Bars of wisdom

July 27, 2010
By

Correctional education prepares inmates to return to society with skills and knowledge

Recently, the “World Cup 2010 Behind Bars” football competition among prison inmates was held at Klong Prem Central Pri-son. To arrive at the playing field, it is necessary to pass through a series of four imposing security gates. The event, modelled on the Fifa (Fe’de’ration Internationale de Football Association) World Cup, is also held once every four years.

In a wooden gazebo not far from the football field, two inmates have been waiting for “Education”. They have been authorised to speak on one of the most precious things they have obtained during their detention – an education.

“I’ve been living here for 11 years,” Sai Ruangkajorn, a 48-year-old inmate who has earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU) during his inprisonment, says over the thundering sounds of other inmates cheering the football match.

Sai, a petite, typical up-country man, believes that education can transform him into a successful person upon his return to society. Throughout his incarceration, he has allocated most of his time to pursuing knowledge. “When I first arrived, I could neither read nor write,” he recalls.

He admits that his low level of literacy caused him to be coaxed into drugs. Ultimately, he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in jail. After several amnesties, he has five years to go.

Sai completed primary school and secondary school in this penitentiary. At the moment, he is working on another bachelor’s degree in cooperatives, also at STOU. “I’ll receive another degree in October,” he says proudly, adding that he chose these fields as he would like to develop his rural community in Phanom Thuan district once he is released.

“I heard people say that prison was a monstrous place. I was so frightened,” the Kanchanaburi-born inmate says. “Once I became a prisoner, I adapted quickly. You can forget that prison is a bad place. It has the duty to turn people into good persons. It is up to each individual prisoner how much he or she wants to progress,” he continues.

Taking Sai as an example, it is clear that the cells can be used to exclude inmates from the outside world. However, in Thailand, what they cannot do is exclude them from the ample education opportunities provided to them by the Department of Corrections (DOC) of the Ministry of Justice and its partners.

Correctional education

The DOC is located on the right bank of the Chao Phraya River opposite Bang Khwang Central Prison in Nonthaburi province, one of the most-populated prisons in Thailand. The DOC supervises over 180 prisons countrywide, in which nearly 190,000 convicts are detained.

“When people are educated, they will be able to think, and then they will be better able to manage their thoughts and behaviours,” Chartchai Suthiklom, director-general of the DOC, says in his office, which has a 180-degree view of the river. The director has just signed an agreement with Krirk, Thammasat and Huachiew Chalermprakiet universities, under which the DOC allows students at the three institutions who are interested in doing social research to intern at its facilities.

Efforts to provide inmates with a so-called correctional education are plentiful around the world, as can be seen in the existence of the many organisations that are established towards this objective, such as the European Prison Education Association, the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison in California, and the Correctional Education Association based in the United States, among others.

The correctional education scheme in Thailand is conducted as part of the DOC’s mission of “rehabilitating prisoners effectively”, says Mr Chartchai. In general, inmates have access to five levels of education. These come in the forms of basic education, vocational education, higher education, informal education and life-quality development programmes.

In each of these education services, the DOC works in collaboration with various sectors. For example, STOU is responsible for the bachelor’s degree programme, the Office of the Vocational Education Commission (Ovec) handles the vocational and higher vocation degree programmes, and the Office of Non-Formal and Informal Education (Onie) is in charge of the basic education and short vocation courses. Private entities also participate. The teaching and learning is conducted at the learning centre in each prison except for the STOU programme, which allows inmates to study on their own.

“One of the aims of the department is to ensure that there are no illiterate persons in any of its prisons,” the director-general says. Inmates who have not yet completed basic education are encouraged to continue studies until they complete Mathayom 6 (Grade 12).

Degrees in prison

Through the vision of Sanit Ruji-narong, a former DOC director-general, and Prof Wijit Srisa-arn, PhD, an ex-president of STOU, the university first allowed inmates to enrol in its bachelor’s degree courses in 1985. In September last year, nearly 300 inmate-students graduated from STOU’s programmes. Among the graduates was the notorious Serm Sakhonrat, a former medical student who had butchered his girlfriend.

“Education is a matter of opening up opportunities. Being an inmate should not preclude a person from being a student,” says Assoc Prof Pranee Sungkatavat, the current president of STOU. “Our aim is to prove that people can get an education wherever they are,” the president adds. Last semester, there were nearly 6,000 inmates studying in the STOU programmes.

According to Prof Pranee, prisoners can apply to join the same programmes as other eligible members of the general public except nursing science. The prison is responsible for submitting the application forms on behalf of the inmates while the convicts themselves pay for registration and course fees.

Currently, the university offers 12 programmes for inmates. The Bachelor of Laws is the most popular programme, with last semester’s enrolment reaching approximately 1,500 prisoner-students. The second and third favourites are management science, with 1,400 students, and agriculture extension and cooperatives, which had 1,000 students. Other fields of study available include political science, communication arts, education and economics.

Apart from taking full-fledged bachelor’s degree courses, inmates can choose to attend the Sumritibat (certificate of achievement) programme, in which they can choose to study subjects of personal interest. A certificate of achievement is awarded upon completion of this course. If they apply for a degree programme, they can apply the credits earned in the Sumritibat programme towards their degree programme.

Self-discipline

During the day, Sai helps prison officials by performing minor jobs, such as serving as a messenger, and earns pocket money by washing clothes for other inmates. In addition to these activities, he spends the rest of his time on reading.

“I read five to six hours every day. Since my knowledge is poor, I need to read as much as possible,” Sai says. He discloses that he begins reading each day at 4am. After completing his daily chores, he resumes reading until 10pm. “I read the same materials at least two or three times. The more you read, the more knowledge you gain,” he stresses.

