Why The New Justice Secretary Needs To Care About Prison Education

27 Jun 2017

“I have been studying hard in prison and must thank PET for giving me hope and direction in my life.” - Letter from a prisoner studying to be a trainee hotel manager

This week the Rt Hon David Lidington MP took up responsibility for for the tens of thousands of men and women in our prisons. The aftershocks from the General Election will leave MPs and Ministers wrestling with major political decisions facing the country, but the new Justice Secretary cannot afford to be distracted. The issues he faces are urgent and hugely important. The reports of individual inspectors as well as his own department’s statistics chronicling dismal increases in violence, self-harm and deaths can have left him in no doubt of the precarious state of the country’s prisons.

One of the most acute examples of this lies in his own constituency. Aylesbury young offender institution (YOI) holds some of the country’s youngest prisoners serving the longest sentences. Branded the UK’s “toughest youth prison” by The Mirror, it was one of several institutions to suffer riots at the end of last year. Its situation has caused repeated concern among inspectors - who in 2015 reported alarming rates of violence and self-harm, under a “punitive and restrictive” regime that offered little opportunity for prisoners to leave their cells, let alone spend their time purposefully.

The impact goes beyond the qualification itself - this boy is suddenly engaged with something he is interested in and is good at; he is able to imagine his life beyond prison; he is hopeful.

Short-staffed establishments like Aylesbury face enormous pressures and huge daily risks. But by locking up human beings for hours on end, they are doing very little to return those people to our towns and cities as successful citizens, who can support their families and contribute to their communities. The truth is that a prison sentence reinforces a person’s identity as a criminal and loses homes, jobs and family contacts - some of the elements that will be vital to a law-abiding life on release.

But it is possible to help people in prison to see a way out of the cycle of limited opportunities. Every month Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) funds around 400 people in prisons across England and Wales to take distance-learning courses, in subjects ranging from beekeeping to bookkeeping, from vocational certificates to degree-level study. And every week we receive letters from prisoners thanking us for the hope that education has given them. They tell us it has helped them cope with their lives in custody; has made their families proud, and is building the confidence they need to make a constructive life after release. A tutor in a young offenders’ institute told us last week that a boy in his care has stopped self-harming since, through PET, he has begun to study AS Level Maths. The impact goes beyond the qualification itself - this young man is now engaged with something he is interested in and is good at; he is able to imagine his life beyond prison; he is hopeful.

Education is one area in which there is a clear path forward, offering dramatic results.

And we have more than these examples: statisticians from the Ministry of Justice have shown that prisoners who have applied and been helped by the education we offer have gone on to reoffend over a quarter less than a matched control group of prisoners.

There is a lot to be done to bring our prisons to a state in which they can support their inmates to achieve more with their lives. But education is one area in which there is a clear path forward, offering dramatic results. Just over a year ago, Dame Sally Coates published a major review of how prison education could be made more effective, through flexibility for governors to meet prisoner needs more effectively, through offering a broader range of opportunities with genuine educational progression and through using secure IT to enhance opportunities.

When David Lidington next pays a visit to his local YOI, it will be not only as the local MP but as the Cabinet Minister with the serious responsibility of overseeing all prisons in this country. As he makes his visit, he will need to be mindful not only of the acute challenges of these environments, but of the enormous potential within them. This applies to the young people he will encounter in its workshops, wings and classrooms; and to the prison staff - the officers, teachers and librarians working to change lives in intensely difficult circumstances. If he wants to help see all potential fulfilled, the new Justice Secretary would do well to grasp the opportunities offered by education with both hands. Prisoners’ Education Trust for one, stands ready to help.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post