Too often valuable learning inside has come to nothing on release - but things are changing. Ngaio Crequer reports
He has just served six years in prison for drugs - "all of them" and he is taking part in a scheme to improve his basic skills.
He cannot spell very well but is articulate, with a large vocabulary, and his ambition is to take a creative writing course and then, you never know, dabble in journalism.
Clive Diedrick, 46, spent much of his childhood in hospital. He fell behind at school, had undiagnosed dyslexia, took a variety of dead-end jobs after leaving and fell into crime. "It was only when I went to prison that I thought about my education, " he said.
It was a struggle. And there were people who could not read who did not get the help they needed, he says. But his re-acquaintance with learning gave him fresh motivation. "It was interesting, good, and it became a vehicle for my parole." He left prison in July "on the fourth, Independence Day," he says.
Crucial to his story is what happened next. Because so often prisoners leave jail and there is no follow-up. Any educational progress they have made comes to nothing.
But the Croydon office of the London probation service helped Clive to carry on learning. "It has been a turning point, this is how I can change my life."
He is one of 18 former offenders taking part in a basic skills programme run by Croydon. It concentrates on writing, reading, numeracy and information technology. A popular programme is the driving test theory paper, which can be directly relevant to gaining employment. This course is an excellent way into learning because many "don't realise it is basic skills," said Kim Knowles, basic skills tutor.
"They find the environment more relaxing than a college, though after a period we do try to move them on. Most have no qualifications whatsoever and were unhappy at school."
Probationers are given help with writing CVs and liaising with employers.
The aim is to get them back into education, training or employment. "We try to move students on," said Theresa Gardiner, another tutor. "They could be doing something like car mechanics, or plastering at college and basic skills here at the same time. The idea is to help each individual take responsibility for their learning.
"We are not reading Janet and John books, but helping them to find employment."
It is not compulsory to attend the courses. This would not be feasible, as the experience is meant to be positive. But an assessment is made of each individual's needs, and its recommendations are enforceable. Failing to adhere could involve a return to court.
After serving six weeks for driving offences, Michael Babalola, 20, was referred to Croydon. "I have been here for four months. My grammar and literacy have really been helped.
"I am now looking for a part-time job, to go alongside a course in electrical installation at college. I come here when I have days off from college. Will I commit another offence? Well, never say never, but I want to look on the positive side and this is helping me," Martin Narey, former head of prisons, was recently appointed as commissioner for correctional services. One of his key tasks is to ensure prisons and probation work together better. He is keen to continue his work on basic skills. "When I started basic skills in prisons I was told it was too hard," he said. "Offenders were not suitable for qualification-based learning, we should just help them to use their leisure time. I said this was dangerous and patronising nonsense."
He has found similar attitudes in the probation service and he has been touring the country telling them it can be done. He says they are getting the message. "When a young adult gets their first qualification it is a turning point, for them and their parents."
He knows the importance of progression. He says it was his fault that there was previously no follow-up between prison and probation. "But now we make sure that a record (of educational achievements) goes with the prisoner when they leave."
There is evidence that improved basic skills may reduce re-offending. "Some we were making employable for the first time," said Mr Narey. In the four years he was head of prisons the number of prisoners leaving to go to jobs leapt from 10 to 25 per cent.
Last month the Croydon group wrote and published a newsletter. Clive interviewed someone with learning difficulties. His new career has begun.