Getting a bachelor’s degree in prison requires an extremely high level of self-discipline. Once the inmates have signed up for a programme, the university starts sending course documents to them. There is an “STOU corner” in the prison’s learning centre, where the university provides related learning materials for inmates to borrow.

In the larger prisons, the university supplies the materials to their libraries. Inmates are responsible for keeping up with their coursework by themselves. Exams are administered in the prisons at the same time they are scheduled for regular university students.

“Instead of wasting time thinking of inappropriate things, they use their free time to learn and review their lessons,” Prof Pranee says.

Before graduation, the university conducts a three-day intensive course at Bang Khwang Central Prison, to which all STOU inmate-students from all prisons are summoned to attend. The objective of this course is to enhance the inmates’ practical skills in their respective fields of study as well as to raise their awareness of and appreciation for morals and ethics.

The university is considering running a master’s degree programme in the future, according to the president.

Vocational studies

The football match is at its peak when Khwanchai Noipinit, 51, who has been in the prison two years longer than Sai, begins to tell his story. He is wearing the white polo shirt of the architecture department of Don Muang Technical College (DTC). “If I study, I’m in jail. If I don’t study, I’m still in jail. So, I choose to study,” he says.

While Sai has opted to take bachelor’s degree programmes, Khwanchai has selected the vocational path. Currently, he is a final-year architecture student at DTC.

The DOC signed an agreement with Ovec in 2006 to extend the vocational education opportunities for its internees. At present, there are over 80 vocational education institutions across Thailand conducting courses in places of confinement throughout the country. The main programmes cover engineering, business administration, agriculture, culinary skills and the arts. In the first semester of the 2009 academic year, there were over 4,000 inmate-students pursuing a vocational certificate and more than 1,600 in higher vocational certificate programmes.

Unlike STOU’s programme, under which the internees need to rely on themselves, for vocational classes the collaborating institutions send qualified instructors to teach the inmates in the prisons.

Khwanchai studies every weekday during the academic terms from around 9am to 3pm, and he also needs to submit completed assignments, just like non-incarcerated students. He is now designing a shopping centre as his graduation project.

According to Prasert Thongchai, the head of the civil engineering department at DTC, the college has been providing education to inmates for six years now. Today, the college has approximately 150 students studying at the Central Correctional Institution for Drug Addicts (CCIDA), Klong Prem Central Prison and the Central Women Correctional Institution.

Even though Mr Prasert is very supportive of the idea of providing education for persons in jail, he expressed concern, based on his experience as a teacher at CCIDA for six years, that some inmates enrol in the programme to avoid doing hard labour. “Such students have a low level of learning motivation and tend to not pay much attention in class,” he says.

Learning hub

Correctional education in Thailand seems to have broken free of most restraints. However, Mr Chartchai says, it stills lacks many things. The difficulties include a shortage of learning facilities and the absence of a proper educational environment. “Some prisons operate two courses in the same room,” he says.

Some education institutions are not ready to collaborate with the DOC. “We understand their situation. Teachers already have enough work to do,” he says. Another problem is that some courses cannot be provided as they require on-the-job training, extensive research work or regular interactions between students and teachers. These obstacles confront the master’s programme that is under consideration.

Despite all these predicaments, the DOC is trying its best to create a learning environment for inmates who wish to learn. According to Mr Chartchai, in response to Justice Minister Peerapan Sareerathawipak’s vision of encouraging inmates to allocate as much of their time to education as possible, the department has piloted a “school prison” policy at Maha Sarakham Provincial Pri-son in Maha Sarakham province and the Central Correctional Institution for Young Offenders in Pathum Thani province. Under this policy, all the inmates in the two penitentiaries are required to enrol in at least one of the education courses offered.

“This will change two things. First, a truly education-oriented environment will be developed, with all the prisoners there studying one course or another. Second, we can effectively and efficiently utilise the services of our education institution partners,” the director-general says.

According to Suvit Ungthong, director of the Education Promotion Division at the DOC, the department is gradually transferring prisoners who wish to learn to the two prisons and removing those who are not willing to learn to other detention centres. “If the project is successful, it will be expanded to the other facilities,” he says.

Second chance

Many people say that inmates should be condemned. Some people might be of the view that the DOC and its partners are giving the condemned too many privileges. However, such people might need to remind themselves that ultimately, most of these internees will return to society. Education may not change the behaviour of all of them, but at least Sai and Khwanchai have already said that they will not walk on the wrong path again.

As our conversation is about to end, Sai shows “Education” more than 20 certificates and other documents from the programmes which he has gone through during his years in jail. They cover, for example, music, English conversation, Boy Scout courses, academic transcripts from STOU, and certificates from Onie.

He is determined to use the knowledge and skills that he has gained to earn an honest living as well as help his community. Bursting with pride, he says that his community members have already forgiven him. However, he is concerned that for his fellow inmates, the outside world is unlikely to be willing to employ or accept ex-convicts regardless of how many degrees they may hold.

“I want other people to accept that most prisoners who have undergone these courses will change for the better. We [inmates who take education programmes in prisons] want to be representatives of inmates throughout the country. We will use the knowledge that we have obtained to prove that we can develop the country and society, help the government and our families, and we won’t return to do bad things again,” Sai affirms confidently.

“To people who are about to commit a crime, I would say: please don’t do it. Prison is not paradise. But if you have made a misstep, please prepare yourselves to be good citizens and to contribute to society [when you are released],” concludes Sai.

For further information on correctional education in Thailand, visit http://br.correct.go.th/eduweb. The information is in Thai.

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