Education Behind Bars

Kingston Penitentiary

Prison Literacy: an interview with John Barron

On July 5th, 2012, the imprisoned G20 activist Alex Hundert began a series of blog posts called “No Books for Prisoners” which details a culture of denying books to prisoners at the Metro West Detention Centre in Etobicoke and the Central North Correctional Complex in Penetanguishene, Ontario. The blog posts also highlight a problem that extends well beyond the internal policies of Corrections Canada: the majority of prisoners in this country are barely literate to begin with. According to the Literacy and Policing Project, 79 percent of imprisoned Canadians do not have their high school diploma, and 65 percent have less than a Grade 8 level of literacy. Although research has consistently proven that prison literacy programs greatly reduce rates of recidivism, no such program is consistently implemented by Corrections Canada.

Since 2006, the Frontier College has addressed this issue by operating a program called the Prison Literacy Initiative in five facilities in the Kingston area. The program receives no funding from Corrections Canada, and is run primarily by volunteers from Queen’s University. In early December 2012, I spoke to John Barron, who has been Frontier College’s Regional Coordinator for Eastern Ontario since 2006.

Can you briefly describe the kinds of relationships that are fostered between inmates and tutors through your involvement in the Literacy Initiative?
We work through a specific contact in the prison, such as a guidance counsellor, and that person sort of filters the prisoners who want to enter our program. The prisoners have different motivations – some just want social contact, or to get a breath of fresh air from their normal routine – but many are sincere and want to improve their skills, get GEDs and that sort of stuff.

Most tutors have never been inside a prison before, so that can be difficult, but after a few weeks most start to feel more comfortable. Over time a professional relationship gets built up between the inmate and the tutor. The tutor gets a better sense of what the inmate’s strengths are, and where they are interested in going with the program.

I suspect that most Canadians would be shocked to learn that 65% of inmates test below a grade 8 level of literacy. Can you explain how these people have slipped through the cracks of the educational system?
For a whole load of reasons. When I was a principal – and that was in a school that taught Kindergarten to Grade 8 – I thought that it wasn’t because they were incapable of it, they just weren’t ready for it. Sometimes they just didn’t have good role models from their families, or they had had bad school experiences, or had been ostracized at school and hated it. By grades 5, 6, 7 I could tell that some kids didn’t feel they had a future in the school system. Kids have to be ready to learn, and a lot of these people had baggage they needed to take care of before they were ready to learn.

The school system isn’t perfect, that’s for sure, but it’s not one entity’s fault. Some inmates search for support elsewhere, through friendships, or even in gangs and things like that. Some wind up with these methods of survival that aren’t acceptable to the public. But that is not to say that they are lower than others, or that they’re stupid. Some are very intelligent.

With our program, when they get there, the men who want to improve themselves really work. It’s a big thing for a grown man to go back to school. For a 32 or 40 year-old man to say, “My gosh, I don’t have grade 10.” It takes a lot of courage.

There have been a few accounts from detained G20 protesters on their limited access to books and reading material in the past couple months. What kinds of challenges does your program face from the prison system?
It all depends what kind of institution you’re in and the type of books they want to access. The prisons we’re in all have libraries, and that’s where we give our sessions. There are certain books that they don’t want the prisoners to have. You can’t have all these guys gaining access to erotic literature for instance.

Has the prison system ever obstructed your goals in the program?
No, we haven’t found that at all, at least I haven’t. Since I started in 2006 I’ve found nothing but cooperation. The educational officers are equivalent to school superintendents, and these are the people I initially work with to establish the type of program that they would like to have. We sit down and work out goals and objectives: what they would like, and what we can do for them.

It’s true that there are cutbacks in prisons, but that’s at the government level, certainly not at the prison level.

This is truly a valuable program, and lots of men have benefited from it. I guess what I would like to see is some follow-through after these guys get out. But what we find often is that after they get out their priorities change. They tend to get a job where they can, and do their best just to survive.

Photo credit: Google Street View of the Kingston Penitentiary: one of five prisons in the Kingston area where the Frontier College has operated its Prison Literacy Initiative