EDUCATION may not be the first thing that springs to mind in association with prisons, but it is high on the agenda of many of the 65,000 people held in Britain's jails.
Often, it is the only thing that distracts from the monotony of life on the inside, but many prisons have recently cut funding for education. The cuts have affected the further education sector, as several colleges have held contracts to provide classes in prisons since the work was farmed out by the Conservative government in 1993.
The classes can represent a significant amount of cash for institutions. City College in Norwich, for example, provides education for six prisons in Norfolk, which earns it about Pounds 3.5 million a year.
Prison education contracts have been up for grabs and the further and adult education colleges that have made bids to retain them will find out later this month whether they have been successful.
City College, one such institution awaiting the Home Office's decision, recently held a conference to mark five years of prison education provision. The college supplies a full curriculum, with courses covering interests and hobbies through to vocational and academic qualifications and degree courses for inmates in Blundeston, Highpoint, Hollesley Bay, Norwich, Wayland and Whitemoor prisons.
Bridget Everitt, City's head of prison education, says it is impossible to predict whether the contract will be retained. However, she believes the college has been providing a very good service and points to the fact that inmates' exam pass rate has increased four-fold since it began providing classes.
Although all prisons are required to provide a core curriculum, which includes literacy, numeracy, life and social skills and information technology, individual prison governors determine what percentage of their budget is spent on education.
The rise in the prison population of 14,000 in the past three years has forced many governors to spend more on staff and security. As a result, spending on education has suffered, reducing the number of class hours available in many prisons. The total is down by nearly Pounds 1 million to Pounds 36.25m, which represents less than 5 per cent of government prison spending.
Ms Everitt is convinced that education is a vital part of the rehabilitation process: "We have examples of people going out to full employment, to training, to setting up their own business, all as a result of the education and the support that they have received in the prison."
The hardest part, she says, is "trying to ensure that there is a change in attitude that can be sustained on release". More resources are needed to do this, along with multi-agency support for prisoners when they go back into society. "Where we have had successes it is because we have had a support system in place for release," Ms Everitt says.
In line with inmates' place at the bottom of the social pile, virtually no research has been conducted to assess the effectiveness of prison education. This failing is strongly criticised by David Wilson, a former head of Prison Officer and Operational Training for HM Prison Service and now course director of the diploma and masters course in criminal justice policy and practice at the University of Central England.
Dr Wilson, who was the keynote speaker at the City College conference, believes that a research base to demonstrate the effect education has is essential. He says that the Prison Service regards education as something that helps inmates do their time, but he takes a different view. "It has far more potential - education isn't just another form of security. Education is about empowering people, and if you empower people in the right way then they make a positive contribution when they are released from prison."
Research demonstrating this would make a powerful case for devoting a greater slice of prison budgets to classes, rather than more guard dogs or security cameras, according to Dr Wilson.
But what concerns him most is Britain's obsession with punishment: "We have to stop the mindset that looks to punish people and look instead at the circumstances in which crime flourishes, and prevent that happening."
He contends that the number of people being incarcerated will not start to decline unless the circumstances that create crime are addressed. Failure to do so will see the UK go down the same path as California, where more money is now spent on jails than higher education.
Dr Wilson identifies school exclusions as the single most important factor in the fight. About 70 per cent of teenage offenders are regular truants or have been excluded. The well-established link between criminality and educational failure means that a significant number of those now being excluded will turn up in the criminal justice system in the future, he says.
The best way to address the problem is to help schools develop curricula that help them retain pupils in danger of being excluded, Dr Wilson believes. If the Government does not stop taking short-term decisions and society fails to reassess its priorities, "we are going to become Gulag England". The rethink needs to extend to the way the penal system is run. He says prison governors can be forgiven for not spending more on education because they are judged on not how many prisoners achieve a qualification, but on how many they stop from escaping.
"What is needed is a far more integrated policy, whereby prison is not just the end product of the criminal justice system, but is seen as being part of the wider community, dealing with problems presented by prisoners," he says.
The statistics support his argument - about three-quarters of those held in young offender institutions re-offend within two years. While the quality and amount of education provided in jails is undoubtedly important in the attempt to help prisoners keep on the straight and narrow after they are released, it is a bit like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.