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After Being In Prison Myself, I Know Why So Many Offenders Go Straight Back

I stared in disbelief at the prison’s educational officer. "What do you mean I can’t study in prison?" I asked.

He gave me a sympathetic look, then clarified that the prison just didn’t have the resources for me to pursue tertiary education. "We have an education room with computers but due to staff cuts I can only open and supervise that for two hours a week, and even then there's obviously no internet," he told me.

No internet. Next to no computer time. As anyone who has studied by correspondence in the last decade or two will tell you, it’s not possible to complete a course without regular computer access. The prison itself only ran basic literacy and short courses, like first aid certificates.

"Are there any courses I can study externally that are just done through workbooks?" I asked out of sheer desperation. It was November 2015 and I still had nine months, three weeks and two days to go on a 10-month sentence. I’d already been informed that inmates were not entitled to therapy and that I was considered too low-risk to be eligible for the rehabilitation programs. I was worried that without anything constructive to do for 10 months, I’d start to go crazy.

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"Not that I know of," he said. "What exactly did you want to study?"

"Anything!" I replied.

He smiled. "I’ll see what I can find on the internet. Book in to see me again in a few days."

You have no control over your time in prison. If you want to see welfare or an education officer, you inform the guards. If you’re lucky, you might get to see them in a day or two. Sometimes the wait can last for weeks. It was a very long seven days before I got to see the educational officer again.

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"Did you find anything?" I asked.

‘Not really’, he said. "Not surprisingly, registered providers don’t seem to offer courses like that anymore. I even emailed TAFE and they don’t have a single course that doesn’t require internet access."

I sighed. "Can I study something informally then? Could I get my friends to post the education department a textbook that you can give me, like on how to learn another language or something?"

Inmates at most prisons in New South Wales are only allowed to receive loose paper and photos in the mail. Books, magazines, and even extra stamps will all be returned to sender. While I knew I couldn’t get a book sent directly to me, I was hoping I could get around that if it went through the education department.

The education officer shook his head.

"I wish I could help you Damien, but if I let you have a book that's not related to an official course then everyone else will want a book too, and then they’ll crack down on it. The brass here don’t exactly have a lot of tolerance for anything changing. Some of them would have kittens if they found out I even tried to find you something to study that we don’t run ourselves. That reminds me, though -- I did find this for you."

He handed me a piece of paper. It was an advertisement for a non-accredited Bible correspondence course run by an evangelical church. I forced a smile and thanked him for his time. I waited till I'd been escorted back to the yard before I threw it away.

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Shortly thereafter, I was transferred to a different prison. I tried not to get my hopes up that things would be any different, but I couldn’t hold back my excitement upon seeing a locked demountable building filled with computers in the yard near the guards' office. I booked in to see the education officer -- who basically repeated what the last one had told me.

"What about that room full of computers?" I asked.

"What? Oh, that. That hasn’t been opened for a couple years now. Not since they laid off the other education staff."

I spoke to the other inmates. Many of them were in the same position as me -- desperate to study something, but with next to no options available. It only took me three months to complete every short course the prison ran themselves. For a 10-month sentence, I suppose that wasn’t so bad, in the grand scheme of things. But some of the friends I made had been in there for years. One told me how he spent more than three years trying to find a way to complete a high-school equivalency course before he was finally transferred to one of the very few prisons in NSW that can accommodate full-time students. And once he’d finished it, his options for studying were exhausted.

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It wasn’t always this bad. According to official government statistics, 88 percent of prisoners in NSW participated in education or training courses in 1996-97. By 2016-17, that number had fallen to just less than 25 percent. The only state with a lower rate of participation was Tasmania.

Only 0.3 percent of NSW inmates were able to pursue education at a university level -- and considering the lack of computer access, I’m actually surprised the figure was that high.

Not surprisingly, a review of prison education policies by Corrective Services NSW in 2016 "found shortcomings in the previous model". A spokeswoman from Corrective Services told me there has been a 43 percent increase in inmates completing literacy and numeracy programs in the past two years, and that there are now four prisons that offer 'Intensive Learning Centres' where inmates can have regular computer access. Sounds promising -- although Maxine Sharkey, Deputy Secretary of the NSW Teachers Federation, is far from impressed.

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Speaking at the Prisoner Education Forum at NSW Parliament House in Sydney in September 2018, Maxine noted that Corrective Services NSW sacked all their remaining teachers in 2016, though it was not until August 2017 that some prisons began to replace them with instructors who only hold a certificate IV in Workplace Training and Assessment, rather than a teaching degree. Maxine believes any improvement in statistics does not take into consideration the drop in education quality, and states that the new assessment process appears to be "simply funneling people through a computer-generated testing regime that does not and cannot provide the rich analysis that teachers can".

Maxine did praise the effectiveness of the Intensive Learning Centres, though questioned why they are available at less than 10 percent of the state's correctional facilities.

It costs nearly $110,000 to keep someone in a jail for a year in Australia, and studies consistently show that inmates who are provided with education are considerably less likely to re-offend.

Even if you don’t believe in the rights of prisoners, you have to at least believe in the rights of taxpayers.

While no study appears to have been done on the subject in Australia, in the US, it had been calculated that every dollar spent on prison education saves taxpayers $6 to $7 (AUD) due to reductions in re-incarceration. In the UK, the rate is more than $4 saved for every $1.60 (AUD) spent. You can speculate as to why education rates and quality have fallen, but the end result is the same: 51.3 percent of prisoners released from NSW in 2014-15 were back in custody within two years.

We need a prison system that helps protect our community by ensuring inmates are less likely to offend by allowing them to freely pursue education, not one that just warehouses them until they get released.

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