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Peter Stanford is Director of the Longford Trust for prison reform.

Current projections are that the number of prisoners in our jails will rise by 2026 from the current 78,000 to 100,000 – a huge increase when we already have the largest percentage behind bars per head of population anywhere in western Europe. To accommodate such an expansion, the Government has set aside £4 billion to build more prison places and cope with the consequences of its own policies of tougher sentences.

There remains in Westminster and Whitehall an abiding belief that prison deters both offending and reoffending. The facts suggest otherwise. In many categories, crime is now on the rise, despite the repeated ramping up of sentencing guidelines. Meanwhile, just short of 50 per cent of current prisoners will be convicted again within 12 months of release – more in the younger age groups.

Such a list of statistics, I know, is too often a prompt for readers to look away. For decades, the prison reform lobby has stained every sinew to highlight such figures to create a public mood to tackle what by any standards feels like a pretty poor return for the £44,640 per year that it costs to keep each prisoner behind bars in England and Wales.

But for all their efforts, and the evidence they provide, we remain emotionally addicted as a society to the comforting old mantra that “prison works”, coined by Michael Howard while Home Secretary in the 1990s.

My own tiny part in this debate is around prison education. For the past 20 years on a part-time basis, I have worked with a trust, set up in memory of the late Lord Longford, that provides scholarships of money and mentoring to encourage young serving and ex-prisoners to go to university.

Numbers helped are small: around 500 scholarships handed out over the period, currently at the rate of between 30 and 40 each year. But our results, I would suggest, provide a practical and human glimmer of hope.

Just short of 85 per cent of those we support go on to graduate and use their degree to begin careers that mean they never offend again. Fewer than four per per cent return to prison.

My day job is as a journalist and writer – so I could now give you countless uplifting and inspiring stories of those young men and women we have supported and how they are now thriving members of their communities. But in the limited space I have to argue for a new direction in prisons policy and public attitudes to what goes on in our jails, I’d like to focus not on anecdotes (check out our website for these), but on facts.

Research shows that, among those in prison who engage with education, reoffending rates on release are closer to a third than the more general 50 per cent. In other words, “prison education works”.

That is the argument I have been making in recent years to various official enquiries including, in 2016, as a panel member on Dame Sally Coates’ report on prison education, commissioned by Michael Gove when Justice Secretary.

I was there at its publication launch, on the other side of Parliament Square from the Palace of Westminster, when the man who remains a senior Cabinet minister accepted the findings with words Nicholas Parsons had made famous – “without hesitation, deviation or repetition”.

Since when, very little has happened to enact even the most basic of the reports’ recommendations

  • That education be given a higher priority in prisons because we know it changes outcomes;
  • That every prisoner have a personal education plan (just as every learner in school does) as part of their sentence planning that carries some force and travels with them from jail to jail;
  • And that prison education provision continues to be inspected by Ofsted but, when it is judged to be inadequate or failing, something changes as result. At the moment, prisons can rack up half a dozen damning Ofsted verdicts, and carry on as before. Just imagine if a school failed its Ofsted five times in a row and there were no consequences. Or if the prison inspectorate judged the prison hopeless at security.

The problem with the lack of follow-through since the Coates report, I must stress, is not simply money. The panel very carefully came up with a core set of recommendations that could happen within the existing tight prison education budget. The reason there has been no progress, I believe, is lack of interest. Ministers calculate that there are few votes to be won by doing prison better. What electoral benefit there is, they believe, comes with doing prison more.

Hence the planned prison building spree. The scheme hardly counts as leadership in the face of the challenge of reoffending by released prisoners that the Ministry of Justice’s own figures say costs to society and tax payer £18.1 billion. If you start making education more effective in prison, you will have less reoffending, less crime, and less cost to society. That is the virtuous circle.

Indeed, there could hardly be a better place to be investing resources in education than a prison. Almost two thirds of prisoners have the literary skills of an 11-year-old – four times the level in general society. Some 42 per cent have been expelled or excluded from school, as against just one per cent of the total school population in England. So many young men and women, when they find themselves behind bars, have a light-bulb moment. They realise the opportunity school offered them for a better life, how they spurned it, and are now desperate for a second chance.

So where in particular should any new investment go? Two suggestions –

First, into a better-trained, better-paid, and better-equipped cohort of education staff in prisons, up to and including the equivalent of a Teach First scheme to bring new energy to a group that is too often at the bottom of prison officialdom’s rigid hierarchies.

And, second, a rule change to allow limited and supervised access to the internet for studying for those prisoners who have demonstrated real commitment to education as a means of changing their lives.

The argument against such a change from the Prison Service (which instead has invested millions in the Virtual Campus, an internal intra-net system, closed off from the internet, that prison learners hardly use, such are its inadequacies) is that any digital concessions will be used by prisoners to stalk victims or control criminal networks.

They may be right in some cases, but under suitable supervision, and if treated as a privilege to be earned which will be lost if misused, there are plenty of technical fixes to ensure such pitfalls could be avoided.

The need for such a reform has been made even more urgent by the pandemic, which has created a boom in digital education courses at all levels. As it stands, prison learners can have no access to them. So much potential is going to waste as a result. All those hours stuck in their cell with nothing to occupy them when they could be studying and getting qualifications.

The most compelling argument, though, is that, taken together, these two reforms would require a fraction of the budget set aside for building more prison places. And the facts tell us they would deliver much better results. For us all.

All figures used come from the winter 2021 edition of the Bromley Briefing, produced by the Prison Reform Trust.