Notes on Teaching in Prison

Between September 2017 and April 2018 I worked full time teaching in a French jail. All of what I'll be talking about happened in France. The jail I taught in was fairly typical of French Maisons d’arrêt, but even these vary greatly. Some of the pages I link to below are only available in French. I don't teach in prison anymore. I'm back to being a full-time student at École polytechnique. Since most of the differences are lost in translation anyway, I’ll use inmate, detainee, prisoner and convict interchangeably. Same with jail and prison,as well as prison officer and prison guard.

Table of Contents

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As of December 2018, there are 188 prisons in France, and about 80,000 inmates. They are handled by the Penitentiary Administration (Administration Pénitentiaire), which comprises prison guards (28,000) and wardens as well as probation officers (5,000), who are in charge of a total of 250,000 people (the remaining 170,000 are either on probation or serving other sentences, such as electronic monitoring or community service) and work with an annual budget of 2.79 billion euros. The prison I taught in was a Maison d’Arrêt. These are the most common kind of facility (there are 130 of them), in which you find detainees incarcerated for a short amount of time (in theory, less than two years) and prisoners accused of more serious offences who are still awaiting their final verdict, at which point they will be transferred to another jail. All convicts were over 18. The jail where I taught had 1,000 inmates, 200 of whom were women. In France, only 3.8% of inmates are women. All the figures come from this page (link in French).

Maisons d’arrêt are where prison overpopulation is most serious: our prison had a density of around 140%, meaning there were 1.4 as many inmates as beds theoretically available. This is average for Maisons d’arrêt, with maximal densities reaching 200%. It’s also in Maisons d’arrêt that the detainee’s freedom is most restricted: normally, they literally stay in their cell all the time, where they can only interact with their cellmate (or by passing stuff through the window gratings, though this is theoretically forbidden), except for planned activities (school, manual labor, sports, the occasional movie screening or cultural performance), and recess.

Inmates are allowed a TV (except in disciplinary quarters), there are extremely rarely more than 2 convicts per cell (who sleep on a bunk bed). Material conditions vary a lot between jails: mine was fairly recent, whereas a detention center I visited had alleys still dating from the 1960s. These sorts of disparities are surprising at first. Where you commit an offense has a huge impact on what your jail time (if any) will be like. Breaking the law in Paris, where prisons are flooded, or in Bordeaux, which is calmer, can lead to very different outcomes: you might get incarcerated only in the second situation. Even within a region, where you offend also has an influence: you can end up in a big (say 1,000 inmates), impersonal but fairly modern jail, or in a very small (50 inmates), crummy yet familial prison. Prisons have reputations, and judges will often assign inmates accordingly. This being said, an inmate can request to be transferred to a jail that is closer to their family, although (a recurring pattern) the administrative handling of the request may take a long time.

People are either very surprised by this, or find it obvious: drugs are everywhere in jail. Inmates can smoke weed literally in front of wardens and get away with it. There are many possible reasons for this: maybe the prison officer is feeling lazy and the situation allows them to at least plausibly deny that they saw someone smoking pot, maybe they thinks that weed will soothe the inmate and prevent them from running amok, or maybe the atmosphere is particularly tense and denying them weed would lead to a riot. Some prisoners have told me that many wardens are corrupt: I don’t have a strong opinion on this, as I certainly didn’t ask them. It’s true that the proportion of inmates with phones or weed (both of which are banned) is huge, but I wouldn’t want to infer too much from this alone.

In general, conflict between detainees and surveillance staff is common. One explanation is the following: there are many unofficial rules. For instance, because guards don’t have the power to enforce all the rules, many legally prohibited things are tolerated in jail at least to some extent (phones, food from the outside, drugs); on the other hand, if an inmate misbehaves without breaking official rules (for example by being mildly disrespectful), a warden has the de facto power to mess with their life (for example by holding very stringent and humiliating searches, preventing them from getting to class, telling their colleagues to keep an eye on them). In the best cases, this leads to an equilibrium of sorts, an arrangement more realistic than a perfectly lawful situation. However, because it is illegible, it lacks robustness with regards to all sorts of perturbations. For example, in a big prison where officers change roles quite regularly, a change of the guard means that new unofficial rules will be enforced: the transition period will be full of misconceptions, quiproquos and antagonisms. This fits two things I observed:

Most inmates find pedophilia much, much worse than murder. Being a pedophile (un pointu) in prison is one of the worst things that could happen to you. Not only do the other inmates hate you, so do many of the guards, and it is even more likely that they will turn a blind eye to the violence you'll endure for sure. Pedophiles, jews and famous people are often put in isolation when possible, but there are often not enough cells.

I found a blog written (illegally, with his phone) by an inmate of the prison I taught in, during his incarceration. I have no idea who he is, and since he stopped posting in December 2016 while I arrived in September 2017, our time here did not overlap. His description of life as a detainee corroborates my impressions as a teacher: most shocking is the pervasiveness of violence, the certainty that even staying alone and never going out can't protect you in an environment that's rigged against you. Of course, appealing to the rule of law is more often then not detrimental to your security: even the vague suspicion that you might be a snitch can be enough to get you beaten up during recess.

