Chrissie Buckley is close to completing an Open University degree in social sciences. She sits in the education block of Her Majesty's Prison Styal, Cheshire, dressed all in white and with a tin of tobacco in her pocket. Aged 50, she has served ten years of a life sentence for what she calls a "murder-orientated" crime.
"I never thought I'd survive ten years," she says, in her almost inaudible voice. "Really, once I get my head in my books, it helps enormously. I can blank out other things. I suppose it's escapism."
Next year, Chrissie Buckley plans to embark on a masters degree. And her plans don't end there. "When I get to open conditions," she says, "to get me through that I'm going to go for my doctorate. Some of the lifers sit and watch television. Home and Away and Neighbours become their life. I've got to use my mind."
Chrissie Buckley says she hopes to do voluntary work when she is eventually released. "I don't think anyone will employ me. But maybe I can do charity work, help others in a similar position."
The idea of education as a means of surviving prison - or even turning the experience into a productive one - lingers. But with numbers booming, particularly in women's prisons, and swingeing cuts forced on the prison service by Home Office cuts, will the possibility of turning a life around in prison through education still remain?
Since April, prison budgets have been cut with total savings of 13.5 per cent to be implemented over the next three years. Education is proving a soft target at a time when the politicians, and some governors, value security more highly than constructive regimes. "Prison education is bearing a disproportionately large share of the cuts inflicted on the prison service in the Chancellor's last budget," says the further education lecturers' union NATFHE, which has recently surveyed provision. It found that 60 per cent of prisons are planning cuts.
HMP Styal, where Chrissie Buckley and 15 other lifers are serving their sentences, is one of them. The budget for this, England's largest closed prison for women on long sentences, has been cut by Pounds 300,000 for this financial year. Yet numbers are up by 25 per cent, to almost 250 inmates including nearly 50 young offenders. Three hundred and sixty teaching hours, almost four per cent of those contracted from City College, Manchester, have been cut and "rationalisation" is taking place to save money in other areas.
But the increased numbers in prisons mean that the need for education is more presssing than ever, if only to get inmates out of their cells. One occasional tutor who went into the recently refurbished Eastwood Park women's prison in Avon last month to take a class was distressed by what she found. The prisoners had been locked up 22 hours a day over the weekend, in cells which have recently hit the headlines because of their tiny size (six foot by nine foot). "They'd set fire to their cells, trashed them. There was a group of 15 women, and one couldn't stop crying. I counsel people who are dying, but I've never come across such human misery," says the tutor.
Styal's open layout - it is a former orphanage and consists of 17 Victorian villas set in 50 fenced acres - has helped to protect the education department. Without things to do, prisoners get restive and at Styal there are no cells to lock them up in. "Philosophically, the right thing to do is hit education as little as possible," says Susan Morrison, head of inmate activity. "In practical terms it's the right thing as well because it's not in our interests to have women sitting around idle, causing aggravation."
But the cuts have led to changed priorities in education, or what Mrs Morrison calls "finesse-ing". Eighteen months ago, two per cent of the prison population were accounting for ten per cent of the education budget. Most of them were lifers doing degrees. Now, students like Chrissie Buckley are asked to fund their own courses.
"At first I thought - damn them," she says. "Then I thought - I won't let them beat me." She has sent more than 60 begging letters to charitable trusts and individuals, seeking money for her masters degree, which will cost about Pounds 1,700 (she earns about Pounds 20 a week). The education department pays for the postage. "My value system is that you aim first at those with the most basic needs," says Susan Morrison.
At Styal now it's not just undergraduates who are asked to pay their way. Women wanting to do a popular Royal Society of Arts qualification in aerobics earlier this year were asked to contribute Pounds 50. But Mrs Morrison does not anticipate a day when prisoners are asked to pay for basic literacy and numeracy courses.
Last year, after consulting with three main providers of prison education, the prison service issued a recommended core curriculum, stressing that basic literacy, information technology, social and life skills and English as a second language take priority.
At Styal, in line with the Home Office drive for prison education to result in qualifications, increasing emphasis is being placed on workplace training. More than 20 women have done level 2 National Vocational Qualification courses in teleworking in the prison's new telecentre. At this stage, there are no telephones in it and the emphasis is on the use of computers, word processing, data input and some desk top publishing. Students did do a project involving data-input with a company but there is no commercial link up yet.
There is vocational training for City and Guilds qualifications in the prison textiles workshop, where inmates produce fashion shirts, cotton bags for potatoes and garden furniture, for about Pounds 7 a week. "We look for measurable outcomes on all the courses," says Susan Morrison. "That's about the only way you're going to demonstrate that you've given value for money. "
The prison service cuts are prompting a broader debate about the balance to strike between providing basic skills for the many or higher education for the few. Chris Tchaikovsky of the charity Women in Prison upholds the need for the basic skills. "I think the emphasis has been more on the glamour end - the OU, sociology, women's studies," she says, "rather than the real basics, the skills we need to fill out forms and go for jobs. Talk of crime prevention is such rot if people can't read or write."
Certainly the need continues for basic literacy teaching. Janet Balment, education co-ordinator at Styal, says there are very few women in the prison who are totally illiterate. But that skills are often limited. "They know if they've walked into the ladies or the gents," she says. "But on forms they'll flounder with things like 'marital status'."
Also doing life at Styal - or the junior version of it - is 20-year-old "Angela". She was found guilty of murder, and has been at Styal for nearly two years. Before that, she was in a secure unit and once attended a mixed comprehensive in Cheshire. "I was put in a special part of the school, because apparently I've got learning difficulties," she says.
In Styal, she has done eight months on a soft furnishings course, and had a go at "flexi-learning" - the basic skills course. "But I couldn't get my head into anything. I found it too noisy and I couldn't concentrate. I'm one of those people who doesn't read books," she says.
Whether in relation to higher degrees or basic skills, Chris Tchaikovsky points out the need for prison education to assess women's emotional states as well their educational needs. Many women prisoners have children outside who they continue to worry about; a substantial minority of women, she believes, have been the victims of violence and sexual abuse. The obstacles most of the women faced in school may simply have been translated in adult life into bigger hurdles. "They've had their children adopted or fostered or taken into care," says Janet Balment of Styal. "They may be wondering - will I see my child ever again?"