Voices from Correctional Educators and Young Offenders in Singapore: A Preliminary Needs Assessment Study of the Kaki Bukit Centre Prison School1
Tam, Kai Yung (Brian)
This preliminary needs assessment study conducted at the Kaki Bukit Centre (KBC) Prison School in Singapore provides a systematic examination of what stakeholders perceive as needs to be addressed. Two needs assessment surveys were administered to correctional educators and prison inmates at KBC, respectively. Based on the responses of the stakeholders, challenges faced by both correctional educators and inmates were presented and recommendations for the planning and implementation of effective educational programs and services in prison settings were made.
Reducing recidivism to help Inmates re-Integrate Into society and become productive and successful workers, citizens, and family members Is the ultimate goal of correctional education (Cordon è Weldon, 2003). Research has documented the significant, positive effects of educational programming in reducing recidivism rates. A thorough analysis and evaluation of numerous educational programs was conducted by Cecil, Drapkln, Hickman, and Mackenzie (2000). Of twelve studies that were evaluated, eight showed that education appeared to have a positive Impact on lowering recidivism rate. Inmates who completed education programs and those that acquired higher levels of education had the lowest recidivism rates.
In another study by Brown, Forrester, Hull, Jobe and McCullen (2000), a recidivism rate of 49.0% was reported for Inmates who had no educational programming while Incarcerated, compared to a 19.1% recidivism rate for Inmates who completed an academic program while Incarcerated. In addition, Inmates were Interviewed to find out about their attitudes to attending correctional education courses. Inmates reported wanting to ‘keep learning,’ and some spoke about a long-term goal of being trained for a career. Fifteen out of 16 Inmates wanted to get a GED and then go on to college. Inmates appeared to understand the long-term connection between education and success In life.
In 1997, the U.S. Department of Justice projected that more than 50% of the offenders released from Institutions each year will return within three years (Moller, Day, B Rivera, 2004). Without necessary education and skills, the New York State Corrections Education estimates that approximately 25% of released offenders will be rearrested within six months and 40% within one year (Johnson, 2004).
In most prison schools around the world, teachers and students face substantial challenges to educational achievement. Many correctional teachers struggle with an eclectic mix of students of various ages who have lower educational levels and a history of educational failure. There are wide discrepancies In literacy, employment experience, and learning styles. Many prison inmates lack motivation and there is a preponderance of individuals with learning difficulties. Classes are dynamic in nature, with students entering and leaving programs as a result of court commitments, institutional transfers, parole, and reasslgnments. In addition, correctional educators are challenged to bring Inquiry and learning to places mainly designed for custody and control. Education Is often low in the list of priorities and safety concerns take precedence over educational practices (Jurich, Casper, Q Hull, 2001 ).
Correctional teachers require the use of appropriate Instructional tools to engage in effective and meaningful education. To reverse longstanding patterns of low achievement and motivation, correctional teachers grapple with the constant challenge of finding ways to teach material in context to help learners see usefulness in what they learn. Training for correctional educators, however, has been conducted In an infrequent and poorly defined manner (Eggleston, 1991), and the needs of inmate learners, instructors, and correctional Institutions have been overlooked by the research community (Gunn, 1999). Administrators and educators In the correctional setting may have the best of Intentions when developing and Implementing programs that may help students Improve learning. However, if these programs are not perceived by inmates as helpful, relevant, and respectful, they often are not considered as successful. The Inmates’ voice Is a voice that is often unheard, but that may serve as a reliable and important source of information since they are stakeholders in the correctional education system.
This paper reports on a needs assessment study conducted at the Kaki Bukit Centre Prison School In Singapore. The paper provides a systematic examination of the way things are In comparison with what should be. It examines what stakeholders perceive as needs to be addressed, the needs being the gap between the current status and the vision of what should be. It Is a process that incorporates data from a variety of sources to identify alternative solutions to problems and makes recommendations for effective instructional programs and services.
