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It is true. There are 183 inmates from 13 schools ready to write the 2019 national senior certificate (NSC) examinations. These prisoners set the bar high. Oops, wrong word. They are behind bars. But you know what I mean — these are smart inmates. The pass mark for criminals was 77.3% in 2018. That’s higher than the average pass rate for four of the nine provinces among those who remain uncaptured.

Perhaps this is the solution to the low pass rates in SA schools. Lock up the kids. Wait, before you dismiss the idea, think of the many advantages. There is little by way of distraction like computer games or cellphones or 24-hour television. It is hard to lose a book taken from the prison library and your card surely cannot expire before you do, unless a tattooed chap called Spyker gets to you first.

There’s an upside to sending your child to prison school. As a parent you don’t have to pack lunch; free meals is your portion. Who better to mark your scripts than an official from a “corrections” department? Unlike the situation in many of our dysfunctional schools, your tutor shows up — even if he is a prison guard doubling as a mathematics instructor.

Maths. These inmates should be good at the subject. I mean, they all belong to a set of numbers — the 26s, the 27s and the 28s. I lost track of which number gang does what but some do commerce, others do sex and the third does, gulp, murder; which is how many of them got there in the first place. In any case, maths is about numbers and I would give the hoodlums Jonny Steinberg’s frightening prescribed book called, you guessed it, The Number.

It is in prison classes that you can kill two birds with one stone. OK, kill is a bad choice of words in this place. What I mean is you can drill inmates for the final exams in life sciences even as you prepare them for life on the outside through life orientation. Which raises an interesting question for me as a former biology teacher: how do you do laboratory dissections with a group of inmates? The “bio” teacher could so easily be misunderstood by instructing the student inmates to proceed with a kidney dissection. You can imagine a slow learner immediately digging into a classmate’s back with the scalpel before becoming aware of the sheep kidneys on the tray.

Who better to mark your scripts than an official from a ‘corrections’ department?

The life of a prisoner is cruel. Imagine taking geography and being shown maps of the world that take you to faraway places but you’re a lifer, sentenced to spend the rest of your days in jail. That is not fair.

Every subject has its hazards in prison but there is good news.

The department of basic education recently made the uplifting announcement that there would be an exit-level certificate in grade 9. Every prisoner should seize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — you can “exit” the system with a stamped piece of paper and transfer to either a technical or vocational college and leave the stifling institution that now entraps you.

You do not need a French intellectual called Michel Foucault to grasp his rhetorical question: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble ... schools ... which all resemble prisons?” In school, as in prison, you are kept indoors for most of the time but allowed to go outside for some sunshine once or twice a day. The pupils are actually incarcerated, because they cannot just come and go as they please.

In both institutions you have to wear the same uniform as the other inmates or you’re in serious trouble. You dare not talk while the wardens are present. You must walk and line up to enter or leave your cellular classroom. Your hair must comply with regulations. There are bullies who can hurt you in both institutions. And disobedience is punished.

Like prison, you can be released but returned for making the same mistakes. It’s called by a fancy name, recidivism. The data for schools is unflattering. Of the 78,363 “progressed students” (promoted from grade 11 even though they failed) only 8% passed the NSC despite a second chance. The rates of recidivism for prison inmates are also very high. Reports claim that 50%-70% of prisoners return within three years. But here’s the good news: education reduces the rate of recidivism by 29%, says researcher Michael Khwela from the University of Limpopo.

One thing is clear: as long as there are humans, there will be prisons and schools. Doing school while in prison is not, however, two different human activities. It’s the same thing with one difference: your chances of high marks are much better than for kids in Limpopo or the Eastern Cape if they lock you up.

This article was first published by Times Select