Teaching behind Bars

Developing options for inmates

by Gabrielle Barkany

Eighty-seven per cent of adult inmates in Canada have not completed high school. When coupled with a criminal record, the lack of a high school education makes an ex-con’s employment prospects and life options extremely limited.

More than a hundred certified teachers offer a range of courses in Ontario’s provincial and federal jails and prisons – helping inmates to turn their lives around and build better futures.


Gary McDonald is one of the teachers working in Ontario’s federal prisons.

On retiring from the Limestone DSB in 2001, McDonald began working in adult education and now teaches full-time at Bath Institution, a medium-security federal penitentiary near Kingston. He teaches Grades 10 and 11 courses in career education as well as introduction to computer and informatics. To get to class each morning he must first pass through a double chain-link fence.

Once inside, there are few barriers. Inmates are relatively free to move around and his classroom is fairly ordinary.

The number of students he has shifts with intermittent arrivals and others moving on, but for now McDonald has 25, ranging in age from 18 to 75. These students mostly prefer to work independently and tend not to reveal much about themselves to others in the class.

“A lot of them only use their first names. This gives them a sense of privacy and probably a sense of protection because some of them are in here for crimes that you learn of in the media,” he explains.

His students could be serving time for murder, may be sex offenders or may have committed crimes related to drugs. McDonald doesn’t want to know.

“I don’t want to have any notions that they’re not going to be successful, so it’s not necessary for me to know why they’re here.”

Feedback for success

McDonald follows the Ontario curriculum and uses a Shareware program called UltraKey to teach keyboarding and word processing. His 90-minute classes have a fairly structured format that includes repetition, direction and questions. Students spend most of their class time at their computers. McDonald moves among them monitoring activity and engaging with them one on one. Feedback is important.

“They want to know if they’re on the right track and answering the questions in the proper fashion. So it’s very important to give them lots of feedback on how they’re doing,” McDonald explains. “I find it very rewarding because I can see that they want to learn and that they’re ambitious.”

“They say, ‘I want to do it the best I can. I wasn’t successful before so I want to prove to somebody – especially myself – that I can do it.’ They’re trying as much as possible to really succeed. I see this constantly.”

He recalls one assignment where students had to type a letter he had created. Students have to show that they have mastered formatting – margins, point sizes, fonts and spell check.


Gary McDonald teaches at Bath Institution, a medium-security federal penitentiary.

“I find it very rewarding because I can see that they want to learn and that they’re ambitious.”

“They are really sticklers,” he says, recalling that in one example he provided the letter P was lined up with another P on the next line, and even though the students were using a different font size, they made sure that their Ps were aligned as well.

“They seem to be thinking, ‘If I want to be successful, I have to get this perfect and it has to be exactly like he wants it.’”

Because of some students’ difficulties in retaining information – sometimes due to alcohol or drug abuse – McDonald has found repetition to be particularly important.

“After a two-week break, for example, it takes them a day or two to remember things. So we redo a couple of exercises just to refresh their memory.”

McDonald also has a series of questions and answers for each lesson to ensure that his students understand the material they’ve covered. The questions help them to think critically about what they are learning. And he has them write down the concepts or principles behind what they practise in class.

“It reinforces what they know,” he explains, “and shows them just how much they’ve learned.”

“Ongoing encouragement and feedback are very important for inmates,” says Cheryl Snowdon, who teaches high school computer applications and career studies at the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton, a medium-security provincial correctional facility for adult males with alcohol, drug and/or behavioural problems. She is one of two teachers at the facility, which provides the core credits necessary for an Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

The school is managed by the Provincial School Authority, a branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education.

Offenders in this facility typically serve from 60 days to a maximum of two years less a day. Snowdon points out that many of her students are broken men with limited work experience, and that they are often fearful of trying new things.

Her program is designed to recognize the diverse abilities, strengths and aspirations of students and to provide them with the knowledge and skills they will need for job hunting. Students look at career options, write resumés and cover letters, and learn interview skills and how to negotiate salary.

Her biggest challenge? Helping students build confidence and take pride in their achievements and their work. This is no easy task, considering that 70 per cent of them suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Veteran educator Robert Kinsman agrees that when educating inmates there is a lot of emphasis placed on employability.

“And the biggest challenge is overcoming psychological barriers,” he says. “There can be some stigma or fear of failure. But once they start setting and achieving personal goals, things improve.”

Kinsman is Chief of Education and Acting Principal at the minimum-security Beaver Creek Institution and at Fenbrook Institution, a medium-security penitentiary, both in Gravenhurst. Education programs at these federal facilities are managed by the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic DSB.


Robert Kinsman is Chief of Education and Acting Principal at the minimum-security Beaver Creek Institution and at Fenbrook Institution, a medium-security penitentiary, both in Gravenhurst.

At Beaver Creek, Kinsman enters a central area where he signs in and obtains a personal protection alarm, which he attaches to his belt. All teachers wear the alarms, which look like large pagers and are tested every day. If teachers feel they are in danger, they can push the button and security will come.

At Fenbrook, teachers have cards that allow access to specific areas. They pass through five controlled entries to get inside the institution and another two doors to get to the classroom area.

“Then you only need keys for the classroom and office,” laughs Kinsman.

Guards come by often, but the classrooms themselves are quite ordinary. They have windows to the outside and a small window on the entrance door, and there are no cameras.

There are seven teachers working with about 160 full-time student inmates at Fenbrook; the three teachers at Beaver Creek usually have around 40 students.