Two needs assessment surveys were developed, one for teachers and counselors and another for inmates. The first author developed the questions for the two surveys. The second author independently reviewed the questions to ensure relevance to the purpose of the study. Both authors discussed discrepancies to the questions and made refinements, where necessary. The two surveys were then sent to the Principal of KBC for further review and refinement. The Principal conducted a pilot study at KBC and asked several teachers and inmates who did not comprise the sample for the study to respond to the two surveys, respectively. Teachers’ and inmates’ responses to the surveys were used to confirm the content validity of the questions.
There were ten questions in the needs assessment survey for Inmates. Eight of 10 questions contained items which required one or more forced-choice responses. All eight questions also included an Others” option to allow for other alternatives not Included in the forced-choice responses. The rationale for the design of these questions was In part based on the Principal’s experience with the inmates, as he advised that inmates generally may not have the patience and ability to respond to open-ended questions. Two open-ended questions were included In the survey, however. There were twenty-one questions in the needs assessment survey for teachers and counselors. All questions except one were open-ended questions. The first few questions In the two surveys served to capture respondents’ demographic Information, such as education level and number of years teaching in the prison school. In the needs assessment survey for inmates, examples of questions include: What are the problems you face while studying at KBC?, What do you think of the learning environment in the Prison School? In the needs assessment survey for teachers and counselors, examples of questions include: What is it to be a teacher/ counselor in KBC/other prison schools (as compared to teaching/working In regular schools/agencies)? What frustrates you as a teacher/counselor In KBC?
TUe KBC Prison School
Kaki Bukit Centre (KBQ Prison School in Singapore was officially opened by the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Wong Kan Seng on July 26th, 2000. KBC Is a bold and Innovative Initiative aimed at optimizing resources and spearheading rehabilitation programmes in an Institutional setting. KBC brings together in a centralized location in one institution, different categories of Inmates from both penal and drug institutions who attend academic and vocational classes to advance their educational qualifications. The school’s efforts are supported by a multidisclplinary team of teachers, prison officers and counsellors who work together to help students in their studies and in their journey of change to become responsible, thinking citizens.
All respondents were volunteers. Fifty-eight inmates responded to the needs assessment survey for inmates, and nine teachers and one counselor responded to a corresponding survey for teachers/counselors. Prior to administering the surveys, the Principal informed all respondents about the purpose of the surveys. Respondents were not required to provide any personal particulars such as name, gender and age.
Analysis of responses
The first and second author Independently reviewed and categorized all responses to surveys. Relevant themes were developed and Individual responses were grouped under each theme. Discrepancies concerning categorization under relevant themes were discussed and consensus reached. In addition to the themes, for most questions in the survey for inmates, the frequency of responses was converted into percentages, and responses were then rank-ordered. In the survey for teachers and counselors, for one question given on a 4-polnt Llkert scale, means ratings were computed and rankordered.
Key themes across questions were developed and responses to surveys were categorized and presented according to relevant themes.
All respondents except one have a Bachelor’s degree and all have teaching certification. Respondents have had between 3 months to 3 years experience working In KBC, with prior teaching/working experience ranging from about 3.5 years to 38 years.
Why a teacher/counselor. Respondents reported two primary reasons as to why they wanted to be a teacher/counselor. They believed in education as an important process in rehabilitation and in making a difference to serve underprivileged populations. Others wanted to experience a change of environment in which they would have wider exposure to “experience what prison education is, to see what prisoners’ lives are, to know more about the prison environment”.
Teaching and working In KBC (as compared to regular schools). All respondents described working In KBC prison school as challenging, meaningful and enriching. They reported a great sense of satisfaction in helping inmates realize their potential. It was noteworthy that one teacher described feeling honored to Interact with and leam from Inmates. One counselor reported that the job was sometimes quite stressful due to a low counselor to inmate ratio and other responsibilities that had to be undertaken at the same time (e.g., Involvement In committees and projects).
