Prison Service officials have admitted that careers education was overlooked when contracts were awarded four years ago.
They say this was partly due to confusion caused by the incorporation of colleges in 1993 and the impending privatisation of the careers service.
But members of the Institute of Careers Guidance say it was an unforgivable oversight, since the need to prepare an inmate for the outside world should have been uppermost in the minds of those vetting bids and potential education packages.
Thirty-eight of the 45 prison education contracts are held by further education colleges. The remaining contracts were awarded to four local authorities, two private training providers and a university.
Some prisons buy in careers advice while other run their own job clubs linked to education classes, but the overall picture is patchy. The quality of guidance offered to prisoners often depends upon the enthusiasm of staff and individual governors.
New contracts are up for grabs from December 1998. The new model contracts for guidance from the service to potential providers will stipulate that tenders must be able to provide careers education.
"Where it will be sourced from in the future will be a matter for the governor and education contractors," said Peter Blunt, a senior education and training adviser who specialises in careers issues for the Prison Service. "It may be bought in from outside and managed by the contractor or it may be provided internally."
Penny Robson, Prison Service chief education officer, said careers advice was clearly more appropriate in some prisons than others. Maximum security prisons where inmates have been sentenced to serve long periods and may never be released were clearly less likely to run job clubs than short-stay prisons and remand centres.
She added: "Careers guidance is crucial. If people who have been in prison are literate and numerate when they leave and have drawn up a career plan, it significantly helps to reduce reoffending."
Cathy Bereznicki, chief executive of the Institute of Careers Guidance, welcomed the announcement and said her members would be keen to work with the Prison Service in drawing up the new contracts.
The institute already works closely with young offenders' centres but Ms Bereznicki said too many prisons are punishment-orientated rather than geared towards guidance.
Three years ago, the Prison Service drew up a core curriculum which must be offered to all prisoners including literacy and numeracy, information technology and life and social skills. They must also be provided with a record of achievement, in line with the National Record of Achievement for pupils and students in schools and colleges.
But the national curriculum is honoured more in the breach than the observance, many careers counsellors insist. They want statutory regulations to spell out what must be provided.
In prisons where job clubs are run by the education contractor, such as Northallerton Remand Centre (see right), careers guidance programmes can be directly linked to the development of core curriculum skills. But Peter Blunt admitted this is the exception rather than the rule. Better Choices, the Department for Education and Employment guidelines published last year,aim to encourage the setting up of careers libraries for young offenders.
It is the closest anyone has come to devising a national careers policy for prisons.
Some careers services, however, are far more willing to pump money into prisons than others, said Mr Blunt. "We have started to try and get people working together nationally, but it's quite patchy."
Nick Baylis, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology, is a firm supporter of careers guidance in prisons. "Having a career goal can be very insulating for a prisoner, considering the other problems they are likely to face. It is something to hang on to."
Mr Baylis is waiting to hear whether he will receive #163;95,000 from the National Lottery Charities Board towards a two-year careers project he hopes to run at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution in west London next year.
He has already been promised #163;50, 000 from the Department for Education and Employment. The project includes on-site careers counselling and lectures recorded by "captains of industry" which can be played to prisoners. Inmates, aged 18-25, will also write regularly to a career penfriend outside prison who can tell them about the work they do and possibly help to set up a work placement for the prisoner following their release.
"The attitude to careers education and counselling in many prisons is that it is the poor relation which is simply strapped on. I'm hoping to set up a means by which prisoners can foster real career ambitions which can help them to beat crime, " said Mr Baylis.