Identity, Hard Sums and Butterflies

Identity, Hard Sums and Butterflies

Catherine Byrne, Brian Bowe, Michael Carr
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2019010103
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This article examines mathematics education in the Irish prison system, and the impact that learning mathematics and receiving certification has on the identity of those studying so-called ‘hard sums.' It describes the lived experiences of people who have taken classes in prison, reflects on why they came to these classes to begin with, charts their emotions, and how they express their new identities as students. This article draws from earlier studies into the experiences of former prisoners who are currently engaged in higher level education, and who reflected on the effects that learning had on their identities: as parents, as sons or daughters, as citizens, as students. The article looks at how their experiences contrast with the experiences of other mature students returning to education in other higher and further education settings. National certification is available to everyone attending education in prison in Ireland, and this article reflects on the impact that certification has on the identity of the prisoner. It will show that in prison, a small step in the right direction at the right time can lead to identity change, akin to a transformation from cocoon to butterfly. The author has taught for many years in prison education centres, and is currently researching mathematics education in prisons, from different perspectives including mathematical self-efficacy, grit and resilience and the impact of mathematics education on the identity of the individual.
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Prison Education

The history of prison first recorded class in a prison was 1789 in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail (Rothman 1998), although lessons were offered in other jails (including Wicklow Jail in Ireland) before this time. The language of imprisonment has varied with the contemporary paradigm, being variously labelled ‘reformatories’ or ‘penal institutions’ depending on whether the intent was to reform prisoners in the former case, or penalise them in the latter. Now there is an agreed rationale for prison education internationally, which was ratified by the Council of Europe on October 13, 1989. This states that all prisoners have access to education, in the widest sense, it must be appropriate to opportunities outside, and must aim to develop the whole person, in their current context.

There are currently 220 full-time equivalent teachers in Irish prisons, and the service, which was set up over 30 years ago, is run in partnership between the Education Training Boards (ETBs) and the Irish Prison Service (IPS, 2016). Priority areas are general basic education (including numeracy, literacy, and Information Communication Technology [ICT]), as most prisoners lack these basic skills. Some 40 per cent of prisoners left school aged 14 or younger. State certification is offered to prisoners in two forms: annual examinations and continuous assessment (IPS, 2016). In 1997, O’Mahoney found that the number of prisoners who entered prison without any educational certification was 77 per cent. So, the purpose of education in prison is to offer certification and what else? Warner (2008) suggests that as is widely accepted that prisons can have a damaging effect on the individual, one way to decrease this damage is through education. Others agree that prisoner education lessens the damage caused by imprisonment (for example, see Costelloe & Warner, 2008; Behan, 2007).

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