Prisoner education programmes must form a central plank of the government’s prison reform strategy, says Ben Rochelle.
In recent years there has been much discussion around the dismal state of UK prisons and anxieties about how best to rehabilitate prisoners. Through the leadership of Michael Gove and now Liz Truss the Ministry of Justice is starting to deliver the measures this country’s prison system desperately needs by placing the reform of prisoners at the heart of prison policy. Theresa May’s new Government, elected on 8 June, must not lose this vision and continue to put education and skills centre-stage in its mission to ensure that prisoners have the ability to change and flourish.
During his short tenure as Justice Secretary Gove called for many of the UK prisons, ageing and ineffective, to be knocked down and rebuilt so that they become not just places for housing convicts but also centres that offer advice, guidance and learning programmes. This zeal for change has continued under current Justice Secretary Liz Truss who in February introduced the Prisons and Courts Bill. The bill crucially enshrines into UK law that a fundamental purpose of prison is to reform and rehabilitate offenders not just punish them for crimes they have committed. In a speech earlier this year Truss declared that only by reforming offenders will the prison population be reduced and communities made safer.
Central to this sort of transformation is education, making prisons, like schools, engines of social responsibility. At present about half of prisoners have no qualifications, compared to 15% of the working-age population and about half are functionally illiterate. Few prisoners currently have internet access. Without basic skills and qualifications it is easy to see why we still have a woefully high rate of re-offending. Young offenders released from prison reoffend at the rate of 69 per cent. Sixty per cent of prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months in custody go on to commit further crimes and the overall reoffending rate is 45 per cent – one of the highest in Europe. This rate of reoffending costs the UK economy billions of pounds every year but more significantly breaks communities and tears families apart. As the Centre for Social Justice have revealed around 200,000 children are growing up with a father who has gone through the prison system. And two-thirds of boys growing up in these circumstances go on to reoffend themselves.
The Government should be commended for recognising the pivotal role that integrating education and skills brings in reducing the reoffending rate and ensuring that prisoners gain employment upon release. The Prisons and Courts Bill will guarantee that governors take control of budgets for education and employment and will be held to account for getting people into jobs and learning English and maths. Furthermore, league tables will measure prisons on key areas such as progress on education and work.
Many prisoners are desperate to learn and pick up skills and qualifications and acknowledge that this is a major route to one day becoming employable. May’s new Government must ensure that prisoners have the right incentives to learn and prison staff have the necessary tools to be more demanding and creative about the education provided in the prisons they run.
The Conservative Party’s passion for prisoner rehabilitation and redemption cannot be lost. Through redesigning our prisons, giving more power to governors and increasing the number of prison staff and above all making education and skills central to the prison experience Government will see the reoffending rate fall and more stable communities emerge. As individual lives are turned around we will see benefits for the economy, families and society.