Steve was sentenced to life when he was a wild 19-year-old who could barely read or write. Twelve years later, he studies Spanish, Persian, Russian, French, modern Greek and archaeology, and says with an air of astonishment: "I live by the written word now. That's how I survive."
Steve is one of just over 100 inmates in Europe's only all-lifer jail, Kingston Prison, in Portsmouth; men who - sentenced for murder, assault and battery, arson, rape or sexual offences against children - are serving prison terms so long they dare not even think about release. For Steve and many others, education means more than anyone in the outside world could ever grasp.
"It's a fight against boredom and stagnation. It's a way of marking off time. A few years ago I couldn't speak Spanish. Now I can. It's a way of measuring it, otherwise it all just mingles into one," he says.
Dan, who takes yoga and art classes and is working towards Spanish GCSE and a National Vocational Qualification in catering, puts it more bluntly: "I would die without these classes. I would definitely die."
Yet his lessons are under threat. Throughout the country, troubled prisons, bulging with record numbers of prisoners, are being forced to slash budgets, and Kingston, like other institutions, is looking to "soft" targets such chaplaincy, education and probation services to bear the brunt.
But in Kingston the stakes are high. Not only are its prisoners on the longest sentences, but it is a small jail, with fixed overheads eating up 83 per cent of the budget, and little room for manoeuvre.
As a result, Governor John Dovell warned teaching staff at the beginning of this year that the department might close in March. More funds were subsequently forthcoming from the Home Office, but they still face a 9 per cent cut for 199697. And the future is gloomy because education is contracted out to Highbury College, a local FE centre, which means savings can be made without the prison service having to bear expensive redundancy costs. Prisoners and staff alike fear the vacuum these cuts will leave in a prison holding men for decades.
"Take a man who can't read or write, and so can't communicate with his family or amuse himself by reading," says Trevor Payne, the education co-ordinator. "If he's in prison for a long time, he needs to be able to read a newspaper, write a letter, read a book. Or take someone who's never had much encouragement in his life - he might get a certificate for something and find he has the intelligence to go on [to] other things."
Inmates, sitting around a classroom table like any adult education group of mixed age, race and educational background, discuss the opportunities courses offer. Dan, who has struggled to acquire the self-discipline to attend classes regularly, says: "When you come in for life, you've had the stuffing knocked right out of you. You're totally demoralised. But when you take one of these courses you're making something of your life here."
Eric, convicted for a violent crime, says he never had anyone to say "take this turning, not that". He values the support of prison teachers, and carefully writes out his goals: "Qualifications are very important for me to have when I'm released... My intention is to start my own business... I have no intention of living off state benefits."
James, a former journalist, emphasises that "many lifers are only convicted once, and that's what they're in for." He pushes across the table an article he has written arguing for cuts in maintenance and prison staff rather than education services. Society as a whole will suffer, he writes, "when confronted by embittered, uneducated and unemployable ex-prisoners."
There is, inmates say, a good array of classes and the department tries to meet all requests (although a chemistry course posed difficulties: "When you've got people in for poisoning," says Dan, "it's understandable.") They particularly value the normality of classroom life.
"This is an oasis," says Richard, a former solicitor, who has taken an Open University degree in French, among other studies. "It's the only place where it isn't 'them' and 'us'. With the guards you can be joking one minute, having a normal conversation, and then they kick you downstairs - quite literally - the next." Also, he says, people deteriorate mentally after three to five years. "All you can do is, Canute-like, try and hold back the tide."
For John Dovell, the education programme must keep prisoners updated in areas like computer skills, and offer useful vocational courses. But its normalising role is also crucial. "I'm not particularly interested in what verb tenses an English class is studying, but if I have a man in for a nasty sexual crime, I'm obviously going to be keen to see how he would react to a female member of staff."
Judy Bodenham is one such staff member. She takes a weekly spoken Spanish class and does some voluntary literacy teaching, and finds the mixed ability classes and emotionally needy students stressful. "But it's also by far the most rewarding teaching I've ever done. Even if it's just getting someone to take an exam, who hasn't been willing to make that commitment before - tiny little things in an everyday teaching world, but immense in here."
Her students are "so grateful for any normal human kindness." They are courteous and keen to shield her from the nastiness of prison life, and hover protectively if they sense she feels uncomfortable with any prisoner. Most lifers, inmates say, are peaceable types, free of what Richard the former solicitor describes as the "general thuggery and jack-the-laddery you get among 25-year-olds doing a few years".
Kingston is clean and quiet, if dreary. Torpor appears the main danger. The prison workshop has few projects, and although some prisoners have jobs producing braille textbooks, others spend their time wandering aimlessly. Rehabilitation courses, in subjects such as anger management and personal relationships, are compulsory, but run by uniformed officers, and are noisliy condemned by inmates for their low standards.
In contrast, they speak with warmth of Trevor Payne and his programme. Sixty per cent take one or more classes. But this number will drop if there are cuts, which will also mean the loss of back-up from Highbury College and of some experienced tutors - "people who can see past the crime to the human being and through that interaction encourage him to accept himself and his past and build his life again," Payne says.
For many men, remorse and guilt are continuing facts of life. "A man who's killed his wife in a domestic argument, or killed a child, how does he ever cope with that? How does a teacher? You have to have an open mind, you can't be rigid or closed. But at the same time you have to be shrewd and aware - people aren't in here for parking on double yellow lines."
Tutors often find they learn more than they teach. "When I first came in here I was horrified," says Judy Bodenham. "It's so easy to be anti-hanging, but how many of us bother to think what that actually means? These men are living a nightmare. And if we're not going to have capital punishment, then we have to find a way of treating people in a humane way."
Steve, sitting in the library, puts it more graphically. "What would I do if I couldn't come up here? Walk around the building all day, talking rubbish. All day, every day. And the days are endless. To be honest I'd rather be banged up in my cell all the time."