Monday, November 03, 2008

Prison education

There was a report from the Committee of Public Accounts last week on education programmes in prisons which said that schemes to improve prisoners' basic skills and qualifications in English jails had 'failed in almost every respect.'

The Offenders' Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) was introduced in 2006 to deal with education provision for prisoners in England, but to date, the committee reports, it has singularly failed to deal with the long-standing problems in this area.

It's a few years since I was involved in prison libraries, but I have no reason to suspect anything has changed. Education and library provision were always regarded as optional extras, almost as treats, and whether or not inmates could get access to them was largely dependent on whether there were sufficient warders to manage them. If there was any staff shortage (and absentee rates are high among prison staff) then the first things that were shut down were access to the library or the education service.

Unless and until that mindset is changed then any attempts to improve education in prisons will fail. Edward Leigh, a Conservative for whom I've gained a lot of respect over the years, has it sussed. He is quoted in the BBC report as saying:

The people who are responsible are those who actually run our prisons, they seem to want to have above all a quiet life, they want to have tame prisoners who are locked up.

That's exactly it. Educational staff in prisons, a highly dedicated bunch on the whole, understand that the key to reducing re-offending is to improve the life conditions of prisoners on release. Put them back into the same situation, with the same set of life skills, and they are simply being set up to fail. Re-offending is highly probable. Give them some access to education, ideally get them through basic skills qualifications, and you enhance their prospects enormously. But those education staff are working in and against a system that will not listen to them. As long as we treat prisoners as commodities to be managed we will continue to see the ridiculously high re-offending rates and another generation will lose its chance.

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