As compared to teaching and working In regular schools, some respondents noted that while the Inmates at KBC are mature, motivated, diligent and focused on their studies, wide knowledge gaps exist due to the diverse backgrounds and problems of the inmates. Teachers therefore needed to be very adaptable in terms of planning and developing pedagogical strategies to meet different learning needs. One teacher reported that “new students may come in the middle of term and have to sit for exams at the end of the year.” In addition, there Is an ever-present concern of trying to cover the syllabus within a limited time while at the same time trying to help students develop examination skills. Another teacher pointed out, however, that there Is ‘less concern about status and glamour’ In working In the prison school.
A few respondents highlighted security concerns In ensuring that operational and security procedures are being practiced while conducting activities and lessons. Most respondents, however, noted that In working as a team, a focus on effective communication through Informal chats, emails, social Interactions, and peer group discussions helped to promote a positive working relationship among all prison staff, Including uniformed prison officers.
Teaching approaches. In planning and developing an appropriate curriculum for Inmates, In addition to considerations given to teaching In regular schools (e.g., prior knowledge, abilities and needs of students, availability of teaching resources), teachers In KBC had to take into consideration other factors Including, diversity of age group and risk level of inmates, operational issues of the prison system (e.g., location, logistics), and varying times Inmates would enter into and exit from the prison school. It was encouraging to note that different teaching approaches were used to meet the diverse learning needs of inmates in KBC. Large group, small group and individualized instructional approaches were used. These included lectures, peer coaching, cooperative learning, and opportunities to assess student learning through different modes such as short quizzes, presentations and demonstrations, use of class journals and differentiated assignments. IT resources were used where appropriate. A prison counselor reported the use of cognitive-behavioral approach, reality therapy and choice theory concepts In both group and Individualized therapy sessions.
Openness, sincerity, respect and friendliness were key attributes to effective communication between teachers/counselors and Inmates. One respondent adopted a proactive approach in talking to Inmates outside curriculum time. Feedback from inmates on lesson delivery, teaching strategies and assignments were valued.
Challenges. A number of issues and challenges were reported. First, the restrictions and regulations of the prison school could hinder the implementation of education programs, although respondents generally understood the rationale for such constraints. For example, one respondent listed constraints as follows: ‘no excursions, no freedom In using sharp things, lots of security measures, and no Internet.” Another respondent added, “an inmate who committed an offence is sent out of school. Instructions given are not clear and Instructions keep changing.’
second, Issues pertaining to curriculum time as well as problem behavior of Inmates were put forth. For Instance, new Inmates may be sent to the prison school In the middle of the school term and this would mean that teachers would have Insufficient time to complete the syllabus to help these Inmates prepare for the national examinations. One respondent expressed a concern regarding the provision of career guidance opportunities for inmates. With regard to the problem behavior of inmates, respondents noted the need for proper behavior management for inmates who keep problems to themselves and for those who sometimes display erratic behavior (e.g., after family visits).
Third, most respondents expressed concerns about the availability of resources in the prison school, Including internet access, audio-visual resources, use of IT In classrooms, Inaccessibility to study materials and guidebooks, and a less-than-conducive study environment (e.g., no tables to do homework, no clocks to measure study pace, although the prison administration has since taken steps to rectify this). One respondent suggested that having more teaching staff could help ease workload of teachers in terms of teaching preparation and assistance rendered to students.
Effective teachers/counselor. An effective teacher/counselor Is one who believes in the philosophy of correctional education and rehabilitation and understands the prison education system, as one respondent stated: One who can think systematically and is adept at integrating the 3 legs of KBC (Operations/Education/Rehabilitation) when going about dally activities of work.” Most respondents focused on the qualities of effective teachers such as respect, care and concern for inmates, ability to communicate with inmates, serving as a role model in molding Inmates, and having an open mind and patience In working with inmates to seek change. Two respondents emphasized the importance of helping inmates achieve academic results.
