We need properly resourced regimes
Next week, the government will announce the results of the 2021 Spending Review, which will set government departments’ budgets for the next three years. There have already been rumours that the budget for the prison service will be cut. Unless it comes with a deliverable plan to reduce prison numbers, which frankly seems unlikely at present, this would be disastrous. Prison resources are already stretched and any budget cuts will lead to more time in cells and less positive activity to support rehabilitation.
More funding for staff and the curriculum
Properly-resourced regimes are particularly important when it comes to the delivery of prison education. Much of the prison budget goes on staffing, and prisons must be properly staffed if they are going to deliver education effectively.
Firstly, education provision will inevitably suffer if there aren’t enough prison officers to bring learners from their cell to the classroom. But secondly, people in prison spend far more time in their cells and on their wings than they ever will in classrooms. Staff with the time to properly engage with and support the people in their prison can help to ensure that they are able to use their time constructively. This includes accessing and completing distance learning of the sort provided by Prisoners’ Education Trust.
More funding is also needed specifically for the education on offer. Mainstream prison education is largely made up of basic literacy, numeracy and IT skills. This is needed for many prisoners, but it is not in itself enough. We need to broaden the educational offer in prisons, with GCSEs and A-levels made routinely available along with vocational education that provides the qualifications that employers really need.
Current prison education budgets will only stretch so far and if we want a more personalised approach that recognises that people in prison are individuals with different educational backgrounds and different interests, we will need to pay for it. Good-quality, personalised education in an environment as challenging as a prison cannot be provided on a shoestring.
Transforming the patchwork of digital provision
Budgets are not, however, the only barrier to delivering education effectively within the prison estate. The lack of a digital infrastructure within prisons also presents real problems.
HM Prison and Probation Service has published a Digital, Data and Technology Strategy, setting out their strategic priorities and plans for 2021-22. There is much in it that is welcome, but its ambitions are relatively modest – they plan to roll out in-cell technology to just nine of the 117 prisons in England and Wales. Other digital providers – such as Coracle and Socrates – are also making inroads where they can but there are inevitable limitations on the extent of the coverage that they can achieve without a properly-funded national approach.
The forthcoming Spending Review is a chance to transform this patchwork of provision into a comprehensive and transformational programme – putting digital devices and secure, restricted access to the internet into every prison cell in England and Wales.
The impact would be significant. Time spent in cell could be used to access educational opportunities that are currently wholly unavailable to most learners in prison. This must not replace time spent face-to-face with teachers but it can complement it, enabling learners to study in their own time while simultaneously developing the digital skills that they will inevitably need in the community.
Ensuring everyone in prison has access to education
The importance of the digital provision of education in prison is reflected in Prisoners’ Education Trust’s new organisational strategy, which is published today. As a charity directly involved in the delivery of education in prisons in England and Wales, it is incumbent on us to ensure that we contribute to work to make digital technology more widely available. As such, this is one of our key aims over the next five years. We will work to find ways to enable people in prison to get support from PET via digital channels and to apply to PET digitally for distance learning courses. We will also develop resources and courses that can be delivered digitally and, perhaps most importantly, look to work with partners to support the development of a strong digital offering to people in prison.
Working with partners will also be key to achieving the other key aims of our strategy, in particular our ambition to extend our reach and ensure that the distance learning opportunities that we offer are genuinely available in every prison and to every prisoner who wants to access them.
To achieve this, we will be looking to work with other organisations that work with people in prison and their families to inform, shape and promote what we do. We will also work with current and former prison learners – as we did in the development of our strategy – to ensure that what we do is informed by the people who understand the system best.
Funding a proper recovery in the prison estate
Over the last 18 months work of this kind has, inevitably, been made more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic, and its impact is still being felt acutely in our prisons. As a result, people in prison are, by and large, still spending too much time in their cells and not enough time engaged in positive activities, including education.
But as restrictions caused by the pandemic ease, next week’s spending review is an opportunity to fund a proper recovery in the prison estate. This must include not only sufficient resources to run positive, purposeful regimes, but also funding for education that genuinely meets the needs of all learners and for the digital infrastructure that is so clearly needed for effective education provision.
PET’s new organisational strategy is available here: www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/resource/our-strategy-2022-2026/
Thanks to Ben Langdon, Mile 91 & the Prisoners’ Education Trust for kind permission to reproduce the header image.