The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 3/1/2013
At a recent graduation ceremony in Qassim this week, 13 individuals received their community college diplomas in human resources and information technology (IT).
Ordinarily, this type of event doesn’t generate much interest in the media. But what made the graduation ceremony unusual was the 13 graduates were prisoners incarcerated by the General Administration of Prisons (GPA).
The lucky 13 are part of a growing trend to provide higher education for convicted Saudi criminals in an effort to re-integrate them into society once they are released. This is not a particularly novel program since prisons in North America and Europe have been offering university degrees through correspondence to prisoners for decades. Yet, for Saudi Arabia, prison education programs mark significant efforts to change the path for prisoners who otherwise would be released without clear goals to lead productive lives in Saudi society.
The GPA has called on prison directors across the Kingdom to coordinate with universities to allow prisoners to pursue an education. The director of the Qassim facility said the program opens new horizons for prisoners in science, knowledge and IT as full-time university accredited courses. The director of the community college in Buraidah told a Saudi newspaper recently that college-level courses are taught in human resources and Internet technology. These are top specialties vacancies that employers routinely need to fill. College studies prepare prisoners for the outside world, and with a degree in hand transition from prisoner to a member of the Saudi labor force could be smooth. Further, it provides the prisoners’ families with a safety net that provides the opportunity to earn an income. Without an income, the potential to re-offend and return to prison is greater.
The education programs are geared for Saudis, who account for just under half of the prison population Kingdom-wide. There are 40 permanent prisons and about 60 transitional facilities housing an estimated 44,500 prisoners. Although incarcerated expatriates are not generally barred from participating in education programs, a great many are deported following their convictions and not eligible for these programs.
The education scheme is part of a continuing effort by the GPA to develop a codified system that also includes adult education programs for individuals that never finished high school, and community service and work-release programs. A relatively new program is community service, which allows prisoners to serve their sentencing by working in the community, such as cleaning mosques, aiding the elderly or volunteering to work for local traffic departments.
In addition to 11 factories that employ 2,029 prisoners for vocational training, the GPA also has 38 adult education facilities, 42 intermediate schools, 43 high schools and four schools for women. The GPA now has 296 Saudi prisoners enrolled in high education studies with 3,626 prisoners enrolled in general education courses. The GPA has 642 teachers in its ranks.
To some, especially the victims of crimes, the idea of allowing criminals to obtain a free education may seem like a reward for bad behavior. Certainly the concept of prison is punishment for bad deeds, but at the end of the day these individuals remain members of society and upon release there must be a place for them.
My father worked in the Saudi prison system for many years, and as a child he often told my brothers, sisters and I stories about the men behind bars. He warned us, of course, to consider prisoners’ stories as object lessons of what could occur if my brothers and I chose the wrong path. But the lesson I learned is that deviating from the right path was often the result of lack of education.
It is never too late to embrace education as a means to rise above unfortunate circumstances and contribute in some small way to our country. Perhaps a good example is the story of my two cousins. Both were born into difficult family circumstances and education was not necessarily a priority in their family. One cousin became involved in drugs and was lost forever. The other found a way to not only attend school, but also to go on to a university to obtain a degree. It was education that shaped my successful cousin’s destiny.
My experiences as a journalist covering the prison system over the past several years has afforded me a first-hand look at how the GPA implements its philosophy of transforming convicted criminals to productive members of society. Much of the credit goes to Maj. Gen. Ali bin Hussein Al-Harithy, director-general of the GPA, and his staff who recognize that, yes, incarceration is a means to punish offenders and protect society. But the GPA also recognizes warehousing thousands of men and women also harms society and is a terrible waste of human resources.
By investing in education, even for adults deemed by the courts as morally corrupt, we can save a great many lives. Perhaps if a higher education program was available when my cousin was in the throes of his addiction and incarceration, he might have been saved.