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Free the minds of our prisoners;Opinion

Dr David Wilson argues that a full programme of education in jails would benefit society as a whole, not just the offender.

It was Anne Reuss of the University of Leeds, who for the past five years has been working with long-term prisoners at HMP Full Sutton, who reminded me that "prison education" is in fact "prisoner education", and that behind the label "prisoner" is a person.

Unfortunately this simple observation has not necessarily benefited prison educators, as it is rare for politicians, prison staff, and the public to want prison to operate at a level which recognises the prisoner as an individual with much the same hopes and desires as you and me.

Rather, most of those involved with the management of our prisons seem to work within a strait-jacket of greater numbers, reduced resources, and a public attitude of indifference, or hostility to prisoners. In this context teaching prisoners comes well down the list of a governor's priorities, and sadly even HMP Full Sutton has now pulled the plug on Reuss's innovative course.

While outside of the prison walls Labour's priority has been "education, education, education", inside cross-party support for a variety of law and order initiatives has ensured that the main focus is "security, security, security".

As a consequence, coupled with our highest-ever prison numbers - paradoxically at a time of budget cuts - day-educational programmes have been slashed, evening programmes all but abolished, and some governors are reported to be considering getting rid of education altogether.

This approach is at best short-sighted. After all, there is a well-established link between criminality and educational failure, and the 1991 National Prisoners Survey, for example, found that 45 per cent of prisoners had left school before the age of 16, including 1 per cent who said they had never attended school at all, whereas only 11 per cent of the general population left school before the age of 16.

Similarly around 70% of teenage offenders are regular truants, or have been excluded from school. The rates of exclusions have increased dramatically recently, with an estimated 14,000 exclusions in 1995-96, a great number of whom end up in Young Offender Institutions.

So educating prisoners might just be what they need to make a go of their lives when they are eventually released from custody, and thus in turn education in our prisons might also contribute to making our community safer.

Unfortunately there is hardly any research on this subject and that which does exist is often confused. It fails to show how exactly education contributes to confronting offending behaviour which is why Reuss's work has been so valuable. She was able to demonstrate, with some very difficult offenders, that over a course of study prisoners adopted a more positive outlook, so that education fostered personal development and self-esteem.

Prisoners themselves - when they are given a voice, and listened to - will also describe the importance they attach to learning. Autobiographies of many "notorious" ex-offenders are filled with stories of how education helped to transform them - from Norman Parker, an ex-murderer turned novelist, to Jimmy Boyle, once Scotland's "most wanted" criminal, turned award-winning sculptor. Both built their new lives with help from the Open University.

These transformations are all the more remarkable given that education in prisons is not, and should not be, the same as education in schools. After all, many prisoners "failed" at school, either through non-attendance, or exclusion.

As a consequence the approach and style of the prison educator has to differ from that of the traditional classroom teacher. Indeed research shows that many offenders are hyperactive, impulsive, and unable to concentrate for long, and so it is only common sense to offer alternatives. This again puts pressure on educators to offer greater one-to-one tuition, despite the prison's demands for more and more prisoners per class.

One potential way round this problem is to utilise the Prisoner's Education Trust, a charity set up in 1989, which eases in the rehabilitation of prisoners through funding a variety of packages by distance learning. Their most recent research shows the importance of supporting prisoners who start courses to complete them and helps identify which prisoners are most likely to be successful.

Although this allows a small charity to target its resources effectively, I could not help but be impressed by the testimony of all the prisoners about the effect that education was having on their lives,. One man, for example, serving seven years for armed robbery, and who lacked any formal qualifications, stated that education in prison had "given me a chance to look at myself and my future and decide my aim". He later became a drugs counsellor.

So is there any hope for education in prisons, or should the tutors pack up, and go where their talents might be better appreciated? My own view is that they should not, but that they have to be far clearer about what they can do, both for the prison, but more importantly for the prisoner.

Clearly, I would welcome much more evaluated research on the impact of education on a prisoner's outlook and behaviour, but at the moment, in the absence of such research, I would start by justifying education on the simple grounds of security. Not security in the sense of helping prisoners to "do" their time, but rather the security that comes from helping someone identify a stake for themselves in our society - which is likely to be far more effective than the more traditional approaches to security.

Yet the dirty little secret about our prisons is that they are still only governed with the prisoners' consent. Offering someone the chance to improve and to develop skills, is an acknowledgement of their share in the scheme of things.

Education offers hope, and a promise that through application and insight that even in the darkest of places some light might shine. All we can do is hope that eventually New Labour will find its own prisons agenda, rather than the one bequeathed by Michael Howard, and in doing so recognise that it is education which works in prison, rather than prison itself.

Dr David Wilson was head of prison officer and operational training for HM Prison Service 1995-1997. He is now course director of the diploma masters in criminal justice at the University of Central England.

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