Education is close to being axed completely in some prisons as a rising flood of inmates threatens to overwhelm their budgets.
Hundreds of hours are being slashed from prison timetables by governors forced to save money in the face of funding cuts.
In the past three years, the prison population has leapt by nearly 14,000 to 65,600, while spending on inmates' education has been cut by nearly pound;1 million to pound;36.25m. The population has risen by 5,400 since Labour took power last May.
Meanwhile, the Howard League for Penal Reform has accused some prisons of splashing out on "gadgets and tricks" for needless security.
Birmingham Prison is among the worst hit. It has abolished all its evening classes for this year, and fears the situation could be even worse next year, hitting its daytime classes, too.
A cut of pound;500,000 in the prison's total budget for the financial year 199899 almost forced the prison to scrap its entire education programme.
David Seary, deputy governor at the prison, said: "There was a plan to reduce the education budget from pound;166,000 to pound;13,000 for this financial year, which would have meant no education at all.
"But we managed to get some extra money from the Prison Service at the last minute, and so we can put pound;120,000 into the programme this year.
"We will be able to run a lesser programme than last year but there will be no evening education which included woodwork, yoga and basket-weaving. We are now looking at reducing the full-time education during the day but increasing the part-time education.
"We only have activity places for 400 people out of a population of 1,000, so any reduction has quite a critical effect."
At Brixton Prison, education co-ordinator Trish Smith has had to cut her programme by a third. She has lost 100 hours out of a total scheme of 353 hours a week due to budget cuts.
She said: "There will be less education on offer at Brixton and some teachers will probably lose their jobs.
"I have been given five new classrooms this year but no extra money. Education in prisons is seen as an optional extra when really it should be seen as equivalent to a works programme."
A spokesman for the Prison Service, which handles the funding for prisons, said: "The prison population is increasing rapidly. Although the amount spent on education overall has not been cut this year the amount we are spending per prisoner has dropped.
"It is up to the governor of each prison to set the education budget. But a lot of programmes have had to be cut. The focus is now on the basics like literacy and numeracy. The more luxury items have been cut, such as foreign language classes."
More than 60 hours a week have been slashed from the programme at Stafford Prison after a pound;70,000 reduction in the money allocated to education this year.
Stafford was told that its education provision would halve to pound;131,000 this year, but it managed to save some money in other areas to take the total to just over pound;200,000 for 199899.
Said deputy governor Phillip Brookes: "Two full-time vacancies that we have in DIY and home economics will not be filled and those courses will be stopped but we will try to fit those prisoners in elsewhere."
At Deerbolt Young Offenders' Institution in County Durham, education co-ordinator Chris Holroyd has cut his programme from 50 weeks a year to 42 weeks after his budget was cut by a sixth.
He said: "The bulk of the money goes to those young offenders who have a statutory right to education and that means the older ones suffer when their needs are probably greater."
Frances Crooke, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, condemned the cuts, which she believes are extremely dangerous.
"Security in high-security prisons is important but in Category B and C you can get an over-emphasis on gadgets, tricks and cameras," she said. "Security could be improved if we concentrated on education."
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