Suicide was a big deal in my jail. For a few consecutive years, it had topped the list of prisons in terms of self-murder, so the administration wasn’t taking any risks. Whenever an inmate was suspected of being suicidal, they were taken to a special cell with non angular furniture and paper clothes that would tear so as to avoid hanging. There, an officer would check on them regularly. Many convicts found this situation even more depressing. According to this 2016 memo (link in French), suicide is most frequent for imprisoned men, inmates in disciplinary quarters or in custody, or who have committed violent or sexual crimes. The impact of overpopulation on suicide is plausible but hard to evaluate: worse living conditions make suicide more likely, but this could be compensated by the presence of a cellmate.

I also had many interesting conversations with prison guards. It’s a hard and pretty unrewarding job (link in French), a lot like taking the bad aspects of military life without the good sides (status, sports, expeditions). An overwhelming majority ended up as wardens because that’s the only job they’d found, and the suicide rate for men is 22% higher (link in French) than the rest of the population. They often resent inmates for having access to classes when they, law-abiding citizens, do not have the same educational opportunities. Both tend to come from the same disadvantaged social background, which is why many guards don’t buy social deterministic narratives. Guards are very worried about their security, and angry that they don’t have the means to enforce the rules that theoretically govern life in jail. In January 2018 a German terrorist assaulted two guards with a knife, which led to strikes in all French prisons for about 2 weeks (even though guards, like soldiers, are not allowed to be on strike). Their demands? Less restrictions on the searches they are allowed to make, more weapons (e.g. flash-balls) and/or better training for the handling of the weapons they carry, isolating the most dangerous inmates in higher security quarters, higher salaries (current net salary is about 1500€ a month, with occasional bonuses) and more recruitment.

Recidivism is very common in France. Unsurprisingly, the most influential factors are age (younger offenders reoffend more often) and criminal record (prisoners who had already reoffended tend to reiterate more). Regarding imprisoned offenders, a study found that women were half as likely as men to reoffend in the five years following their release. Reduced sentences were associated to less recidivism, but the author points out that controls were not sufficient to account for many relevant factors such as good behaviour.


The prison is divided in an administrative part, in which you won’t encounter inmates unless there’s a serious problem, and the zone where prisoners live, study, work, play, etc. Whenever I entered this second zone, I was given an alarm in case of emergency (I never had to use it). I worked in the “Local Teaching Unit”, which had a teacher’s lounge in the administrative quarters, and a building of its own with 5 small rooms where classes happened. There was only one prison officer in the whole education building.

Many convicts want to attend classes: the demand for courses far exceeds what the prison can offer. Inmates have to send a paper with the class they want to attend to the school office - which doesn't have a secretary. We were flooded by these papers, and inmates therefore had to wait very long before being allowed to go to class. Because many inmates are barely able to write, these notes are often not very helpful, and every month we took a few days during which we grouped all of the students-to-be, and reviewed their case one by one to assign them to appropriate courses.

Once an inmate was following courses and we knew them a bit, it was much easier for them to talk to us in person and ask to e.g. transfer to another class. So there’s a real "getting your foot through the door" effect to all this, which is of course also influenced by the opinion the Penitentiary Administration has of any individual student: they can veto the attendance of anyone, officially or not (by making sure that the inmate never makes it to class).

The range of things that can be studied is actually pretty large:

I mostly taught English, basic math and basic science at the CAP level, both private lessons and normal classes. In addition to these I would often teach other classes to help out, for example when colleagues were absent.

The academic level of most inmates is very, very low. About one in ten is illiterate, another tenth doesn't speak a word of French, and around half would struggle to write a single decent sentence. To be honest, I think many prisoners end up not learning much. The general environment makes studying very hard. Many inmates have additional issues that further complicate learning. That is not always the case, of course: for example, many illiterate inmates are screened early on and learn how to read in prison. My experience, however, suggests that these cases are the exception rather than the rule.

Student-Inmates are absent a lot, often through no fault of their own. There is a “3 strikes you’re out” rule on attending, except it’s hard to know whether the prisoner decided to sleep late, or wasn’t allowed out by an angry guard getting ahead of themself.

Students who prepare the CAP generally get it. This doesn’t change the fact that they’ll forget what they were taught, much of which wouldn’t have been much use anyway. In any case, a CAP Vente generally won’t get you a job.The number of inmates who later attend university is vanishingly small. I don’t know to what extent prison schooling helps prevent recidivism (and haven’t found French papers addressing the question), but I would guess very little after controlling appropriately for the properties (motivation and/or previous education, for instance) that likely lead to attendance.

What's the point?

Mostly, that many students enjoy it. It’s a change of scenery of sorts, they get to interact with other inmates as well as people from the outside who aren't wardens. It gives them a way of contemplating the future that is not as depressing as the rare interviews they get with probation officers.

This led me to a revaluation of which courses are/aren’t valuable: I stopped teaching beginner level English, an obviously valuable skill to have, because inmates didn’t have the motivation/conscientiousness, or were not in the mood to work regularly (I can’t blame them, of course) on something that starts paying off early only after a certain amount of time. I felt this was going nowhere. On the other hand, convicts greatly enjoyed the philosophy workshops, where they were free to express themselves. It’s much easier being a teacher in a prison for adults than in a juvenile detention center, as in the latter classes are mandatory, and most inmates would rather be anywhere but a classroom.

Inmates get slightly shorter sentences if they go to school, which is a major cause of attendance. In general, I think that there is a good case for school attendance in prison as a useful signal of motivation and good intentions, both to the prison administration and to oneself. Going to school is something concrete you can commit to.

More broadly, people pushing for prison education often argue that it develops or at least maintains discipline and punctuality: for instance, according to the Wikipedia article on prison education, Zebulon Brockway argued that it would "discipline the mind and fit it to receive ... the thoughts and principles that constitute their possessors good citizens". In general, I tend to be skeptical of this line of reasoning, but then here, the alternative really is watching TV all day. My impression is that this is a valid point regarding the (not uncommon) kind of convict who already wants to turn their life around, but needs a nudge from the administration to avoid falling back in toxic routines and vicious circles.

The issue with this argument is that I think it overestimates the importance of wanting to get one’s life in order relative to actually being able to change for the better. I’ve seen lots of inmates talk about their yearning to get educated in order to avoid making the mistakes that got them incarcerated: these kinds of declarations send warm fuzzies straight to a teacher’s heart. However, one could argue that the main role school plays here is as a symbol of reinsertion (the fact that teachers are actual employees of the Ministry for Education and not “just” volunteers makes this symbol all the more powerful). For instance, having inmates sign a contract in which they pledged to attend class, do their homework, behave well etc, and making a big deal of the contract was instrumental in raising attendance for some classes.

The EU funds research or public projects. It does so partially according to criteria: does your initiative involve educating kids from tough neighbourhoods ? File for an XYZ678 grant. Could it lead to the empowerment of women ? Then you can find money thanks to TRF98 (I just invented these, but they probably exist). This incentivizes a lot of people to frame their initiative in such a way that they can apply for as many grants as possible, even when the effects on e.g. disadvantaged kids or woman empowerment are very speculative (some people are experts at just that).

To sum up: the whole experience has made me less enthusiastic about the effects of teaching in prison: I came in believing that although in many situations education is less useful than many people are willing to acknowledge, in prison it would be much more effective. Though I still believe that education is more useful in prisons than elsewhere, and clearly worth it, the benefits aren’t as clear as I thought, and they are both different and more sobering.


If anything, these six months have made me more uncertain as to both the harms and benefits of prison itself. On the one hand, just in case I haven't made this clear enough, prison is extremely harsh in many, many ways, and will often wreak more havoc in a delinquent than the damage their offence caused. Incarceration doesn't just remove freedom: in order to do so, it takes away so many of the things that can lend meaning to life that one is led to wonder whether or not it constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" (as Peter Moskos points out in his provocatively titled In Defense of Flogging, most culprits would rather endure ten brutal lashes than five years in prison). Moreover, jails also seem pretty ineffective. Short sentences are especially bad: they are not very deterrent, and arguably offer the worst possible environment for young offenders. In general, high rates of recidivism tend to suggest the poor influence of a prison sentence on subsequent outcomes. One could argue that for some crimes, such as murder, incarceration at least makes sure inmates won’t reoffend during their sentence. For more minor offences however, this is far from true: many inmates fight or take drugs more often in prison than outside.

On the other hand, having spoken to sentence enforcement judges, probation officers and wardens, it’s just not true that judges never consider alternative sentences. In fact, most inmates have already served an alternative sentence (e.g. electronic monitoring), and ended up in jail because they reoffended. Judges are also acutely aware that short sentences are generally counter-productive, and that overpopulation levels are alarming. Scott Alexander also convincingly argues (at least for the US) against the narrative (also common in France) according to which the strong prevalence of mental illness in prisons shows that most jails should be replaced by psychiatric hospitals. The dire state of much of French psychiatry today probably also strengthens this case. A good study published recently concluded that electronic monitoring was more cost effective than short sentences, but argued that these benefits may not subsist if monitoring does not go with regular supervision and accompaniment.

How much should hedonic treadmill effects be taken into account when considering inmate welfare? I feel like there is a very real sense in which convicts who did not expect to ever go to prison tend to be traumatised and extremely depressed whereas convicts who grew up in an environment where prison was ’normal’, or at least not unheard of tend to be better equipped to deal with the situation. One of the reasons for this is the illegibility of rules mentioned above. This could be an argument in favour of keeping higher level courses even if the number of inmates who would attend them is pretty small. In general, detainees who know how to cope with prison are also the most troublesome: they have friends on the outside who throw weed, phones or food in the yard for them, know enough people have their back not to be afraid of getting into fights.

So there you have it. I’m somewhat frustrated because I couldn't find an overarching conceptual framework to unify all of this. Still, I found these few months interesting, got to meet people whose dedication I admire, and don’t regret even the hardest moments of the experience.

Many thanks to Alexey and Timothée for getting me to write the post and their useful advice.

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