering them new skills, knowledge about basic and advanced competences the lack of which may have contributed in directing them to deviance and crime in the first place. Many studies show that a significant proportion of men and women in prisons are low-skilled.  Nearly half of them have no qualifications at all. As may be expected, lack of skills and qualifications significantly limit the employment prospects of prisoners after release.  Education programmes in prisons, especially those which target young prisoners, can help facilitate their reintegration into society potentially preventing them from re-offending by making sure they have the right skills to be able to get work”.

 

What are the key challenges and stumbling blocks that you have encountered when implementing such education and training programmes? How have you overcome them? 

“When implementing education and training programmes in prison settings you need to understand the unique context and the dynamics of prison environments. For example, often there may be serious security issues or unexpected events (i.e. riots, violence etc.) that disturb the scheduling of classes in prison schools or other learning activities that may have been organised. On such occasions, the best strategy is to collaborate closely with the prison administration and be patient. Once things go back to normal learning activities can gradually resume.

Another challenge is the lack of Internet connection due to the strict regulations that prisons have in this regard. This does not allow instructors to make use of up to date Learning Management Systems and to engage in on-line learning activities which are plentiful and suitable for adult learners. This can be partly addressed by downloading material in advance and working in off-line modalities.”

 

What does the Convicts Upskilling Pathways project aim to achieve over the next three years?

“CUP is a project that can have a great impact especially on young prisoners who want nothing more than to get back into society and normal life outside the prison avoiding re-offending. Only by strengthening their skills and competences will they be able to find work and have a steady income, avoiding the temptation of getting back into crime. Besides the project’s overall aim, CUP also aims to develop tools which will allow us to evaluate and to measure the progress and the impact of educational actions to promote convicts’ reintegration into society.”

 

How can a project like CUP contribute to inform and advance the debate on the education and training of inmates?

“If prisons are to function as effective rehabilitation institutions rather than places for incarceration they need to promote projects like CUP that facilitate successful reintegration into society. Educational programmes in prisons have the potential of creating both short term and long-term positive effects. At an immediate level, they can make prison life much more bearable by creating conditions that often resemble normal life away from the gloomy conditions of the prison. This can be hugely beneficial for the emotional stability of vulnerable people, be they men, women or young offenders. In the long term, these interventions may contribute to reducing re-offending rates and deviance if convicts are enabled to reintegrate meaningfully and purposefully into society.”

 

What do you expect to learn from participating in the CUP project?

“Personally, I wish to enhance my understanding of the different approaches that need to be adopted when approaching prisoners, particularly young offenders. Each case, each individual, is unique and often requires exceptional handling. Learning objectives need to be customised depending on each person’s profile and they need to be monitored over time in order to document changes and improvements on their personalised goals. CUP aims to do just that and to share the expertise that will be gained in order to inform more professionals throughout Europe and beyond who make use of this experience when engaging in similar projects.”

 

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