Prisoners’ delight over Junior Cert results

It was a proud day on Wednesday for parents of thousands of Junior Certificate students — but a father in Cork Prison was celebrating his own results as well as his daughter’s.

One of four inmates who did the Junior Certificate at the prison last June, he was very pleased with his As in foundation level English and maths exams.

“My daughter did the Junior Cert as well and got her results today, so that’s something else to celebrate,” he told the Irish Examiner.

Another inmate at Cork Prison was pleased with his B in ordinary level English, his first taste of State exams.

“I might do history and maths next year, and I’m thinking about a few other things,” he said. “I found it easier to do the class in here, the teachers are probably better than in school outside.”

Not only has he now done the Junior Certificate, the older prisoner, who is now in his 50s, has completed a number of further education courses and is now learning cookery in the jail’s busy education unit.

Both left school early, although it was to take up work rather than down to discipline or educational difficulties, which are factors in early school-leaving for a lot of inmates throughout the country’s prisons.

The men are among up to 50 of Cork prison’s 200-plus inmates who take part in classes on a typical day. They are looking forward to much more modern facilities when a near-complete new prison opens in the next few months on an adjoining site on the northside of the city.

So too are the staff led by Edel Cunningham, head of the Cork Education and Training Board-staffed prison education unit, which has more than 20 staff, teaching everything from basic literacy and maths to Open University degrees that select students can work for from prison.

A 29-year-old student got his Leaving Certificate results a month ago, including an A1 in ordinary level history and a C in ordinary level English. But rather than rest on his laurels, he hopes to use his study success to go on and do an Open University degree in psychology.

“It’d be quite hard, but I’m determined. This was my first time getting back into education, but I believe it’s the best thing to do while I’m here,” he said.

“It’s a chance to do something positive with your life, it might lead to a job. We really didn’t know what we could get out of school at the time we were there, but if I had my time back, there might have been a different outcome for me.”

In an adjoining workshop, inmates toiling over jewellery boxes and other gifts for children or partners. Some may count towards certificates they hope to receive for what they have learned under the guidance of teacher Pádraig Lynch.

One of the most advanced students hopes to be out of jail by the end of next year, and has used the education services for the last five years. He is turning cherry and maple for a lamp, and may set up his own workshop at home as a hobby, and hopefully return to work in his old trade after release.

“When I come into the workshop I forget that I’m in prison for a couple of hours,” he said. “I’d be lost without the school, the teachers are lovely and they get on very well with the prisoners.”

In the art room next door, a student is painting dinosaurs and characters from the Minions movie on a table-top panel he has made in the woodwork room.

“It’s for my son,” he said. “He can’t get enough of dinosaurs.”

Art teacher Daniel Sexton said many students come to his class initially to draw, paint, sculpt, or make pottery as a pastime, but they are encouraged to move on to study. One student got a B1 in Leaving Certificate art and history this year, and prisoners have had pieces in national exhibitions, the proceeds from which go to local charities.

Unlike most schools, attendance is entirely voluntary but behaviour rules are in place like anywhere else, although Ms Cunningham said the vast majority of students strongly respect staff. There are restrictions, however, and special permission was needed from the governor this week for a computer memory key for a student with coursework due for the Open University.

Homework is a requirement for some students but even in some of the country’s most crowded prison cells — if only for a few more months until the new prison comes into use — they say concentrating is possible when it is something they are really interested in.

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