Understanding Prisoner Learning


The first question I am usually asked is why? Why are you interested in prisoners? For me that is a simple question. I am interested in prisons because a family member went to prison and I got curious. What was prison really like, what would they be like when they got out, what would they learn from the experience? As a family member of a prisoner I have personal experiences which influence my perception of what prisoners learn during their incarceration, I have my own stories and experiences of previous research into the phenomenon of prisoner learning. Being in the field did affect me deeply, my research diary states' I think about the lives housed in the buildings I see before me, and those who have passed through the gates, I think about the children who visit their mums and dads, of the tears and the pain experienced by the families. I think about the visits that I had with my family member and the tears that I shed each time I walked out and he went back in. ' I have felt the pains of imprisonment as a family member of a prisoner and I have also felt pain as a victim of crime and the family member of a victim of crime.

As an adult educator and a passionate lifelong learner, I started to research what prisoners learn while they are in prison – both what they can access in practice and programs and what they learn from their everyday lives as prisoners, today I will discuss with you some of the things that I have learned so far, particularly in regards to the prisoners prisoners face. But for me, research alone is not enough – sharing knowledge and developing understanding are even more important, so in 2008 I started an organization called the Australian Prison Foundation – to encourage information sharing, research and support relationships for all those touched by prisons in Australia .

What is Prisoner Learning?

Life is a tangled web of experiences which form and develop us into unique individuals. Our thinking and behavior is formed by our experience of the world around us. Our social and familial relationships, our physical environment and our genetic code all effect our behavior and what, how and why we learn. Learning is at the root of personal change and growth. Our social world and physical environment sets the stage for individuals to 'act'. The roles individuals play includes those who are characterized by their involvement with others such as mother, wife, or brother; or with activities such as student, teacher, or officer; or with the environment such as prisoner, patient; or with our race such as Aboriginal, Maori, or Caucasian. Indeed we may play a wide variety of these roles simultaneously during different stages in our lives. What we experience while we play those roles contributing to our learning and our development as people. This brief article will focus on the key concepts of learning which occurs within prisons while they are experiencing the social and physical environment of prison.

Learning may be categorized as formal in that it is accessible through formal institutions, such as social and educational institutions, set up by our society to assist in our personal learning. Formal learning usually leads to recognized qualifications or learning outcomes. It is, however, informal learning which enterprises most of our learning experiences. Informal learning is any activity that involves learning outside of formal learning (Connor, 1997). Foley (1995) defines informal learning as that which occurs when people consciously try to learn through their experiences, whereas formal learning is distinguished by curriculum, organized by professionals and occurring within an institutional setting. Informal learning occurs in a variety of places, involving a heterogeneous population and uses a wide variety of methods. It does not reflect the political and social-legal frameworks of formal learning patrimonies and therefore does not reflect the 'narrowness' of formal learning. It encompasses a diversity of arrangements, actors and practices (Cullen, et.al., 2000). "It reflects subscribed, emergent and highly contextualized needs, rather than the 'operational' needs of formal education and training policy and practice" (Cullen, et.al., 2000, p. 4). Often participants when engaged in informal learning, do not see themselves as learning (Cullen, et.al., 2000). Informal learning is embedded and often taken-for-granted by learners (Livingstone, 1999).

Adults tend to engage in multiple types of learning on an everyday basis with a variety of emphases and tendencies (Livingstone, 2001). Learning is a natural human process, neither good nor bad of itself, however, the outcomes of learning may have moral, cultural and social connecences (Jarvis, Holford, & Griffin, 2003). The moral context of learning is influenced by the attitudes, values ​​and behaviors of the surrounding social environment (Garratt, 2000). Learning is an individual process of change and as individuals develop their potential it may challenge the existing status quo of the culture and social environment in which they are situated. Learning can there develop a political dimension (Jarvis, et.al. 2003).

In differentiating between formal and informal learning available to prisoners, we are in essence also differentiating the control of that learning. Formal learning is "approved", it is controlled by prison administration, the criminogenic and non criminogenic needs of prisoners is assessed by "experts" and may or may not reflect the needs and wants of the individual. This will affect the choices available to prisoners, the learning climate and learner motivation. Informal learning may not be "approved", is more likely to be controlled by the learner and is more likely to occur in informal social settings (Knowles, 1980). Informal learning is an under researched area likely due to its difficulty to measure and its grounding in experiential knowledge within social groups (Livingstone, 2001).

Learning is a result of the learner interacting with their environment (Hartel, Fujimoto, Strybosch & Fitzpatrick, 2007) and is constructed in a social environment (Bickford & Wright, 2006). As such the learning which occurs within the prison environment is unique to that prison and to the prisoner. The social, cultural and historical contexts, along with the learner's position within these concepts, all impact on the content and methods of the learning experience. People learn from and with other people and as such social relations impact learning (Jarvis, Holford, & Griffin, 2003).

A significant factor in adult learner motivation is supportive social relations. Indeed it has been suggested that the quality and strength of social capital is a strong influence on the propensity to commit future offending behavior (Vold, Bernard, Snipes, 2002). The social environment then, not only shapes what is learned but why the learning is important. A focus on the social dimension of learning allows for a greater understanding of the impact of informal learning within a prison environment and how learning about criminal activity occurs. The social relations within the learning environment also reveal much of the hidden curriculum (Jarvis, Holford, & Griffin, 2003). In essence the social environment answers for prisoners the question 'what does the' prison system 'say about the importance of learning and what should be learned'.

One aspect of informal learning within a prison environment is the learning of criminal behavior from others and that during this learning process, norms, values ​​and behaviors are internalized. Thinking of crime in the same way as any other behavior leads to exploring the social environment including such things as peer groups, family and other role models and how they encourage or discourage crime. Miller, Schrek & Tewksbury (2006) suggest that criminal behavior is learned in interaction with others through communication and within intimate personal groups. These authors (Miller, Schrek & Tewksbury, 2006) contend that the process of learning criminal behavior is no different from learning anything else. This is in direct contrast to criminologists and others who view criminals as "defective". Burke (2005) based on work by Ackers (1985) focussed on four central concepts: the patterns of interactions with others, the personal meanings applied to personal behavior, the actual or anticipated consequences of behavior and imitation as a process of observing and copying what others do.

It is possible that prisons are a school for crime, that they damage to a greater degree than they heal (Abramsky, 2001). If this is the case it is probable that the 'school for crime' occurs as informal learning within the prison environment and that the damage is as a result of a combination of social acculturation, informal learning and a lack of positive experiences. It is for this reason that informal learning, which is difficult to distinguish from social acculturation (Livingstone, 2001), warrants attention from the community and those concerned with the prison system. Particular interest in informal learning growing within the corporate sector (Connor, 1997), among education and employment policy makers (Cullen, Batterbury, Foresti, Lyons & Stern, 2000) and also in the area of ​​recognition of competencies in the voluntary education sector NCVER, 2008), informal learning is stated only briefly in research conducted into corrections education. There is, however, wide interest among the corrections community in the role and benefit of learning through education and training for individual prisoners' and for corrections systems. This interest stems from a desire to understand the most effective approach and means of delivery, so as to achieve positive outcomes for prisoners' and for society as a whole (Bearing Point Inc., 2003).


Understanding prisoner learning is a complex thing, but something that is incredibly worthwhile, because the consequences of prison learning can create a better life for individuals, can help to create better families and better communities. By working to understand and break down these barriers we can create a better future.