UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Outcomes of webinar on 13 May


The prison library
© CC BY-NC 2.0 cartermacdonald
2 June 2020

As part of its ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC), the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar on 13 May reflecting on prisons and prison education in the context of COVID-19. Insights were shared by representatives of prison facilities and systems in Hamburg (Germany) and Norway, experts in the field, and an international organization for criminal justice.

Ms Marie Macauley (UIL) opened the webinar by describing the many disadvantages prisoners face with regard to learning opportunities; this, she argued, was a primary obstacle to their social reintegration and can exacerbate other issues, such as recidivism or violent extremism. Prevailing educational programmes are often not of high quality and may not respond to prisoners’ learning needs. While we know that these challenges exist due to a range of factors, in general a lack of support, poor coordination, and at times even resistance from responsible authorities in prison to engage with educational practices in prisons are to blame.

With the advent of COVID-19, priorities inside prisons have changed: ensuring the health and safety of inmates and prison staff has taken the focus away from learning. The crisis has, however, incentivized other reforms, some of which have been recommended for years, such as providing prisoners with access to online educational resources and other online tools.

Ms Macauley closed her introduction by announcing that UIL will be cataloguing these practices and using them in an ongoing project on prison education, the goal of which is to stimulate and promote professional exchange on prison education between policy-makers, researchers and practitioners in all regions of the world, with a view to creating policy guidelines for prison education.

Federal University of Paraíba, Brazil

To begin his presentation, Mr Timothy Ireland, Senior Lecturer in Education at the Federal University of Paraíba, Brazil, put forward the idea that, through the COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, we have all begun to understand what deprivation of liberty means as well as its effect on mental health. While many of us have had the privilege to choose who we spent our time in self-isolation with, prisoners did not, and furthermore many lost their links to the outside world because visitations were suspended.

Prison education programmes, severely cut back during the pandemic, appertain to adult education, explained Mr Ireland, and generally cater for people who have had limited access to formal schooling as children. For prisons and prison education, there are three main areas to address at the present time: existing conditions in prisons, general responses to the pandemic in prison systems, and educational responses.

Regarding existing conditions, although it is difficult to generalize prison systems worldwide, many penal institutions are beset by gross overcrowding and limited access to medical services. In terms of general responses to the pandemic in prison systems, social distancing has been practically impossible to implement, so contact with the outside world was curtailed. Visits from families and non-essential staff (teachers, librarians, etc.) were thus quickly suspended. Movement within prison walls was also minimized; as a result, many prisoners found themselves confined to their cells for up to 22 hours per day. Furthermore, criteria was developed to determine who could be released early, such as those prisoners of advanced age, who were pregnant, or close to completing their sentences.

With regard to education, the majority of activities in prisons have been suspended due to the pandemic. Total shutdown remains the situation in most places; yet, in some contexts, technology- or paper-based instruction has been developed in an attempt to provide inmates with continuity of education.

Justice Defenders, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Mr Matteo Cassini, Community Development Manager at Justice Defenders (https://www.justice-defenders.org/), a UK-based charity and US non-profit, said that the organization’s mission is to enable everyone to access the justice system. Justice Defenders currently works directly with both prison inmates and staff in Kenya and Uganda, where prisons are significantly overcrowded. In fact, the average occupancy rate in prisons in these two countries is two-to-three times the official capacity; this, in turn, has created a breeding ground for the spread of COVID-19. The health crisis has also depleted prison provisions, resulting in water, sanitary products, food, medicine, and basic healthcare and education services being restricted. Furthermore, with all external partners, visitors and families barred from accessing prisons, inmates have lost fundamental connections, which has affected their psychosocial health.

Prison academies in Kenya and Uganda are closed until all educational activities are officially resumed across both countries. Mr Cassini argued that secure internet access for prisoners is a fundamental tool to ensure the right to education, as well as distance learning and exams through online classes, remote tutoring and online curricula. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a community of prison-based graduate teachers – both inmates and officers – have been delivering law classes to their junior colleagues. They are supported by a three-pronged response by Justice Defenders, which provides legal services and raises money to pay fines and reunite petty offenders with families, promotes simple technology solutions, and partners with those who want to provide personal protective equipment and sanitary items to keep prisoners and officers safe.

UNESCO learning city of Hamburg, Germany

A member of the judicial authority at a pre-trial detention centre in Hamburg, Germany, Mr Marc-Oliver Barsch gave a short video presentation about the centre, which houses a library that is managed by inmates and has remained open throughout the pandemic, whereas classes have been suspended because of social distancing rules. Because it is a pre-trial detention centre where no one has yet been sentenced, inmates are not obliged to work as they would be in federal prisons; however, the majority of prisoners enrol in training courses in cleaning, painting, plumbing and other professions. Inmates tend not to spend extended periods of time at the pre-detention centre and so more comprehensive vocational training is not possible; this is instead offered by the prison in Fuhlsbüttel, in the north of the city.

