Beyond Incarcerated Identities: Identity, Bias and Barriers to Higher Education in Australian Prisons

Beyond Incarcerated Identities: Identity, Bias and Barriers to Higher Education in Australian Prisons

Marcus K. Harmes (University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia), Susan Hopkins (University of Southern Queensland, Ipswitch, Australia) and Helen Farley (University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2019010101

Abstract

Incarcerated students face multiple obstacles and constraints while attempting to complete tertiary and pre-tertiary educational programs within Australian prisons. Some of these barriers relate to the individual's attitudes and actions, during and prior to imprisonment, while other barriers may relate to systemic bias and social disadvantages, which the individual cannot control. The classed and racialized realities of Australia's criminal justice system are evident in the dramatically disproportionate rate of imprisonment of Indigenous people, and in Australian state governments' increasingly punitive approach to crime and sentencing which typically captures already excluded and marginalised populations. This prevailing ‘criminology of the other,' creates particular tensions for incarcerated students, who are typically attempting to construct positive student identities, as an alternative to being defined as ‘other,' ‘criminal' or ‘deviant.' Using data from a focus group discussion with 12 male incarcerated students inside an Australian prison, this article gives voice to our incarcerated university students, their attempts to construct new horizons for the self through education, and the numerous barriers they encounter along the way.
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Introduction: Criminology Of The Other

Imprisonment does more than immobilise and isolate an ‘offender’ for a period of time; it also changes a person’s life chances and identity choices over a lifetime. On a broader level, the Australian criminal justice system does more than ‘correct’ criminals; it captures a particular segment of the population, specifically those already most likely to suffer from institutional racism, systemic bias and social injustice. As we shall see, identity and bias are increasingly important issues for prison education, especially when teaching tertiary courses to Australian prisoners. As Wacquant (2009) has observed, prison is not a neutral instrument for law enforcement, but a political institution which reflects power relations by reproducing distinctions between legitimate citizens and dangerous ‘others,’ or ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, ‘us’ and ‘them’. Moreover, punitive approaches, which effectively cut incarcerated students off from the outside world and internet access, compound social and economic disadvantages which extend long after the term of imprisonment.

The incarcerated student, who seeks to complete higher education courses inside an Australian prison, is confronted firstly with the testing fact of his or her own imprisonment and must develop ways to cope with the multiple constraints this fact imposes. Under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Australian prisoners have the same rights to education as free citizens. In reality, however, the practice architectures of prison management frequently prioritise security, work, and economic efficiency to the detriment of educational opportunity.

While contemporary prisons aim, in theory at least, to rehabilitate rather than punish, the overriding focus on security, on protecting victims, and on public safety, means that most incarcerated students are disconnected from online learning, unable to email their lecturers, or participate in online social forums. The shift to paperless, digital or online-only delivery of university courses means disconnected and incarcerated students are at risk of further marginalisation and isolation. As a result, incarcerated students are in danger of falling through the digital gap between those who benefit from new technologies of learning, communication and networking, and those who are left behind. Moreover, the systematic lack of direct access to the internet for educational purposes, experienced by incarcerated students and maintained by Australian corrections policy and practice, would be considered discriminatory or unjust treatment, if so consistently applied to other student populations. The denial of internet access, which undermines educational and employment opportunities, compounds social and economic marginalisation for the prisoner or former prisoner. Hence, internet deprivation becomes another form of exclusion, which the already excluded (the ‘other’) must bear, in the interests of social stratification.

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