Training for teachers/counselor. There are a number of opportunities for teachers and counselors to upgrade themselves through in-service courses and workshops (e.g., skills In counseling, IT, youth management, anger management). Table 1 provides a comprehensive list of types of training teachers/counselors would like to receive. The most Important areas (with means of 2.4 and 2.5 out of 3.0) Identified were: motivating students, assessment/identification of disordered behaviors and learning problems, best practices in correctional education, understanding criminal behavior, working with students with diverse abilities and vocational education In a prison school.
All Inmates who participated In this study completed at least primary education, with the highest level of education completed being secondary school education.
Learning at KBC In terms of learning modes, Inmates Indicated a preference for group discussions (24%), followed by group projects and assignments (23%), and Individual homework, projects and assignments (18%), with the least favored modes being lectures (14%) and quizzes (13%).
With regard to communicating with teachers, class discussion was the main communication channel (69%). A smaller percentage relied on individual discussions with teachers (26%). In terms of teacher accessibility, 60 percent of inmates reported that teachers were accessible, with the majority indicating that Interactions occurred during school hours, and others indicating that they looked for their teachers during toilet breaks. Thirty-three percent indicated that teachers were not accessible. One student reported, however, that this was the case only for certain teachers.
When inmates encountered difficulty in their studies, they sought the help of teachers (38%) and counselors (9%), with the majority turning to dorm-mates (53%). Teachers rendered help through extra lessons and assignments and through repeated and clear explanations of difficult concepts. Counselors offered encouragement and helped inmates find ways to overcome difficulties. Most times, dorm-mates provided help with schoolwork as well as offered counsel and help with personal problems. One inmate reported that he sought the help of the pastor.
Challenges. Inmates reported three major challenges In studying in KBC: limited choice of subjects available (19%), lack of IT and audio-visual resources (19%), and Insufficient time to complete syllabus (18%). Other concerns included a lack of academic books (14%) and difficulty relating to what is being taught (12%). In terms of the learning environment in KBC, inmates indicated a lack of a quiet place for studying (31 %), a lack of a suitable place to study after school hours (29%), and a lack of space for group work (13%).
Other learning needs. Thirty-seven percent of Inmates reported that they often felt confident about learning In KBC; fifty-seven percent reported that they did not always feel this way. Table 2 shows the skills in rank order as identified by inmates in helping to develop their confidence in learning. The three most important skills were communication skills (12.4%), study skills (12.0%) and social skills training (10.1%).
This study identified the needs of Inmates and teachers/counselors in a prison school in Singapore through needs assessment surveys. Unlike most correctional settings in which educational programs follow a pull-out model, KBC Is a school In a prison environment for young offenders. The philosophy of KBC is guided by the ‘school first, prison second” paradigm. All educational services are planned and evaluated under this overarching paradigm.
In most prison settings, correctional educators face the challenge of bringing inquiry and learning to environments largely designed for custody and control, and are discouraged by security concerns which often take precedence over educational practices (Gunn, 1999; Jurich et al., 2001; Rousseau & Tarn, 1999). At KBC, although the ‘school first, prison second” paradigm has reframed mental models that guide the planning and development of educational programs and services for prison inmates, a small number of correctional educators nonetheless noted that there is a constant need to be aware of operational and security concerns when working with Inmates. For example, teachers reported that there was no Internet access during teaching. They were also unable to take their students on excursions.