The situation with regard to COVID-19 is still challenging; this makes it difficult to know which solutions the pre-detention centre has put into place will be successful. The main priorities have been to preserve health and prevent rioting, while trials have been held via video conferencing and further digitization is expected.


Paal Christopher Breivik, Senior Advisor, County Governor of Vestland, Department of Education and Guardianship, explained that the way prison education is framed in Norway is based on the ‘import model’, meaning all non-penal functions are placed under the jurisdiction of external bodies. For example, school authorities are responsible for education inside the prison and teaching is normally organized and carried out by an upper-secondary school. Across Norway, there are ordinarily around 1,400 students and 420 teachers participating in learning in prisons every day (full- and part-time). Programmes are often focused on basic skills as well as vocational courses and, as the average time for a prisoner to remain incarcerated is 100 days, shorter courses are popular.

When face-to-face school lessons in Norway were suspended because of COVID-19, nearly all traditional education for prisoners was also put on hold. Since then, alternatives have included paper-based learning (letters sent between teachers and students), and the use of telephones, memory sticks, Dictaphones and iPads for remote learning. Open-access ICT opportunities for prisoners, supported by education activists for decades, are also being put into place as a result of the pandemic. More broadly, the shutdown has underlined the gap between digital possibilities inside and outside prison walls.

The role of libraries in prisons

Lisa Krolak, Chief Librarian at UIL, provided insight into the role of prison libraries from a global perspective. Prison libraries, she said, provide inmates with a safe meeting and learning space inside prison walls. They support education, lifelong learning and access to information, and can be an opportunity to provide the prison population with recreational and cultural activities, spiritual development or simply distraction. Ms Krolak highlighted one best-practice example of prison library outreach during the pandemic from Chile, where a project called ‘Book and Coffee’ has enabled prisoners to sit together (albeit at a distance), drink coffee and read. Generally, however, learning services have been paused in prisons around the world, or have offered limited or alternative services.

In cases where prison library services are run externally, library staff and community volunteers have been barred from entering prisons and services have been suspended, whereas library services run by prison staff and inmate assistants have continued to function with modified capacities. An example of such a limited service is seen in the granting of permission to prisoners to browse catalogues and request books directly to their cell. There have also been examples of more book and resource donations being made to prisons in need.


Ms Macauley opened the debate by asking Mr Cassini to provide more information on the current situation regarding prisons and prison education in Africa. In response, he explained that Justice Defenders is consolidating its offers of support in Kenya and Uganda as well as assisting prisoners in the UK who are foreign nationals due to return to Africa to face trial. Justice Defenders is also expanding into other countries, including the Gambia.

A subsequent question addressed alternative methods of learning, to which Mr Ireland responded that prisons revert to paper-based solutions when ICTs are not possible. Mr Breivik echoed these sentiments and said that Norwegian prisons are also supporting paper, as well as using Dictaphones where possible. Mr Cassini added that Justice Defenders calls for investment in the training of prison officers as educators.

Finally, a question on learning for juvenile offenders brought the debate to a close. Mr Breivik explained how juvenile offenders quickly lose motivation when teachers are not present; the use of iPads has therefore proven successful, as young people are less likely to take an interest in paper-based learning when classes are suspended. Mr Ireland closed the webinar by maintaining that technological and paper-based solutions will never replace the need for face-to-face contact in prison education.

On a positive note, the realities of prisoners have become a greater concern to the wider public in the recent months, but the media has reported less on prison education and more on security and health. Examples of using technology to find solutions for prisoners to maintain contact with loved ones, access legal assistance and educational services are a promising development. So far, the use of computers and Internet access has been extremely restricted due to security regulations.

GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO GNLC to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the 10 previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Open distance learning. Outcomes of webinar on 6 May

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Mental health, health and well-being. Outcomes of webinar on 29 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: The cases of Évry-Courcouronnes (France), Chefchaouen (Morocco), Mayo-Baléo (Cameroon), and the Association internationale des Maires Francophones (AIMF). Outcomes of webinar on 23 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Measures developed by cities for migrants and refugees. Outcomes of webinar on 22 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Higher education institutions’ support for local communities. Outcomes of webinar on 15 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Mexico City (Mexico), Bogotá (Columbia), Lima (Peru). Outcomes of webinar on 9 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March

Don’t miss the opportunity to join our upcoming webinars. Further details can be found at https://uil.unesco.org/event/gnlc-webinars-unesco-learning-cities-response-covid-19.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw