Operation ‘Distance Learning’ in the prisons of Turnhout, Merksplas and Wortel, Northeast of Flanders.

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By: Ana Ferrando, Teacher at CVO Edukempen, and Bieke Deloof, Coordinator Klasbak

The Covid-19 virus and the related measures have so far kept everyone pretty much at home. In the meantime, we are in a kind of transitional phase where little more is allowed.

In our prisons, inmates were double locked up. Lock down. No visits from family or friends, few opportunities for communication, limited help and services, fewer work opportunities and education on hold. From the25th of may visits are allowed again.

In the Northeast region of Flanders, the teachers of CVO Edukempen and the education coordinators of VOCVO (Flemish Support Centre for Adult Education) saw this with regret and decided to go for an alternative. In the week of 10 May we started with distance learning.

How to make the bridge?

Education in Belgian prisons is brought in from outside the walls. This way the teachers of the Centres for Adult Education and the Centres for Basic Education in prison offer the same courses as outside the walls.

Regular schools have been working on distance learning since the 16th of march, only 3 days after the lockdown. But when we get to prison education the situation is completely different. Prisons lack any kind of digital resources which are used nowadays to communicate with students and to teach remotely. So, how should we build the bridge?

Not an obvious issue… An issue not only in Belgian prisons but everywhere. Ana followed some of the webinars organised by EPEA in which people exchange experiences about education in detention in times of lock-down. She concluded that almost every European country now faces the same problems when it comes to education in prison, except for Norway and Switzerland which are a step forward than the rest of us.

“Nothing is obvious in prison”

The three prisons in the Northeast of Flanders are very old, they were built even before Belgium was founded. They lack any kind of modern infrastructure and only personal commitment and initiative can make a difference. This was clearly the case with the parties involved from an educational perspective, the director of CVO Edukempen and its teachers and the education coordinators in prison. Success depends on many factors: the teachers, the school management, the prison management, the prison staff, and the inmates themselves. Nothing is obvious in prison, not even having a pen in their cell.

Even before the corona era, teaching in prison presented the teachers with the necessary challenges. Not only they lack the digital possibilities, which have nevertheless taken a prominent place in education in recent years, but the organisation of the prison regime can also make things more difficult. Prisoners, for example, sometimes must choose between working or taking lessons because everything happens at the same time. By offering distance learning a prisoner can also study after working hours and at weekends. This initiative of CVO Edukempen certainly offers some think stuff for the post-corona era.

Distance learning, practical?

The first round of Dutch, Spanish, French and Introduction to accountancy started in the week of 10 May. ‘Digital’ is not mentioned in this story so, how does the story go? Well, happily all teachers were born in the analogical era, so it wasn’t that difficult to make it up.  The teachers prepare the teaching material including assignments, which is then printed out at the secretary’s office. Then they put their bundle for each student in an envelope. These envelopes are delivered twice a week to the porters of the three prisons. At the same time, the completed assignments from the previous days are collected and returned to school for the teachers to provide feedback. Afterwards, the envelopes go through the same stages again towards the prison. Piece of cake, right?

And here comes the good news! At the second exchange moment on Thursday 14 May, the first completed envelopes were ready to send back to teachers and after 10 days the inmates got their first feedback.

Challenges are positive, a chance to grow towards something new by making us think out of the box. During this Covid19 period, everything is based on working trial and error. As teachers, we must always try to learn and be creative. Thanks to our committed team at school, at VOCVO and in prison, attempts are being made to bring the much-needed education to inmates because we are sure about how meaningful it is, no matter what the channels are. Sitting in your cell 23 out of 24 hours a day (inmates are only 1 hour a day allowed to be outside) is not mentally obvious. We all know that by now.