Rousseau and Tarn (1999) highlighted the problem of rapid turnover and sporadic attendance of Incarcerated youth In correctional education settings. The length of a student’s stay In a correctional facility, and hence In that facility’s educational program Is determined by the courts, not by academic needs. Students are likely to be moved from the facility without notice, and may sometimes miss a substantial part of school while they attend court. At KBC, attendance of Inmates Is far more regular and the problem of rapid turnover and sporadic attendance Is unlikely to occur. Inmates who commit an offence while In prison school, however, may be transferred out of school. In such Instances, communication between teachers and prison officers regarding transfer of inmates could be better addressed. By and large, most inmates at KBC are those who have been transferred from other prisons due to good conduct and have completed a minimum of primary school education. The length of stay at KBC is typically about two to three years. However, new Inmates may be transferred to KBC in the middle of the school year and have to take examinations at the end of the year. Educators are therefore challenged with the task of preparing Inmates for examinations within a short time frame.
The diverse abilities and academic backgrounds of inmates present a great challenge to educators (Jurich et al., 2001; Cunn, 1999; Rousseau & Tarn, 1999). Within a class, one may find inmates with a wide spectrum of educational competencies, ranging from non-readers to those with high-school reading skills. At KBC, Inmates have a stronger academic background, with many having completed primary and secondary education. The issue of working with a heterogeneous group of inmates is less of a problem at KBC as inmates are more homogeneously grouped and are placed In different academic and vocational programs according to their prior educational experience. However, the provision of career guidance for inmates remains a concern and teachers at KBC, as with other correctional educators are keen to find ways to motivate Inmates.
It is encouraging to note that 60 percent of inmates reported that teachers were accessible largely during school hours. At the same time, however, it Is of concern that 33 percent Indicated that teachers were not accessible, and that this is possibly the case for certain teachers. It Is plausible that a small group of teachers were less responsive to the needs of their students as they could have maintained a need for some degree of authoritative distance between instructor and learner (Gunn, 1999).
Personal communication between teachers and inmates is another issue of concern. In a needs assessment survey for learners in a correctional setting, Gunn (1999) reported that most Inmates are reluctant to ask their instructors for help. This parallels the findings in this study, in which the majority of KBC inmates reported turning to dorm-mates for help with their studies. The findings may also be the result of the Peer Support Programme at KBC in which Inmates are encouraged to assist one another in overcoming academic difficulties. Like other correctional education settings, inmates at KBC reported that there Is a lack of quiet and suitable place for studying after school hours and a lack of space for group discussions (Cunn, 1999). Similar to the responses of inmates in the Moeller, Day, and Rivera (2004) study, inmates at KBC identified concerns related to availability of IT and audio-visual resources as well as academic books and references. In addition, KBC inmates indicated a preference for more flexibility in choice of subjects in areas of Interest.
Inmates at KBC Identified communication and social skills as among the top-most Important skills they would like to acquire. Research findings suggest that being able to understand other individuals’ social cues and to respond with appropriate language help avoid aggression and violence among youths (Smith B Griffin, 2002). Although the Inmates in this study did not Indicate why they perceived communication and social skills as important, a review of Inmates’ case files reveals that starring Incidents, confrontations, insults and challenges by others were the Immediate causal factors leading to violent behavior.
The study has offered some insights into the instructional and educational needs of teachers and inmates at KBC and these may also serve as areas of focus for other prison schools:
1. More in-service training opportunities for correctional educators. For example, academic and professional courses In teacher education or related areas may be offered at the university or teacher-training Institution, which could provide in-service training for correctional educators who work with students with diverse abilities. Specialists or experts who have extensive experience working in correctional settings may also be invited to provide In-house training. These professionals could serve as consultants who team up with correctional educators in the planning and Implementation of new Intervention programs for inmates.
2. A mentorlng system should be in place for new correctional educators. Teachers and counselors with wide experience In public schools or those with experience working in a prison setting could help new colleagues understand the prison school system and its operational procedures within a correctional setting. Mentors can also help new teachers and counselors understand the psychology of Inmates and their learning needs, and plan appropriate curriculum and intervention programs.
