'Teach prisoners the digital skills they need to thrive'

In an increasingly technological world, digital literacy must become integral to prison education, writes Hilary Gwilliam, head of pre-employment at City & Guilds

Hilary Gwilliam

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When Dame Sally Coates’ review of education in prison was published in May, I applauded it as long overdue, noting that education can be crucial to breaking the cycle of crime and enabling offenders to contribute positively to society.

That’s why I am so pleased that prison reform has not become yet another casualty of Brexit. Publishing the prison safety and reform White Paper, justice secretary Liz Truss said that prisons must become places where offenders would get "the education and skills they need to find work". The plans include measures to increase literacy and numeracy, by looking at attainment at the start and end of custody. I couldn’t agree more with the ambition that, by 2020, prisoners should not leave "struggling to read, write and add up" – after all, lacking these skills means they are more likely to be reliant on benefits, which is good for nobody. But I wouldn’t stop at the old-fashioned "three Rs". We are now living in an increasingly technological world where digital literacy is almost as fundamental a skill to possess in the workplace.

The term digital literacy doesn’t feature in last week’s White Paper, despite Dame Sally recommending prisoners be able "to use and improve their digital skills in prison". To me, that’s a striking omission. Employability should be the focus of prison education, and as more and more jobs demand that applicants demonstrate a level of digital competency – lacking this could exclude you from a vast array of industries, from hospitality to construction and business services to customer service – it seems like a huge mistake not to make this a core part of the ambition.

Prisoners prevented from accessing technology

Although it varies across the country, the digital training offered in prison right now is often found to be lacking, thwarted by poor access to essential resources and complex bureaucracy. Often preventing prisoners from accessing the most up-to-date technology and courses. It would have been welcome had the White Paper considered ways to allow prisons to fast-track their access to the latest digital materials.

It’s not about having technology there for the sake of it; it’s about ensuring those who leave prison can function in the world outside – helping them to integrate. Someone who has been locked up for years may well be familiar with a smartphone and an app but might not understand how this technology could be utilised in a work environment. Teaching them how to translate their knowledge and skills could help them when they hit the workplace.

I’m also not suggesting we put the latest gadgets in a prison; merely that there are PCs with some internet accessibility. If prisoners cannot have genuine access to online learning or the most modern teaching methods and tools, then they are being disadvantaged in comparison to their peers – and of course when they get out with a criminal record they will already be disadvantaged. We don’t need to place any more hurdles in their way.

Prison reform is sometimes linked to a radical agenda, but there isn’t anything radical about giving digital skills the same priority as literacy and numeracy – not in 2016. If the government wants prison to be about long term rehabilitation, so that once someone has served their time they can progress into meaningful work, this must form part of the planned overhaul.  

There was a time when digital literacy was a "nice to have" in the world of work. Not any more. It is at the centre of employment and integral to the future of almost every industry. The government must make it integral to prison education as well.

Hilary Gwilliam is head of pre-employment at City & Guilds

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Hilary Gwilliam

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