The Teacher’s Voice – Karin Ohrner (A)

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The Teacher’s Voice –
Karin Ohrner. The Teachers Voice the EPA Newsletter Interview Podcast today with Karin
Ohrner, former head of the education service at Simmering prison and in the future of a prison for
juveniles in Vienna, Austria. With a master’s degree in pedagogy, she is well prepared to any
questions coming up in prison education. Furthermore, this spring Karin was elected as the
Regional Representative of the EPEA in the Central Region.

I may also introduce the new co-editor of the EPEA newsletter, Sharon Davidson from Wales. She
is currently undertaking a professional doctorate in education at the Open University of the UK in
prison tuition.

Hello Karin, how are you? I’ve heard you broke you leg some weeks ago?
After working as a ski instructor for 10 years during my studies in Innsbruck/Tyrol and neither
having an accident nor being injured – I have now broken my lower leg at home and quite
unspectacularly. I am already on the mend and in 10 days, if everything continues to go well,
I’ll be able to slowly start exercising and walking again.

Can you briefly introduce yourself? Where do you work and what’s your function?
I am 48 years old and have already had a very varied professional life. I’ve been working at
Vienna Simmering Prison since 2021, which is located in the south of the capital of Austria,
near the airport.
I work as head of the educational service department and am responsible for the organization
and implementation of the intensive training of skilled workers – we train in 7 apprenticeships
(painter, bricklayer, metal worker, carpenter, baker, cook, waiter). Since last year, we have
also had a program for young adults aged 18 to 24. This is a program that includes basic
education, basic manual skills and personal development as well as sport and healthy eating
and is designed to prepare participants for vocational training. I organize participation in
external educational opportunities for qualified and suitable inmates, ranging from certification
courses to university studies. Furthermore, I am responsible for supervising the in-house
schooling, language courses and leisure activities.

Karin, how and when did you start in education in prison? What was your motivation to work
in a prison?

After working for almost 10 years in the social sector in educational counseling with families,
children and adolescents in both outpatient and inpatient settings, I was looking for new
I wanted to focus on education and it was important to me to have the opportunity to contribute
my experience, to have creative freedom and to be able to use my organizational skills.
I have found all of this in my current job.
I had already come into contact with the prison system during internships during my studies
and it was already a very interesting area for me back then.

What do you like about your job? What is demanding?
I really appreciate the freedom I have to contribute my ideas and concepts – even if I have to
admit that not everything I have in mind can be realized. However, I prefer to have 10 project
ideas and be able to implement 7 of them, rather than having 2 and not being able to
implement any of them.
The biggest challenge for me is what I perceive to be the often very sluggish officialdom,
which always puts my patience to the test. In terms of work, I was socialized in the free-market
economy and grew up in a family of entrepreneurs.
The insistence on security and order to the detriment of educational programs is often difficult
for me to understand – for me, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Tell us more about the educational offers for the detainees in Austrian prisons in general?
How is prison education integrated into the national educational system?
We currently have 28 prisons and therefore more or less 28 different approaches to
educational programmes. The programme mainly depends on the commitment of the people
and resources on site.
The lessons for young people largely correspond to the regular external programmes.
For adults, there is the possibility of the so-called 2nd educational pathway – here we offer
inmates the external acquisition of the compulsory school-leaving certificate.
The Austrian government is committed to the 2030 Agenda and thus to education as a human
right and to a modern and humane prison system. Nevertheless, education in prison is not
part of the national education system.

● How do you see the level of abilities and skills of the detainees?
To be honest, it has to be said that the inmates generally have a very low level of education.
Even if they have completed school and an apprenticeship, the knowledge they have acquired
over the years and their destructive lifestyles, often involving severe substance abuse, is no
longer available or retrievable. In addition to a lack of general education, there is usually also
a lack of social skills and a lack of personal development in the areas of attitude to life, work
and values. More specifically, in the development of realistic perspectives and goals,
perseverance and a sense of purpose in life
What is the state of digitisation in the classrooms? What tools are at the disposal of teachers?
The classrooms are spacious, have plenty of natural light and are well equipped. We also
have IT rooms in two departments, where the inmates have the opportunity to learn
independently in their free time via ELIS – a platform with secure internet access to selected
websites – a programme that Austria operates together with 14 German federal states.

Let’s go back to the job of a teacher in prison in general. What qualities should a teacher have
when teaching in prison?
o Clarity – knowing who you are and what you stand for: being grounded and rooted in life
o Clear understanding of your role
o Generosity, perseverance and patience
o And a lot of enthusiasm

What advice would you give to a teacher who is new to correctional education?
Most people do not need motivation. They need clarity.”
…and an authentic role model

If you had 3 wishes for prison tuition, from the teachers’ perspective, what would they be?

Education for all
Recognition and equalisation of teaching in the prison system.
More resources – both human and financial

Dear Karin, thank you for this interview!

Download interview as PDF