The service has experienced a scale of cuts in six months equivalent to those due to be phased over three years in the rest of further and higher education, said the union, which accused prison governors of making education a soft target.
Average cuts of 14.5 per cent are to be made, the survey of 45 colleges and one in three prison education departments shows, although the Prison Service Agency's budget for 1996-97 was cut by 13.5 per cent over three years.
"Prison education, in some institutions, is therefore suffering disproportionate cuts in one year which are three times the intended rate, " says the report. In some prisons, only basic skills will be on offer. If these are divorced from a broader curriculum, their worth "must surely be devalued - if not worthless," the report claims.
In one prison, the pre-April 1996 curriculum had 17 components including basic skills, craft, computing, printing, drama, creative writing, health care, art, and National Vocational Qualification- level catering and tailoring. Now inmates are offered only English, maths, craft, computing, life skills and communication.
"This is not a core curriculum, it is a group of core skills. It is not an acceptable curriculum," says the report.
Albany prison is facing the worst cut at 83 per cent, while Pentonville faces a budget cut from Pounds 291,000 to Pounds 180,000. This means that part-time staff will be reduced from around 30 to 10.
Derek Betts, the union's head of policy, said the extent of the cuts was disastrous. "If offenders do not have the opportunity to learn their way out of a criminal career while in prison, all of us will be at greater risk when they are released."
Paul Cavadino, who chairs the Penal Affairs Consortium, agreed. "Education is a key element in diverting prisoners from crime. If they do not have access to high-quality education, the main educative effects of prisons will become in the tricks of the criminal trade."