Alphabetizing People Deprived of Liberty, Chile

  • Date published:
    9 December 2015

Programme Overview

Programme Title Alphabetizing People Deprived of Liberty
Implementing Organization Juan Luis Vives School
Language of Instruction Spanish
Funding Government of Chile
Annual Programme Costs 34,740,827 CLP, equivalent to US $53,446 (2014). Annual cost per learner: 55,402 CLP, equivalent to US $85
Date of Inception 1999

Context and Background

Chile has achieved impressive development progress over the past two and a half decades and has successfully made the transition to democracy. After twenty years of military dictatorship, Chile has become one of the most stable and fast-developing countries in Latin America, an achievement recognized in its accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2010, and its 2013 classification by the World Bank as a high-income country. Emerging democracy and continuous economic development has brought more focus and greater investment to previously underfunded social services, including education. In 2009, Chile passed an Education Act which recognized not only the right to education but also learning acquired outside the education system or the workplace (UIL, 2015). Literacy and adult education issues are incorporated into Chile's legislation, which takes a lifelong learning perspective.

Public spending on education as a percentage of Chile's GDP has increased from 3% in 2006 to 4.6% in 2012. With increasing public expenditure on education, a number of programmes were launched to improve both quality and equity in the education sector, with a special focus on formal education. Despite this progress, Chile faces continuous challenges to deliver quality and attain equity at all levels of education, as well as to align skills with the needs of the labour market. The country, however, did manage to reduce the number of non-literate adults from 497,000 to 192,000 between 2002 and 2009, partly through adult literacy programmes (UIS, 2015). One of the biggest challenges for adult education is to increase the enrolment and completion rates of all adults, especially ones who belong to lower socio-economic and disadvantaged groups.

To address the educational needs of the section of the population previously excluded from basic education, Juan Luis Vives School, with accreditation from the Ministry of Education and financial the support from the state, developed the Alphabetizing People Deprived of Liberty programme to conduct educational activities inside prison institutions. According to the Chilean gendarmerie, the prison population in Chile increased from 32,000 to 52,959 between 2000 and 2015, with 48,225 male inmates and 4,734 female inmates currently in prison. Research shows that literacy rates in prisons are substantially lower than in the general population. A study from the UNESCO Institute for Education revealed that between 25% and 40% of prisoners are functionally illiterate, with 5% unable to read or write at all. Recidivism rates decrease if inmates have been engaged in quality educational programmes during their imprisonment (UNESCO, 1995).

Programme Overview

Alphabetizing People Deprived of Liberty is an in-prison education programme which targets both men and women serving sentences in penitentiary institutions in the regions of Rancagua, Casablanca and Valparaiso. The programme was developed in 1999 by Juan Luis Vives School, after it received permission from the National Gendarmerie Service to locate itself within prison grounds. The central objective of the programme is to provide inmates with various educational activities, ranging from literacy and numeracy courses to academic courses for credit towards a high school diploma. Special focus is put on the acquisition of literacy since the programme builds on the premise that strong literacy skills are a tool for inmates to better express themselves, communicate with others and strengthen their self-esteem.

The programme is recognized by the Ministry of Education in Chile. The curriculum developed by the ministry is used only as a reference point, and teachers are required to adapt materials and teaching methods to fit learners' reality, which is, in this case, prison life.

Apart from the acquisition of literacy skills, there are other benefits to inmates from attending the literacy course. These include obtaining the certificate of completion, and the possibility of having their sentence reduced.


Aims and Objectives

The primary aim of Alphabetizing People Deprived of Liberty is to make the right to learn, which is key to human development, a reality for men and women serving prison sentences. Other aims and objectives of the programme are to:

  • Provide offender learners with the opportunity to start and finish their formal education, while serving their sentence.
  • Work towards prisoners' rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into society and the labour market.
  • Give each individual the opportunity to strengthen their self-esteem and self-reliance.
  • Help sustain and strengthen inmates' relationships with their relatives.
  • Create an atmosphere where dialogue can flourish, and where inmate learners can share and reflect on their experiences.
  • Create an atmosphere where all inmates are respected as people, and where their voice matters.
  • Foster socialization among inmates, and contribute to order, security and respect for rules within the prison.

