Building peace in the minds of men and women

Wide Angle

Teaching behind bars in Valparaiso


The Juan Luis Vives school is located in the Valparaiso Penitentiary Centre, Chile. Founded in 1999, the institution provides basic and secondary education, and vocational training for detainees.

Situated on a hill in the seaport city of Valparaiso, on the Chilean coast, the Juan Luis Vives school was founded in 1999. Today it has 550 students. What makes it unique is that it is located inside the city’s prison. Every day, the teachers who work there are forced to cope with the challenges of the prison world – which include disparities in learning abilities, and emotions on edge. The school was awarded the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy in 2015.

Carolina Jerez Henríquez, UNESCO Office in Santiago, Chile

Far from the historic quarter of Valparaiso, which features on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the Valparaiso Prison is located off the tourist track – in a windswept neighbourhood in one of the city’s  most disadvantaged areas. This is where the Juan Luis Vives school welcomes prisoners, who attend to resume their often-disrupted schooling or to pursue vocational training courses. In all cases, the aim is to better prepare them for the life that awaits them outside, once their sentences have been served. 

At the school, each day brings its own surprises. “It is not possible to plan anything,” explains one teacher. “It all depends on what happens inside the prison, whether there are raids or searches being carried out, for example. There are days when a normal schedule is possible. And others when you can’t even teach.”

Sonia Álvarez is a history and civic education teacher. She has been campaigning for the right to education of people in detention for the last forty years. “Earlier, I felt that something was missing in my life. Now, I know that what I do is essential,” she says, as she climbs the stairs leading to the second floor of the school. It is a completely new space that she designed herself and had built inside the prison, using public and private funds. 

Working under the constraints that are typical of prison life, the school provides basic and secondary education and vocational training in cookery and catering to enable prisoners to learn a trade and increase their chances of finding work once they return to the outside world.

Giving lives a meaning

According to figures from the Chilean government’s National Coordination for Youth and Adult Education, there were seventy-two educational centres in Chile's prisons in 2018. The Juan Luis Vives school is part of this network. Álvarez and her colleagues believe that education is a liberating process that renews the social condition of the individual – as the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire would say – both in prison and outside. That helps them reflect on and give meaning to the process.  

Teaching in this context is a daily challenge. “It has a lot to do with teacher motivation and having a concept of quality education that is relevant to the student body,” explains Jassmin Dapik, another teacher. “Here, it is vital that the teacher has the creativity necessary for what she or he teaches to be useful. As teachers, we need to teach them so they are able to continue their studies outside. And above all, so they can function as citizens and make the right decisions,” she adds. 

But the role of the teachers here is not limited to the transmission of knowledge. They also help prisoners to regain some of their self-esteem. “One of the most important things is that the teachers don’t treat us like prisoners,” says José, who is serving a sentence at Valparaiso prison and attends classes regularly. “For them, we are people who have dignity and rights – they want us to be better people than when we enter here, and for that, they must have empathy,” points out Carlos, another inmate. “And it is because of this characteristic that when we are with the teachers in class, we do not feel like we are in jail, but like free people,” he adds.

The classes, held outside of prison time, are privileged moments where stories that are difficult to articulate, can be shared. “Behind each person here, there are terrible catastrophes – I call them survivors,” says Leopoldo Bravo, another teacher. “As a teacher, one must assimilate that information and build the dynamics to face this reality. The students here are diminished in every way. More than providing an academic education, we are dedicated to the rescue of the human being.”

To this end, teachers are supported by Jessica León, a psychologist who encourages the students to be more receptive to the learning process. Her work to actively support teachers is aided by the School Integration Programme (PIE). “This is very necessary, because in this context, it takes a lot of effort from the teachers to somehow fill in the gaps that the inmates have – at the academic and emotional levels, “ she explains. “For us as a team, it is very important to maintain harmony in a context in which there are conflicting emotions.”

The students themselves recognize that teachers working within the prison walls face a daunting task. They say that they have serious problems concentrating, and regret not having the necessary time to advance in their studies as they would in a regular school. “We depend a lot on what the prison guards decide, we don’t have a regular schedule,” José explains.

Surmounting difficulties

Another major challenge is the absence of educational programmes specifically designed for prisoners or adapted to their situation. In fact, it is the teachers themselves, without any specific training, who design strategies, plan activities and evaluate content – to ensure that their classes are  relevant, and the learning useful.

Also, classes in prison are usually a mix of students with different backgrounds and abilities – which makes planning a class an essential task, but also a daily challenge. “We have to take all this into account when planning our day. We must consider what we are going to teach, and what values we want to give them – because our class is based mostly on concepts, we want them to retain something,” Dapik says. To do this, teachers at the school use the curriculum of Chile’s Ministry of Education as a starting point – and then adapt it to the different levels and needs of their learners.

Yet another challenge for teachers is getting students to attain a similar level, as many of them have had their schooling interrupted one or more times. There are also many instances of students not attending classes regularly, which makes it harder for them to keep up with their studies. But these repeated challenges are not likely to discourage the teachers. “We know that education transforms people,” concludes Bravo. “We see these changes taking place over time; it is this satisfaction that motivates us.”