A prison school rebuilding the lives of Chilean offenders captures the spirit of International Literacy Day 2015

“Now I know who I am and I know what I want,” is how one prisoner at the Juan Luis Vives School in Valparaiso, Chile summed up the change literacy has brought to his life.

The school, which functions within Valparaiso Prison, is one of three winners of the annual UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy which celebrates International Literacy Day on September 8. The award is given for the ‘Literacy for People Deprived of Liberty’ programme which is provided by the school in Valparaiso Prison, Rancagua Prison and the Remand Centre Town of Casablanca and which reaches around 150 inmates, male and female, every year.

Director Sonia Alvarez worked in the prison school as a teacher before deciding she wanted to have greater control over its administration. With state backing she created the Juan Luis Vives School which was formally recognised by the Chilean Ministry of Education and opened on 7 June, 1996.

We didn’t choose the name by chance,” said Mrs Alvarez. Juan Luis Vives was a Spanish humanist and philosopher who wrote El Tratado de los Pobres (the Treatise of the Poor). “We took his message as our mission: ‘Education should not serve to achieve fame or fortune but to obtain the highest ideal of man, to be a better person whatever your condition.’”       

The school faced many challenges in the early days. “Our work takes place in a ‘strange house’, that is, a penal facility where the norms about movements and use of time and space are imposed by the police. When we started, the first big challenge was to put together a team of teachers. It’s not enough to have a qualification; these teachers need a calm temperament because the challenges are permanent. They have to understand that there is no magic wand of rehabilitation but that nonetheless we can help people through our work.”

The students also had to be coaxed back to education. “School did not mean much to them because they didn’t feel welcome,” she explains. “There were rules they didn’t want to follow, conduct which was punished, a whole chain of events that finished with them leaving schooling. Over time these students began to value our school, just as anyone who has fallen values an outstretched hand.   

Sometimes alcohol, drugs, physical violence, malnutrition, among others, may have diminished their capacity to learn. Nevertheless, we still discover true autodidacts and other students who find they have a capacity to learn for the first time.”

Many students once released go on to find work but Mrs Alvarez says the school measures success in other ways. “Success is when a person arrives without being able to read and manages to finish his or her schooling. Success is when they write to us saying: ‘Now I know who I am and what I want and I thank all the professors who helped me.’ Success is when someone trying to achieve a certain level of education is released and the next day turns up and asks if there is a vacancy so they can continue their studies.”

Mrs Alvarez said the prize had given recognition to adult education and to all teachers working in prisons in Chile. The teachers at Juan Luis Vives College felt valued and re-energised. “The students have written to us to say ‘Teachers, you deserve it!’”