Programme Implementation

The programme operates from three different locations: the prisons of Valparaiso and Rancagua, and a remand centre in Casablanca. The programme was first implemented in 1999 in Valparaiso and Casablanca. In 2006, the school was invited to teach classes in Rancagua prison, the population of which includes many people from rural areas, a large proportion of whom struggle with literacy. Literacy courses last for ten months, from March to December. Learners attend classes five times per week, for two hours each day. A small number of learners attend each class, their number partly predetermined by the literacy needs and ability levels of learners, partly by the rules of the institution. Class sizes range from three to a maximum of fifteen learners.

Recruitment and Training of Teachers

Teachers are employed on a paid part-time or full-time basis and must hold a university degree in basic general education. They not only teach literacy and numeracy but are also expected to observe the principles of Juan Luis Vives School, which acknowledges cultural diversity and human rights, and to be sensitive to the specific situation of inmate learners.

Before they are appointed, teachers must present proof of a clean criminal record, and evidence that none of their family members is currently serving a prison sentence. Prison rules and regulations are explained to the teachers before they sign the contract. Teachers working in prison are required to respect the rules established by the gendermerie, including respect for prison schedules and for the institution's internal security. This means scheduling classes to fit in around other scheduled events, such as prison transfers, meetings with lawyers and family visits. The teacher's role is limited to their educational function. He/she is not allowed to give instruction related to any other activities and should not trade with students.

Once teachers start working with inmate learners, they are assigned a mentor who supervises them and guides them for the first couple of weeks. The mentors are teachers with more experience of teaching in prison.

In order to provide teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to work with prisoners, the school organizes several training courses, delivered once per semester. The training sessions cover not only teaching and instruction (including topics such as learners' evaluation, development of cognitive skills, etc), but also the rules and regulations of the prison. In Chile, state-accredited organizations provide training for teachers, but their training is focused on topics specifically related to the education of children and young people. For that reason, Juan Luis Vives School organizes its training internally, and gives teachers the opportunity to share their experiences with regard to the specific topic of the training. Training sessions focused on prison rules and regulations are provided by staff of the National Gendarmerie of Chile.

Enrolment of Learners

The programme is not mandatory and inmates voluntarily enrol in the classes. All three institutions offer a reduction in sentence as an incentive to encourage inmates to enrol and attend classes. When inmates attend, their prison sentence can be reduced for a certain number of months. For example, if they attend classes for two semesters, their sentence will be reduced by two months.

Programme Content

Focusing on literacy and numeracy, the programme covers the following course topics:

Language and communication

In this course, learners are taught to read and write, and to communicate and express their ideas in written and oral form. The course has three components:

  • Oral communication: Learners study literary texts which are relevant to their interests. They acquire new vocabulary, phrases and ways of expressing their feelings and emotions.
  • Reading: Learners recognize and name all the letters of the alphabet, and learn to read texts.
  • Writing: Learners acquire and improve their writing skills, beginning with single letters and syllables, and progressing on to writing short texts. The topics covered in class include "time is money" and "education is a good path to freedom". One of the activities included in the literacy programme is called "My First Reading". Learners are invited to read what they have produced in front of their peers and teachers. Through their writing, learners express their feelings, and their expectations about what awaits them after they finish serving their sentence.

Mathematical Studies

Learners are taught basic numeracy skills, to help them to function in everyday life and make them self-sufficient. Examples of topics covered in class include: whole numbers, place value, the decimal system, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, the basics of geometry, using a calculator, the metric and monetary systems, and reading and interpreting information presented in tables and graphs. Exercises are created to reflect real-world activities, such as shopping and banking.

