Fears that education would be seen as a soft target for the cuts in the prison service required by last November's budget appear to have been justified. A survey of 130 penal institutions by the college lecturers' union, NATFHE, reveals that governors are cutting education by an average of 14.5 per cent from April this year.
Prison reform groups are warning that the imposition of education and other cuts on the prison service at a time when the prison population is exploding will will dramatically increase the likelihood of riots within prisons and reoffending without.
The survey, to be published next week, suggests that education in prison looks set to be reduced to skeleton service in which only basic numeracy and literacy are taught. NATFHE also estimate that 300 teaching jobs, both full and part time, will be lost.
Derek Betts, head of policy at NATFHE, said that core skills "divorced from the rest of the curriculum and unrelated to work are virtually useless for the rehabilitation of offenders".
The prison service is having to implement cuts of 13.3 per cent over the next three years from this April, with decisions about how they will be made left to individual governors. At the same time, with courts being encouraged to make use of custodial sentences as a by the Home Secretary Michael Howard, the jail population is breaking records - the latest figure is 59,178 compared with the previous peak in 1987 of 51,237.
Paul Cavadino, chair of the Penal Affairs Consortium, an umbrella group representing 30 organisations concerned with the prison system, called the Government's policy "incomprehensible". "The increase in prison numbers has occurred because the Home Secretary's highest priority is to appear tough, while at the same time he has been forced to impose cuts by the Treasury, "he said."The result of education cuts will be an increased risk that prisoners will reoffend when released, and an increased risk of prison disturbances. "
Mr Cavadino pointed out that the inquiry headed by Lord Woolf into the causes of the riot at Strangeways prison in 1990 had emphasised the role of education as a preventive measure. "Lord Woolf's analysis revealed that riots often occur when constructive regimes are restricted or reduced."
This situation, said Mr Cavadino, is likely to be exacerbated if an estimated 2,800 prison officers take up the Government's voluntary redundancy package as predicted. "Inevitably it will be offered to the older and more experienced prison officers who are most able to defuse flashpoints."
This bleak picture was confirmed by Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, who said that "the prisons' mission statement that prisons exist to help prisoners to lead law abiding lives after release is now not worth the paper it's written on - if prisoners' are to be locked up for ever-longer periods it's bound to increase tension." His impression was that the extent of the cuts to education varied from prison to prison, with some striving to safeguard education at all costs, others slashing classes by 40 per cent, and others yet to decide where the axe will fall.
A spokesman for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders said that reports from boards of prison visitors (lay people who act as independent prison watchdogs) suggest that cuts imposed over the next three years would in many instances be done on top of previous cuts. Holloway women's prison, for instance, cut back on teaching staff and hours last April. A spokeswoman from the same organisation said that young offenders' institutions were also cutting education.
Winchester prison, which holds 500 male offenders of all categories and 66 women, has just announced that inmates are to lose nine weeks of education this year, while evening classes in the women's annexe are to be reduced by 70 per cent between June and September. The prison is also to lose a professional librarian and the women's Open University programme has been "postponed".
The governor, Mike Pascoe, said he was "less than ecstatic" about the cuts, "It means that prisoners will be locked up more often and for longer. But I'm a civil servant - I was simply told that my year on year budget is half a million less." Security had to be the priority:" I can't refuse to repair locks or bars."
The prison's education programme was praised as "first class" by the chief inspector of prisons in 1993.
David Retter, the lecturer who organises Winchester's education from Highbury College in Portsmouth, which holds the contract, said that Winchester's situation was mirrored by Kingston prison in Portsmouth, where educational resources have been cut by 40 per cent and all evening classes cancelled until September.