Kinsman says that teachers often begin by trying to understand the negative experiences and attitudes that may have contributed to the students’ past failures in school.

This is the same at the Brampton jail, where Cheryl Snowdon sits with each new student to gather information on his background and education and to assess his ability to communicate verbally and in writing. She then draws on resources, resumé books, aptitude tests, DVDs showing positive and negative interview situations and computer programs that match interests with a list of possible jobs.

New view

Inmates often tell Snowdon, “I have no skills. I haven’t done anything worthwhile.”

“I get them to look at everything they have done – babysitting, summer jobs, mowing lawns, unpaid work – and to consider all the attributes related to those work situations.

“They don’t realize that they’ve demonstrated valuable skills that employers are interested in – like leadership, good communication and being dependable as far as showing up for work regularly and on time.

“Some students might say, ‘I just helped my dad with construction work’ – but when they elaborate, they mention skills like framing, measuring, ordering materials, calling clients and writing work orders. It’s a lot more layered than what they originally mentioned.”

Snowdon coaches students to focus on goals and skills that are reachable and career and education plans that match their abilities, opportunities and financial realities. In some cases students have skills that are well developed but must be transferred to other job settings.


Cheryl Snowdon teaches at the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton.

“It’s so satisfying to see how they have grown in self-confidence.”

“We’ve had bankers who because of criminal charges won’t be able to return to that, so we look at related fields where a criminal record might not be a handicap – like accounting jobs where they would not be directly involved in handling finances.”

She encourages her students to reflect and write on their work experience and to take notes when watching DVDs. She helps them prepare cover letters and resumés and to practise interview skills.

So how do you talk positively about your incarceration to a future employer?

“I advise them to explain what they learned while incarcerated and how it helped them to become more stable. People who have spent time in prison are likely to demonstrate positive characteristics and work habits because they really want to prove to an employer and society that they are ready to come back and be a contributing member of the community.

“When they see the end result on their resumé and all the skills they have, they’re thrilled. They feel more prepared to start over. It’s so satisfying to see how they have grown in self-confidence.”

Safe and rewarding

Snowdon was previously a social worker at the Vanier Centre for Women and applied to the Ontario Correctional Institute when Vanier closed.

She says that she’s never been afraid to work in a prison and that the classroom is pretty ordinary, except that school operates all year round, so she and her colleague must spell each other off for vacations.

“This is the safest teaching job. We’ve got correctional officers in the institution and nobody has any weapons in my classroom. My students are involved in intense treatment programs and are courteous, respectful and polite. They appreciate the opportunity to be in school. I don’t know if all high school teachers can claim that,” she laughs.

Retired teacher Diane Gordon agrees. Gordon taught literacy at two federal facilities, the Bath Institution and Kingston penitentiary. She says that teaching inmates was one of her happiest teaching experiences. But the assertive, grey-haired woman admits to being overwhelmed at times by the environment at the Kingston penitentiary.

“It was like a medieval town surrounded by barbed wire, where the doors are clanging behind you. It’s dark and some inmates were wandering around in chains,” she recalls. “But for my students, the school was the safest place in the building, a sane place to be. So they enjoyed that and were so appreciative of getting one-on-one attention in learning how to read and write because most of them never had any attention.”

Results and recidivism

Teachers in prisons are part of a therapeutic milieu and, working with other professionals, help to rehabilitate students, showing them a new way of living. The goal is not to end up with better-educated criminals but with individuals who have the tools to not re-engage in criminal activities when they return to the community.

A growing body of research shows that education and training programs can raise employment prospects and cut recidivism.

“Many people who end up in gangs, dealing drugs or involved in property crime are people who come from impoverished backgrounds and difficult situations. They don’t see options,” explains Robert Gaucher, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa who’s been working with adult inmates for over 40 years.

“Education gives them options, it gives them a broader understanding of the world and helps them make sense of it at different levels.”


Poet and former inmate John Rives now works for Lifeline.

“Education gives you the feeling that you can achieve something.”

Basic adult education, particularly education up to the Grade 12 level, is a priority for Corrections Canada due to the large number of illiterate inmates. But those who want to continue beyond high school have difficulties, according to Gaucher. Postsecondary education programs in federal penitentiaries have fallen away.

From the 1960s through the 80s, Canadian colleges and universities did operate higher education programs in prisons. Inmates in a number of federal institutions had access to in-prison lectures given by professors from local universities, such as Queen’s University in Kingston and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Some inmates continued their studies after they got out.

“For those who did, once they got over the strangeness of being on the street, the university provided a place to find a sense of identity other than the stigmatized convict one,” explains Gaucher.

By the early 90s, even as support for mandatory basic education for inmates was rising, political pressure was mounting to eliminate grants for higher education.

According to Corrections Canada, fewer than 10 per cent of inmates participating in education programs opt for postsecondary education and they generally pay for it on their own.


“Education gives you confidence,” says John Rives, a former inmate at Millhaven and Collins Bay penitentiaries in Ontario. After 10 years behind bars, he is now on life parole in Kingston, where he works for Lifeline, which helps develop programs for lifers.

Rives was described by author June Callwood not as a lifer who happens to write poetry but as a poet who happened to be in prison. Rives received degrees in geology and history while behind bars and he understands first hand the importance of inmate education.

“It certainly gives you the feeling that you can achieve something,” he says. “It is so empowering.”

In his current role as a motivator, mentor and mediator for inmates, he would know.

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