Teaching Material and Methods

Learners' needs and the circumstances of the prison are taken into account when developing teaching materials and choosing which methods and approaches to adopt. Literacy and numeracy teachers develop the material for their classes in cooperation with Juan Luis Vives School's pedagogical technical unit. It is important that teaching content is adjusted to fit the reality of learners' lives. Every lecture needs to reflect the School's values, and engender hope and optimism in order to help rebuild learners' confidence in their own potential and encourage them to continue with their education. Taking into account the prison context and culture in which the programme takes place, teachers carefully select the content and incorporate engaging topics which will motivate and sustain learners' interest. Teachers try to make learning relevant for inmates while they are in prison. For example, if an inmate is serving a ten-year sentence, he/she is usually informed that after three-quarters of their served sentence, they are eligible for certain benefits, such as leaving the prison for a day, then for a week, and so on. However, some inmates do not claim these benefits because they do not understand fractions, or have lost their sense of time. Through mathematical exercises, teachers try to explain time in terms of fractions. Furthermore, if inmate learners wish to request a family visit, or a transfer, they need to fill out the form. Teachers use this example to teach learners how to make requests in written form.

Educational material includes copybooks, pencils, pens, rulers, cardboard and glue. Apart from that, teachers also use magazines, catalogues, drawings, illustrations, videos, movies, poetry, flipcharts and other useful material, selected in accordance with prison rules and regulations. Information and communications technologies are occasionally used, and the school plans to integrate them to allow constant use when inside a classroom.

Classes are small in size, as the circumstances of prison life require. This also allows for a more flexible pace and a learner-oriented approach to teaching, with teachers dedicating more attention to each learner.

Assessment of Learners

The learning progress of learners is assessed through exercises and individual tests, created by the teachers. Reports based on individual evaluations and learners' attendance are sent to the Ministry of Education, and successful learners receive a certificate of completion. This allows learners to continue to the next level of education, also offered by Juan Luis Vives School within the institution. The certificate that learners receive upon completion of a certain level does not indicate that they have obtained it within a prison setting.

The Learning Environment in Prison

The facilities provided for educational purposes differ in each institution.

At first, classes at Valparaiso prison were held in a small classroom near the common area where other inmates played sports, ate, worked and sometimes quarreled. The noise was distracting for learners, and it was difficult to teach. Juan Luis Vives School, using its own resources, decided to build a small school in a different location apart from the other activities. The school has two classrooms and a kitchen, which is also used for workshops. Learners feel more comfortable here because the classrooms are removed from the other activities. Inmates do not need to feel embarrassed because they are attending a basic literacy course. The prison hosts both male and female inmates. There are forty-eight male inmates and eleven female inmates currently enrolled in classes.

Rancagua is a newly built prison. In each of the units, there are three equipped classrooms. The prison hosts both male and female inmates, though they are housed separately. Currently, there are seventy-seven male and nine female inmates enrolled in the education programme in Rancagua prison.

The remand centre in Casablanca is a very small unit. It has two dining rooms that meet the conditions for classes. It hosts only male inmates, and there are currently five enrolled in classes.

The attitude of the prison staff towards in-prison education is positive, since education contributes to the rehabilitation of the inmates. The prison staff have to lead learners to the classroom where the teacher awaits them. Once the learners are in the classroom, the teacher is in charge, and there is no interference from prison staff.

Impact and Challenges


Perhaps the most significant impact of the programme is that it reaches out to prisoners who are, because of their confinement, unable to access education elsewhere. Many people enter prison with educational deficits and could benefit from learning while incarcerated. The organizing institution, Juan Luis Vives School, believes that "education should be for all people regardless of their color or origin, and whatever their condition is".

In sixteen years working at Valparaiso prison, the programme has engaged 1,418 inmate learners, 690 of whom have successfully completed the literacy course. At Rancagua prison, where the programme has been running for nine years, 1,304 inmate learners have enrolled, with 600 successfully completing the literacy course. Approximately 90% of learners who complete the literacy course, advance to a higher level of education in order to obtain the general basic education qualification, which takes an additional two years. Some of them have completed their high school education while in prison.

Deprivation of liberty can often lead to the depersonalization and desocialization of inmates. The programme aims to have a positive impact on their health, lifestyle and self-esteem. Engaging inmates in various learning activities, the programme has improved the conditions of imprisonment and contributes to inmates" resocialization and rehabilitation. Certain activities, such as the graduation ceremony, involve family visits, and learners have the opportunity to present their progress and receive their certificate of completion. Spouses and children attend the ceremony, which further motivates inmate learners and increases their self-esteem. This experience helps to build and maintain positive relationships among family members, which is especially important during periods of imprisonment, which can be challenging for both inmates and their families.


  • High drop-out rate ; the programme's drop-out rate is high at 52%. Often, learners drop out of the programme because of their previous negative experiences of learning or because of personal issues that burden them. These obstacles can hinder learners' ability and motivation to focus their attention on the learning process. In such cases, learners may require the assistance of psychologists, or need to spend more time with the teacher.
  • Teaching an occupation; it would greatly benefit inmate learners if, as well as having access to literacy and numeracy learning, their institution offered vocational education. Many learners have not had access to vocational education before and would be interested in learning something new. In this way, inmates can learn a certain occupation, allowing them to generate a small income, even while serving their sentence. It is at this point that learners can experience tangible benefits of their education and hard work. Learning an occupation would also facilitate their reintegration into society and the labour market on release.
  • Lack of resources ; unfortunately, because of a lack of resources, the school finds it difficult to respond to these issues, by, for example, teaching an occupation, or hiring more staff, including both teachers and psychologists. Limited resources also make it more difficult to make the learning process more interesting and easier for inmates, and so help reduce the drop-out rate.
  • Inmate turnover ; as the programme in Casablanca is organized in a remand prison the turnover of inmates is quite high, due to their release or transfer to other prisons. Consequently, it can be difficult or impossible for inmates to continue their education, particularly if they are transferred to a prison where education is not offered.
  • Dealing with the emotions of working in prison; even though teacher turnover is minimal, some teachers find it difficult to deal with their emotions when it comes to working in prison. Some of them struggle to work with inmates because they see them not only as perpetrators, but also as victims, in the sense that they are deprived of their freedom.

Lessons Learned

  • In order to motivate inmate learners and keep them interested in learning, the contents, methods and approaches used in the programme need to be contextualised and based on the specific situation they face.
  • Involving the families of inmates, and giving them the opportunity to be present during the graduation ceremony, strengthens the relationships between family members and has a positive impact of inmates' self-confidence and motivation.
  • In the early years of programme, dealing with the high turnover of learners was difficult and discouraging for teachers. Once the learners had finished serving their sentence or been transferred to a different prison, the teachers could not keep track of their progress. However, over the years, the teachers have learned to think positively and be satisfied with the impact they have had on learners who do manage to complete a certain level of education.
  • The school management strives to maintain excellent communication with the head of the penitentiary unit and to deliver the accurate and timely information required by the gendarmerie.
  • Even though the classroom environment within the prison is pleasant, teachers need to be trained and prepared to act in accordance with prison security measures in case of unrest or arguments in the classroom. Arguments have, in a small number of cases, broken out between inmate learners, but never between teacher and learner.


The sustainability of the programme depends on the funds received from the government. In order to continue receiving support, the programme must meet the standards set by the Ministry of Education and respect the rules established by prison regulation.



Ms Sonia Alvarez Alvarez
Head Teacher
Juan Luis Vives School, Valparaiso, Chile


Last update: 21 August 2015

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 18 July 2017. Alphabetizing People Deprived of Liberty, Chile. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 28 September 2023, 09:25 CEST)

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