Prison education: the learner's perspective

Chris Atkins was able to work towards a degree while in prison - but he knows he is one of the lucky ones

Chris Atkins

This former prisoner was able to pursue his education, but he know he was one of the lucky ones

I was sentenced to five years for tax fraud in 2016, and spent nine months in HMP Wandsworth, one of the largest prisons in the UK. I was a bit of a rarity inside, as I was university educated and had worked in the media for 20 years, and I gravitated towards the education department, who soon hired me as an orderly.

My job involved encouraging new inmates to take their English and maths assessments and marking their tests. I was really shocked by the terrible levels of literacy and numeracy among my fellow inmates, as many had been excluded from school and had no GCSEs at all. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that 54 per cent of people entering prison have the literacy skills expected of an average 11-year-old.

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For those on longer sentences, prison potentially offered the chance to get the education they missed first time around. I would fill in the necessary forms for them to take basic English and maths classes, but this was mostly a waste of time. Thanks to huge cuts in officer numbers, there simply weren’t the officers available to unlock inmates to attend classes. I saw prisoners languishing in their cells, while the teachers sat in empty classrooms. Officers naturally prioritised essentials like food, showers and exercise (which were also routinely cancelled), so education was a long way down their list.

I was one of the few prisoners who did access education inside, as Wandsworth’s fantastic head of distance learning helped me enrol on an Open University degree in psychology. This was partly to keep my brain active, but I was also considering a career change when I got out. The studying was quite cumbersome at first, as everything was sent to me on reams and reams of paper. After some delicate negotiations, I gained access to a PC, so I was able to type up my essays and send them out to be marked.

Wandsworth was then connected to the Virtual Campus, meaning I could access the OU material digitally, which was a far better learning experience. In 2017, I went to an open prison near Bicester, which lets inmates work and study out in the community. I was able to switch my OU modules to Oxford Brookes, and was allowed to leave the prison every day and study on the campus. 

Brookes has fantastic facilities and brilliant teaching staff. It also has a hugely admirable bursary scheme for offenders who’d never normally think about attending university. For the last 15 months of my sentence, I was at Brookes five days a week, and got a 2:1 in psychology. Since my release, I’ve gone back to work in film and TV, but my studies hugely influence my work and I also do voluntary therapy.

Fit for purpose

This success story might give the impression that prison education is fit for purpose, but it’s worth pointing out that I was one of the very lucky ones. I’m middle class, sharp elbowed and had the necessary resources to get on the courses, so I was arguably pretty undeserving of the opportunity. Paradoxically, the vast majority of prisoners who desperately need an education are shut out of the system. Aside from plummeting officer numbers, the budgets for prison education departments have been cut to the bone. There is a very clear link between illiteracy and repeat offending, and I met countless prisoners who committed minor crimes as they simply couldn’t function in the modern world, but they had no hope of addressing this problem while in jail.

Despite this, money has been found for more fashionable interventions. The past two decades have seen the rise in expensive cognitive behaviour programmes in British prisons, many of which have been imported from the US. These courses have bold aims, promising to change the way prisoners think and make them less likely to reoffend. However, there is scant hard evidence that any of these programmes actually work. The Ministry of Justice's own figures show that the majority of cognitive behavioural courses have no firm impact on reoffending. Worryingly, some do more harm than good.

The Sex Offender Treatment Programme charged up to £19,000 per person and cost the taxpayer £100 million over 20 years. In 2018, it was revealed that prisoners completing the course were more likely to reoffend than those who didn’t participate. While public money has been poured into this and similar programmes, traditional education courses have had their budgets slashed.

This debate always stirs up a lot of negative emotion. Look under any article on this subject on some media outlets and the commenters will be furious about taxpayers paying to educate convicted criminals. But the alternative leads to Britain’s shocking reoffending statistics. Nearly half of all adults are reconvicted within a year of release, as many can’t get employment without basic literacy and numeracy. Giving prisoners a proper education, and enabling them to get jobs and turn their backs on crime, will reap huge dividends in the long run.

Chris Atkins is the author of A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner, out now in paperback. His podcast on prison life, also called A Bit of a Stretch, is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

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