When Alan was first detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure, he was 19 and as good as illiterate. "I could only read words like `cat' and `dog', " he says. Now 24 and serving a sentence for assault, he writes "pages and pages" to his girlfriend every evening - on a computer. "You get so much satisfaction when you can do something on a computer," he says, and for him this is no clich?
Sitting next to him is Liam, aged 30, who is doing four-and-a-half years for a bank robbery. It is not his first spell in prison. Addicted to heroin at the age of 12, he is "clean" now but is still battling against the effects of a rocky education that ended with him being kicked out of a school for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children at 15. During his current prison sentence, he has learned word processing as well as literacy and numeracy skills and is writing home more often because "it's fun". He's thinking of doing a business studies course in the future.
John isn't. "When I get out of here, I'm going back to drug dealing," he says, explaining that he can make more out of his old business in one week than he could in a "straight job" in a month. Still, the 31-year-old, who hadn't written a letter since he left school, has gained something valuable from his time inside, even if it isn't an aversion to crime. He is now writing letters on a computer to his wife, child and friends - not out of duty but out of pleasure.
"When I first came here my handwritten letters consisted of three lines," he says. "Now I'm writing lots more." The confidence he has gained has set him thinking about getting some qualifications that he missed out on first time around. "It would be nice to get some GCSEs while I'm here, and an A-level in art." Not, of course, that he is interested in job prospects . ..
All these prisoners are doing time at Stocken Prison, a category C, medium-security training institution in rural Lincolnshire. It is one of those ironies of life that it has taken a prison sentence to get some of these men to be able to read and write, to enjoy learning and to take pride in their academic achievements.
A good part of their sense of accomplishment is down to an American software program called SuccessMaker, designed for use by schoolchildren and focusing on basic literacy and numeracy skills. It is an integrated learning system (ILS) that is used around the world; in this country it is used by more than 80 education authorities. SuccessMaker is a self-managing system, which means that the user's programme of study is structured by the software rather than by the class teacher. It consists of a range of modules from different parts of the curriculum, presented through lessons, exercises and assessments. The program keeps up-to-date records of the student's performance.
ILS is one of those pedagogic systems that educationists either love or hate. Detractors call it a mechanistic approach to teaching and learning that takes no account of individual needs. Proponents say the opposite, acclaiming it as a highly individualised approach that allows students to go at their own pace and gives them attention that they would not ordinarily get, albeit from a machine.
Mill Wharf Education Services, which is contracted to run the education departments of prisons in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, decided 18 months ago to make Stocken the first prison in the UK to use SuccessMaker. Ann Authers, director of Mill Wharf, says: "At least 50 per cent of the prisoners at Stocken have basic skills needs, meaning anything under GCSE level. But, traditionally, the basic skills classes run at prisons have had the poorest equipment. By raising the profile, by bringing in new equipment and new software, we have boosted the image of basic skills students and have rid them of the stigma."
Like all image-boosting projects, it needed cash to set up: around 60,000. With the current financial constraints on the prison service in general and on education departments in particular, Mill Wharf was worried that money for the scheme would have to be sought from outside. But the prison service agreed to fund the project, with administration back-up from computer supplier RM and Mill Wharf. In addition, to give it clout, a full-scale evaluation of the pilot was commissioned from Keele University's education department and London University's Institute of Education. Among its key findings were that prisoners using SuccessMaker made significant progress in reading and numeracy. Moreover, students spoke of the program boosting their confidence and self-esteem and giving them a positive outlook on their futures once they were released.
Key to the program's success, believes Angela Healey, director of education at Stocken, is its one-to-one approach. It couldn't be more suited to prison education, she believes. Students use headphones to receive audio commands and feedback, so no one in the room knows what anyone else is working on, the pace they are going, the level they have achieved.
"Often, prisoners are embarrassed and self-conscious in a classroom," says Angela Healey. "But SuccessMaker offers them privacy and constant and immediate feedback after a task is completed, which is a terrific morale boost."
When you've spent years at school being chastised and feeling "got at" by teachers - as many of the prisoners have - the encouraging and non-judgmental tone of the feedback can make all the difference. As one user of the system said to the evaluation team, "This doesn't tell you off . it doesn't argue with you . it doesn't put you down."
While critics of ILS have voiced disquiet that it reduces the role of teachers, those at Stocken have no doubts. Prison teacher Diane Bager says: "It's important that I'm involved but not looking over their shoulders, that I'm here to help." Ann Authers, of Mill Wharf, agrees, stressing that "although students appreciate working on the computers at their own pace, they say they need their teacher there too. They're reliant on them." In the space of the hour that I visited the basic skills room, Diane was called on to help various men at least a dozen times.
Only 85 of the 460 inmates take part in full and part-time education. One reason may be that, as a training establishment, the men who choose to work get paid 12 to 14 a week, double what they receive if they elect to study. But, for some, study is more important than extra cigarettes and sweets. As one of the 40 full-time and 20 part-time users of the software says: "If SuccessMaker was taken away then I would not come to education. I would stay in my cell and I would not do any learning. Education does not pay a lot, but I'd rather stick here because I'm learning."
It does seem that the computers are a genuinely seductive pull for people who may never have had a crack at them before. "The SuccessMaker program breaks down the barrier of IT at the same time as helping students acquire basic skills," confirms Angela Healey. So popular has it been that the prison has agreed to move a stand-alone computer loaded with SuccessMaker into another wing of the prison, giving access to men who would never set foot in the education department.
Men like, perhaps, Barry, who enrolled on SuccessMaker in 1995, despite reservations about getting involved in education and having to "listen to the teacher yammerin' on". He had never used a computer before and thought "they was just for games and things". But within six months he was stuck into the program on a daily basis, working on literacy and numeracy.
By the time he left Stocken, Barry was getting scores of 70 per cent on his spelling and maths, as opposed to 15 to 20 per cent when he first started. "I'm proud I've come on this course and learnt," he says."Every day I'm learning a bit more . It's like I'm an overgrown kid with a new Dinky toy."