Idea that landed PCs in prison;FE Focus

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Society has locked them up, and now the lifelong learning minister wants to give them lap-tops. Julie Read reports on a scheme to boost the prospects of young inmates

A PC - that's personal computer not police constable - in every prisoner's cell is the ambition of George Mudie, junior minister for lifelong learning.

On a visit to the young offenders' institution on the island of Portland, Dorset, he spelled out his vision: a lap-top in every cell so lives can be rescued by education.

Separated from Weymouth by Chesil beach, Portland's four square miles seem disproportionate to its vast prison population. There is Portland, a former borstal, HMP Verne, and the prison ship HMP Weare.

Portland may not be Alcatraz but on a dull day it is bleak and a long way from home for most of the 539 inmates aged 15 to 21. Dressed in uniform blue jeans, blue jackets and brown shoes, the young offenders are serving 18 months on average. Their crimes range from petty theft to rape and grievous bodily harm.

Most entered prison with few qualifications and 18 months out of the education system or job market will cut them off further from society.

Education as a means of curbing reoffending is a priority for Labour and the prison service. Mr Mudie wants computers to be installed in cells so that inmates can learn via the Internet.

He said: "These boys all have a history of social exclusion and we need to redress that in prison with education. Computers can help achieve this.

"If the idea of a lap-top in every cell seems rather fanciful given the budget restraints, the concept of distance learning via the Internet is a feasible one."

A similar battle to the one over in-cell TV is looming over the lap-tops. While prisoners are keen, some prison officers do not want them rewarded with computers.

Next year, the University for Industry is expected to launch its Internet-based learning skills package, through which inmates could access basic numeracy and literacy courses.

Many of Portland's inmates confessed to having never been near a computer, but many enthusiastically greeted the idea of learning basic computer skills.

But Beata Coward, education manager at Portland for the past 20 years, is troubled about the security risk and sceptical about offenders learning on their own. She feels that distance learning cannot replace the human dimension of an on-site teacher.

She said: "These boys need input from a person, they need a teacher who can motivate them." Given that there are only 24 PCs to be shared around, Mrs Coward says she would welcome more. "Until we have the accommodation, we can't entertain the idea of more technology," she added.

Prison staff are concerned that offenders, some of whom can barely spell, will be given the opportunity to roam the Internet. Ministers think that, with a service provider to vet their surfing, there would be no risk.

Of the 539 inmates at Portland, only 60 are under school-leaving age, which requires them to have compulsory education.

For the vast majority, the agencies provide 21 hours of what is euphemistically termed "purposeful activities", which is everything from City amp; Guilds courses to Royal Society of Arts exams.

Portland is working with Dorset careers service and Strode FE College to remedy the lack of basic skills which could ease the return to the outside world. Each young offender is given a tailor-made education programme which can include everything from basic numeracy and literacy to A-levels.

All the agencies involved are concerned that prison classes lag well behind FE. As Jenny Mayor, director of student and community programmes at Strode College, said: "At Strode, students have access to more than 50 computers, and that's not including those they use in class. At the young offenders' institution, they have so few they have to wait their turn in the queue.

"Our job is to normalise education for these young men and there are limits on what we can do. But you would expect them to have far more access to IT."

Recent research for the prison service based on the young offenders' institution at Wetherby revealed the social exclusion which these lads face, even before they begin their sentence.

The majority had achieved less than general national vocational qualification level 1 which would automatically debar them from 96 per cent of jobs. Most had been excluded from school since the age of 13. In response, the prison service says it is committed to improving literacy and numeracy skills by 15 per cent over the next three years.

As for distance learning, a spokesperson for the prison service said: "It is just one of many ways we can improve education standards inside."

Martin Narey, director general of the prison service, will soon announce plans to prepare inmates under 18 for a return to work. He said: "The Wetherby survey showed how we have all, as a society, failed these youngsters. The new regimes will rightly place great emphasis upon education."

Back in Portland, both college and prison staff are determined to to try to match their curriculum to that of an FE college - George Mudie is convinced that computers could bridge that gap.

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