3. An orientation should be given to all new prison officers and correctional educators. An orientation program should encompass the philosophy of correctional education and the underlying thinking and development of the learning environment and educational programs, as well as security measures to ensure all personnel understand their roles and responsibilities. To improve communication, working committees could be established and should comprise prison officers and correctional educators. Informal opportunities, for example, team-building activities and sporting events could be created to Improve communication and promote mutual understanding among staff. Superintendents and senior personnel could also take a proactive approach to better understand programs by consulting with teachers and counselors about their needs.
4. To improve and provide more opportunities for communication between correctional educators and prison inmates, It may be possible for a period of consultation (ranging from 30 minutes to an hour) to be made available outside of curriculum time. Teachers and counselors should also consider taking a proactive approach to speak with Inmates when a need arises and when circumstances permit them to do so (e.g., during library period for Inmates).
5. A systematic and structured peer tutoring program should be established as it is possible that with proper security measures In place, inmates could turn to each other for help and encourage each other in their studies and In personal matters (as Is the case in this study). Research has shown that using students as tutors offers benefits to students (tutees), tutors, and teachers (Miller, Barbetta, & Heron, 1994). It is important, however, to establish a systematic training program to ensure that effective peer tutoring takes place. Such a program could comprise the following elements: selecting a tutoring format, training the tutor, arranging and structuring the tutoring schedule, defining the teacher’s role as a facilitator, providing opportunities for practice, and evaluating learning outcomes.
6. An Individualized education program would serve as another Important Instructional approach to complement existing approaches. An Individualized education program Involves careful monitoring of students’ academic standing and progress and provides Information to teachers regarding Inmates’ educational placement and readiness to take public examinations (e.g., GED). The documentation of Inmates’ academic performance Is crucial when Inmates are transferred to other prison facilities or when they are released from prison and re-enrolled In public schools to continue their education (Rousseau B Tarn, 1999).
7. A designated area for private study after school hours could include plans for a reading room for individual work and group discussions, with proper security in place. If possible, the study area could be equipped with computers, printers and reference materials (e.g., dictionary, encyclopedia).
8. An annual, independent program evaluation should be conducted by educational consultants who are familiar with correctional education. This would help prison schools to continue to improve the quality of existing educational programs and services, as well as develop new programs to meet the needs of both inmates and prison school staff.
It is encouraging to note that the teachers and counselors at KBC believe in the shared vision and mission of correctional education in helping young offenders. The work of correctional educators In the nurture and care of society’s marginalized populations is a very challenging task. This study has provided some Insights into the needs of both Inmates and correctional educators of a prison school in Singapore. It Is a voice that echoes the dedication and commitment of all correctional education efforts In what has been achieved and In plans and directions for what lies ahead.
1 This study Is supported by a grant from the Academic Research Fund, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
2 The thinking and development of the learning environment and educational programs of the Kakl Buklt Centre Prison School Is detailed In a separate paper, Oh, E., Goh, T., Tarn, B. K. Y., & Heng, M. A. (2005). The captains of lives: Kaki Buklt Prison School In Singapore. Journal of Coirecuonal Education, 56, 308-325.
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Rousseau, M. K., & Tarn, B. K. Y. (1999). Individualized instruction: Meeting the diverse learning needs of Incarcerated youth. Reaching Today’s Youth, 3(3), 43-50.
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Kai Yung (Brian) Tam
Mary Anne Heng
National Institute of Education,
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Auckland College of Education, New Zealand
The needs assessment of Kaki Bukit Centre (KBC) Prison School could not have been done without the support of the teachers, counselor and prison inmates who participated In the study. Special thanks to Erro! Oh, Principal, KBC Prison School and Head, Prison Education Branch, Singapore Prison Service, and Terrence Goh, former Superintendent, KBC Prison School and Head, Research and Planning Branch, Singapore Prison Service.
KAl YUNC (BRIAN) TAM Is Professor at the Center for Higher Education Development, Xiamen University, China.
MARY ANNE HENC Is Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
DENNIS ROSE Is Principal Lecturer, School of leaching, Learning and Development, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
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