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Providing Sustainable Education in Prisons

13 October 2022

 A case study in Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia calling for a collaborative approach

He had a bit of blank face while looking around him at the other juveniles, some of whom were writing away furiously and others who, like him,  were also looking around them vacantly. The question that they were asked to answer was: What would you want to change in your institution? Soon after, his neighbour stepped in and started writing for him. It was not that he did not want to answer the question; it was that he could not, his neighbour explained while proudly informing us that he was writing his answers for him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one frequently recurring answer to what they would like to see changed in their institution was: education. On this year’s International Day of Education in Prison on 13 October, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC) would like to shine a light on the importance of providing juveniles in conflict with the law with stable and good quality education while incarcerated. Education is instrumental in reducing recidivism rates and improving the chance of a successful reintegration into society post release.

Giving a voice to incarcerated minors

The question: What would you want to change in your institution? was asked in a feedback session in the recreation room of the juvenile institution of Educational Correctional Institution (ECI) Tetovo in Volkovija, North Macedonia. The boys’ answers formed part of the living climate measurement by the University of Applied Sciences Leiden (Hogeschool Leiden). Education came out of the survey as one of the most critical elements.

The living climate measurement is conducted as part of the NHC’s collaborative project on creating a safe, stimulating and rehabilitative prison environment for Juveniles in Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Matra programme. Rita Selimi, a PhD student from Kosovo, has long worked on the project and has been active in measuring the living climate in the juvenile institute in Lipjan. Rita emphasised the importance of literacy for the boys in understanding what a form or survey is actually asking. If you cannot read the questions on the survey – or not well enough to understand what the question is asking – it hinders the juveniles’ ability to express their needs formally. The ability to be able to advocate for oneself if a vital part of being an active member of the community and gaining ownership over their own resocialisation and reintegration trajectory.

Promising educational practices

“One of the boys became very emotional, saying that he had never before been taught how to deal with his emotions or what social decision making was, for example. It was through the TOPs! programme that he had learnt this for the first time in his life.” – Staff member of ECI Tetovo

One promising practice has been ECI Tetovo’s extra-curricular programme, where the boys were actively involved in a range of vocational activities, everything from building furniture for the premises, to cultivating potatoes, to art and music workshops. One of the recent releases at Tetovo was active in producing music from inside the prison. Additionally, with the support of NHC and Stichting 180, the juvenile institutions in Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia are adopting resocialisation programmes, such as TOPs!, as part of their school curriculum. The COPOSO trainings, offered through the project by Young in Prison and Caritas Albania and Kosovo, also offer the juveniles are chance to develop personally and artistically.

Lack of governmental and public support

While its value is widely recognized, implementing a sustainable form of education in prisons has proven challenging. Education is not always a guarantee for children in closed facilities, which is a big risk factor for both reintegration and rates of recidivism.

In North Macedonia, for many years formal education for juveniles in closed facilities was only sporadically provided through temporary programmes. Over the last three months, a pilot project was conducted in ECI Tetovo, focusing on providing training for mixed classed of both illiterate and literate juveniles. Both teachers and juveniles were very satisfied with the progress and implementation. Unfortunately, the provision of education to these juveniles remains vulnerable and inconsistent, with a sustainable solution still lacking.

A lack of willingness of actors from outside the institutions, often driven by prejudice, can also play a large part in the systematic lack of sustainable formal education in juvenile institutions. Many times, stigmatization of detained juveniles makes local communities, schools and teachers resistant to welcoming these children in their schools. Moreover, teachers do not always feel sufficiently supported or competent to provide education to children with certain behavioural problems. Increasing public awareness as well as fostering good cooperation between schools and penitentiary institutions is key in overcoming these obstacles.

For more information about the issues regarding education for incarcerated youth in North Macedonia, please consult the following findings from NHC’s partner organization the Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights:

Reintegration without education?

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 28.1:

“States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity”

UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (“The Beijing Rules”), 26.1:

“The objective of training and treatment of juveniles placed in institutions is to provide care, protection, education and vocational skills, with a view to assisting them to assume socially constructive and productive roles in society”

UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, 38:

“Every juvenile of compulsory school age has the right to education suited to his or her needs and abilities and designed to prepare him or her for return to society”

The Council of Europe’s convention for protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms (1950) state that “no person shall be denied an education.” Education is a cornerstone for the successful rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into society for a juvenile. Without it, juveniles will be unable to fulfil some basic requirements of their release, such looking for a job by filling out an application. Without a job and steady income, it becomes difficult to fulfil basic needs that in turn can lead to criminal behaviour and an increased chance of reoffending.

Read more on NHCs work on post release and probation work here.

Calls for change

In order to ensure the successful reintegration of juveniles in conflict with the law, the NHC:

  • calls on Ministries of Justice, prison management and higher education institutes to cooperate and provide the children with access to higher education;
  • advocates for juveniles in (semi-)closed facilities to receive education outside the walls of their institution as much as possible to foster reintegration and counter stigmatization;
  • emphasizes the need for specialized education programmes for juveniles with specific learning needs (including illiteracy);
  • calls on Ministries of Justice and prison management to provide access to higher education;

recommends the involvement of civil society organizations and alternative educational programmes in addition to the formal education process;

  • recommends to provide teachers with sufficient support and training to work with juveniles with specific behavioural problems and psychological needs.

About the Criminal Justice Reform Programme

We believe a criminal justice system focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment is better at contributing to safer societies. The Criminal Justice Programme promotes and supports criminal justice reform that works to ensure offenders are able to successfully re-enter society and do not re-offend. By providing tools and trainings to prison staff or probation officers, we help improve the implementation of justice. By bringing together high-level officials, policy experts, and seasoned practitioners from different countries, we contribute to the development of the most effective policies and practices. We also promote collaboration between different actors in the justice system, such as judges, prosecutors, probation, prison, and civil society organisations to ensure reforms pursued are effectively implemented throughout the entire system.