Brush-making is a more attractive option than study for inmates because of the "dire" state of education and training in prisons, it was claimed this week.
Julia Baggins, the author of a parliamentary report, said prisoners received less pay for education or training than for anything else. Yet inmates are three times less likely to re-offend if they undertake education or training while in jail, according to Steve Taylor, the director of the Forum for Prisoner Education.
"Eighty per cent of prisoners have educational needs that have to be addressed," he said, "but a prisoner gets paid an average of pound;7 a week if they are on education and training courses. If they work, they get between pound;12 and pound;20.
"So they choose being able to buy more stamps, tobacco and phone cards over getting a good education."
Inside track: prisoner education in 2004 and beyond, the report for the all-party parliamentary group for further and lifelong learning, cites the case of falling class numbers at Wandsworth prison, when inmates on courses were moved to a wing without in-cell televisions or electricity.
The lack of incentive to study, however, is just one of the problems the report highlights. It also reveals that lack of communication between prisons and an emphasis upon number of qualifications gained has led to prisoners retaking the same qualifications in different prisons. In some prisons, all inmates are expected to take level one and two exams, whatever their ability.
David Chayter, Labour MP and joint chair of the group, said there was a "staggering lack of co-ordination" between prisons. According to the report, frequent prisoner transfer makes educational continuity difficult, and there were "regular" losses of records.
Ms Baggins said: "With electronic information, transfer of prisoner records should be easy. It ought to be a simple matter and one that doesn't require a huge amount of investment."
The report considers the sharp rise in prisoner numbers is one of the major reasons for the lack of proper educational provision.
"Prison population has whizzed up from 49,000 to 75,000 in the past 10 years. Two thirds of British prisons are officially designated as overcrowded," said Ms Baggins.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Assocation of Probation Officers, said at the launch of the report: "The new focus for the prison system must be the development of numeracy and literacy training."
The report claims that learning and skills development should "be at the heart of the prison regime".
Mr Chayter said that the "overarching concept" behind the report is that of prisons becoming "secure colleges". "This is designed to bring about a revolution in thinking," he said. "Prisons should be seen as education, training and development centres that are secure. We aim to build this concept into the language of the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills."
Dennis Turner MP, joint chair of the group, has experience with the research for similar reports: "I was part of a group in the late 80s and early 90s. That report was not taken to heart. We are again reiterating the basic truisms."
But Mr Turner believes this time, however, it will be different: "The Government is committed to a great deal of fresh thinking, resources and people power to deliver quality training. They will respond positively. If not we will continue to bang the drum and argue our case."