“Not as lost as we thought we were” – Civic education training at the drug prevention unit of the Budapest Prison


Not as lost as we thought we were” – Civic education training at the drug prevention unit of the Budapest Strict and Medium Regime Prison

In the spring semester of 2016 we held a training titled Civil rights and civic education for male detainees of the Budapest Strict and Medium Regime Prison on Kozma street. The training was offered as a follow-up to the Social inequalities course held in the fall of 2015. Both were held in the same prison unit. Since we didn’t want to exclude anyone from this learning opportunity, and since the training material was not strictly built on the previous course, Civil rights and civic education was open for anyone interested in the topic.

We took it as a positive feedback that many participants of the previous course applied for this one as well. One such participant even volunteered to cover organizational tasks from the detainees’ side (collecting the names of those interested, maintaining a class registry, etc.) In addition, something even more unexpected happened: a former participant, who couldn’t be personally present because he was also taking a vocational training course at the same time, started a correspondence section: he studied each distributed text, completed every assignment sheet on his own, then sent his work to us via his cellmate (filling altogether 4 A5-sized notebooks) so that we could provide written feedback. His case exemplifies that the detainees are curious and eager to learn. Moreover, his papers showed a great deal of personal progress: by the end of the course the student’s train of thought had become much more logical, his arguments had gained more persuasive power, and his content-based knowledge had broadened as well.

We discussed our motivations and underlying philosophy of prison-based civic orientation courses in our report about the previous course. Briefly put, everyone has the right and the capacity to formulate an opinion about fundamental political, philosophical and moral questions and to debate these with others, which benefits the whole society, not only those involved. The goal of the current course with its particular focus on civil knowledge and civic education is to create an opportunity for detainees to gain a deeper knowledge about the philosophy and practical operation of the democratic rule of law and universal civil rights. Knowledge about the inception and the foundational principles of the rule of law and modern representational democracy, as well as about the institutions that provide real content to these, is essential for the active and conscious participation of citizens in the society. Supported by international scholarship and good practices, our conviction is that those detainees who acquire civic education, skills, and awareness of their rights are more successful at re-integrating into society after their release. This may lessen the probability of relapse, and those released will become more active members of their broader communities.

At the beginning of the course, we discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, followed by an introduction to the philosophical foundations of the state and the rule of law. We discussed social contract theory, the basic principles and possible forms of democratic organization, the separation of powers, the roles of the different branches of power, constitutionality and the rule of law. After establishing theoretical foundations and clarifying basic concepts, we turned to practical questions: via case studies and practical assignments, the detainees got to study the structure of the Hungarian government and public law. Then, we devoted an entire session to each of the most important civil rights (the right to vote, freedom of assembly, freedom of information, freedom of speech). Although emphasis was given to political freedoms, we also had a session on issues of self-determination (focusing on self-determination in healthcare in particular). While studying the various freedoms, we gave participants an opportunity to work with real forms and documents (e.g.: informed consent for surgery, registration for minority elections, issues of Magyar Közlöny etc.), or to study actual articles of law (e.g.: Act on Criminal Code). Beyond the improvement of skills required for a general comprehension of official texts, the goal of this exercise was to increase individual advocacy skills as well.

The possibilities of legal advocacy by disadvantaged social minorities was heavily emphasized during the training – after watching Pride (2014) we had a heated debate about these possibilities. (Perhaps it’s not much of a surprise that the detainees unanimously appreciated the movie.) Lastly, we also devoted a separate session to the rights of detainees (and we would like to hereby say thank you to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee for their help!)

During the training we also provided additional readings. On the one hand, detainees read abridged versions of classical political science and philosophy texts, which were part of the curriculum. Among others, participants read Ronald Dworkin, John Stuart Mill and David Harvey. Based on their papers written during the training, detainees found these texts inspirational. On the other hand, we also provided some more practical background material, e.g.: the procedural rules concerning offences, a report about the legal battles around the banning of Budapest Pride, and informed consent concerning caesarean sections.

When inquiring about which topics they considered the most interesting or useful, we received diverse responses. Some participants said that the system of human rights was the most important piece of knowledge they acquired during the training; some preferred topics, which “represented the functioning of a democratic system.” Besides these, several participants mentioned studying the rights of detainees, and/or minority rights, and/or freedoms, and/or the structure of state jurisdiction as the most important features of the training.

Based on their papers written during and at the end of the training, as well as on their final evaluations (in the form of feedback sheets) the detainees considered the training altogether interesting and useful. “The most important conclusion is that we are not as lost as we thought we were. The other is that we know scandalously little about these issues” – this is how one of the participants articulated the two, arguably most important, conclusions of the training. Unfortunately in Hungary most citizens know very little about their civil rights and the institutions responsible for protecting them. This is especially true for members of disadvantaged social groups, who were disproportionately overrepresented among the detainees. However, we are very glad that the participants unanimously agreed that this training improved this sad state of affairs, and that now, having finished the training they have a clearer understanding of their rights and possibilities, as well as of the structure and functioning of government institutions. 

In the future we would like to hold this training in as many penitentiary institutions as possible. Currently we are working on reaching out to female detainees outside of Budapest. Besides broadening our target group, we would also like to develop the training’s content and methodology based on our experiences gained during the first run.

First, we would like to introduce even more activities that develop the skills of participants. From the writing of letters requesting legal assistance from the ombudsman, through filing complaints to the Equal Treatment Authority, to official letters for municipal representatives, we aim to introduce participants to a variety of practical written genres that are necessary for legal advocacy and political participation, while also improving the communication and self-assertion skills of the participants. Based on our previous experiences it could also be useful to add a session focusing exclusively on methods of learning, during which we can reflect on the methodology and the advantages of cooperative learning and of active, comprehensive, goal-oriented reading.

Second, we would like to make democratic principles even more present in the way the sessions are organized. We plan to distribute and rotate the responsibility of leading plenary sessions among the participants. When it comes to group exercises, we plan to alternate some clearly defined roles more often (e.g.: each time a new person reports the work group's results to the rest of the ‘class’, someone else takes notes and another is responsible for keeping time).

Third, we plan to develop the content of the training as well. We would like to give more emphasis to the norm of equal treatment and to the possibilities of securing the right to equal treatment individually and as a group, with particular attention to the Roma minority and to individuals with criminal records. We also plan to provide more space to the collective exploration of the possibilities of re-integration into civilian life after release, as well as to the acquisition of skills necessary for self-organization.

Mariann Dósa (Közélet Iskolája) and Attila Mráz (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért/TASZ)