Report on Education in African Prisons

Oumar Ndongo
Member of the Science Committee of the UNESCO Chair
Professor at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal

One cannot discuss the status of education in African prisons without talking about the insecurity generated by the continent’s development issues. It is hard to imagine successful educational systems in prisons when African States themselves are having great difficulty ensuring the welfare of populations in various sectors of national life. These difficulties are even more apparent in the education and training sector.

Historically, the idea of prison has had a strong resonance in the minds of many Africans. Indeed, individuals who end up in correctional centres face social stigmatization as outcasts and there is little interest in their reintegration. It is perhaps an overstatement to claim that these individuals are completely and categorically rejected. However, the belief that detainees have lost not only their honour, but have also sullied the one of their family and their community, is real. From that moment on, prison is viewed as a place apart, representing not only the loss of freedom, but also and above all exclusion from the community and activities related to community life. This perception of the correctional system can be understood by examining traditional African society, which has other ways of dealing with individuals who have deliberately chosen to act outside of the legal framework. In fact, it should be noted that correctional institutions, as they are known today, were not part of the traditional  that have measures for criminal behaviour. Thus, the construction of prisons could be considered a colonial approach to which many communities have difficulty adapting.

African States have made great strides in addressing the social reintegration challenges of convicts who have finished serving their sentences. Indeed, on a semantic level, the past twenty-odd years have seen the term “prison” abandoned for more socializing expressions such as “house of arrest and education” or “house of rehabilitation,” implying that prison time is but a parenthesis in life that will eventually end and the individuals will be able to regain their place in society and live without risk of re-offending. Monitoring of living conditions in African prisons appears to be better structured in English-speaking countries, where parliamentary institutions visit correctional centres more regularly and exercise their role as overseers of government activity in this area. Failure to deal with the reintegration component is reported in order that appropriate remedial action may be taken by the departments concerned.

Two aspects in particular stand out with respect to education in prisons: professional training and personal development. It is quite clear that a lack of skills contributes significantly to an absence of direction that can drive individuals to engage in wrongful acts resulting in incarceration. Furthermore, it is also recognized that the individuals who commit crimes punishable by law suffer from inadequate personal development. Indeed, these individuals did not receive the proper emotional and social support required to guide their personal maturation.

Based on this observation, education projects in Africa, and in Senegal in particular, focus on functional literacy to enable prisoners to learn how to read and write in the hope that this training will help them reintegrate into society and obtain security guard work and other jobs that do not require more extensive studies. In addition to teaching people how to speak and write either English or French, the official languages of public or private administrations, professional training in trades such as masonry, carpentry, etc. is also offered. In terms of education in prisons, this is indisputably the most important type of training. It is recognized that with the proper qualifications, prisoners can regain their dignity by earning a living by the sweat of their brow. In Senegalese prisons, detainees are often seen making works of art, which the prison administration encourages by selling to raise funds that will be used to rehabilitate the individual once outside the correctional system. Many people use their time in prison to discover their talents. The field of art is especially popular among inmates, and understandably, since the prison environment is conducive to the development of ideas and discovery of vocation.

With respect to personal development, it is commonly recognized that the mastery of religious and moral principles results in self-control and proper behaviour towards others. Devotees come forward here and there to teach the Koran to groups of prisoners in the hopes of further imbuing them with the rules of conduct established by the State’s Muslim majority society, as is the case in Senegal. Significant behavioural changes can be observed in prisoners who have taken the community values to heart, including better judgment and an unsuspected ability to resist the many temptations society offers.

Today education in prisons is increasingly viewed as an important factor in reducing urban violence. Without question, young people are the most vulnerable, due to the inadequacies of the school and university system, shortage of employment opportunities and resulting despair, as well as corruption and arrogance on the part of the elite. All of these issues are factors that lead to overpopulated prisons and reduce the effectiveness of any educational system in place. Schools send a large number of poorly educated youths into the streets where they are given to commit wrongful acts.

In response to the progress made by colleague members of the Science Committee of the UNESCO Chair in Applied Research for Education in Prison, our concerns appear to be very different from theirs. While our colleagues in the United States, Europe and even Latin America are already working on models rooted in long-standing traditions, in Africa, the fight is always at a human rights level, in other words, focussed around prison conditions, the complexity of procedures and length of judicial processes. When preventive detentions exceed four or five years, it is difficult to see the issue of education in prisons as a priority. It is obviously important, however, given the number of repeat offences and the vulnerability of young people faced with the persistent problem of employability. Civil society organizations and parliamentary social committees visit these centres to discover that there is a wide gap between what the prison administration claims to be doing and the actual situation on the ground.

Of particular interest for research is the marginalization of various prisoner groups. While programs aimed at juvenile delinquency already exist, very few are available for adults who not only need an education to regain their dignity, but also because this category of individuals has a strong social responsibility. Neglecting these issues makes an indescribably negative impact on the equilibrium of the community.

The prospect of a meeting of the UNESCO Chair on Education in Prisons will certainly have an effect on the African continent. The sharing of experiences will help bring back into focus the care and management of inmates and individuals momentarily in conflict with the law. One problem that appears to be specific to African prisons is the absence of serious research on educational projects aimed at prison populations. Very few university departments are interested in this issue. At Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, only one Master’s thesis discusses the Senegalese prison system. However, there is some, albeit limited, documentation on social reintegration actions for prisoners. Thus the conference organized by the UNESCO Chair on Education in Prisons will help to raise awareness of these marginalized groups.