What Saudi Arabia has done right in their penal system

What Saudi Arabia has done right in their penal system

It’s hard not to read the first paragraph of this article and not think it’s the script for a lost episode of Monty Python:

“A total of 5,843 inmates in Saudi prisons, including a number sentenced to death, are preparing for the two-week midterm examination period scheduled to start next Sunday.”

But beyond the bizarre punchline of executing prisoners, they themselves are suggesting they have been successfully rehabilitated through education programs; there lies an important truth that we here could learn from.

Several years ago, the Saudi General Administration of Prisons (GPA) began to encourage the offering of education programs to its prisoners.  Prison directors across the country are coordinating efforts with universities to provide opportunities to incarcerated individuals (primarily Saudi citizens), to engage in correspondence and in-facility study programs. Roughly 1,000 of those students referenced above will be sitting formal exams during the study period.  In addition to the newer university-level courses, there are also factory-based vocational training and high school diploma programs available.

This is a country whose brutal regime regularly tortures and abuses its prisoners, who rank among Amnesty International’s “top” worst offenders when it comes to the treatment of prisoners. Yet somehow, they still see a value in providing education and skills to imprisoned individuals, whether or not they will be returning to society.

Setting aside the fact that many of these prisoners face execution, a barbaric practice shared with only a few remaining nations in the world (ourselves as Americans included), there’s an important acknowledgment made regarding the value of education in this practice. The GPA believes that education and knowledge are important regardless of whether prisoners will be re-entering society or not. That in itself is something the general public fails to recognize, even in the US. While momentum has been growing in recent years towards universalizing the acceptance of education as an important tool to help reduce recidivism—to the extent that many polls indicate majority approval—less accepted is the idea that education for education’s sake also has value. That there is value in educating even those who are incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole.

Education for education’s sake is not an issue that’s brought up all that often when advocating for policy change because it’s not always understood by the casual observer. All too often, even outside the prison setting, people view education as a means to an end—that its only purpose is to provide you with employment. But for many, prisoners included, education is itself the end.

I’ll admit to being more than a little shocked to see this kind of acknowledgment coming out of Saudi Arabia, but that in itself is the reason we should be taking note. Education is not simply about skill acquirement; it’s about human development in its purest form. It is about growing ourselves as individuals and better understanding our relationship with others and the world in which we live. And if it takes Saudi Arabia to remind us of that, then so be it.