Access to education in prisons should be prioritised as restrictions ease, charity says

Nearly 50% of people in prison have a literacy level at or below what's needed for successful employment.

As Covid restrictions are eased not just in wider society but also in prisons, the government must do more to ensure that education in prisons is prioritised, a leading prison education charity has said.

The Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), which works to equip people with the skills and qualifications they need when they leave prison, has urged the government to ensure prisoners are able to access the education in prisons they would normally have been able to and which is so crucial in helping so many rehabilitate.

Jon Collins, chief executive of PET, told LFF that due to the pandemic, most prisoners have been in a state of lockdown and have been confined to their cells, often up to 23 hours a day, with classroom based teaching being suspended in prisons over that period.

He said: “We know from the evidence that participating in education helps people get into employment when they leave prison and we know that accessing education itself and being in employment reduces reoffending, so there are positive outcomes that come from people taking part in education while in custody.”

Nearly 50% of people in prison have a literacy level at or below what’s needed for successful employment, according to the Shannon Trust.

However, for more than a year now, many prisoners have been unable to access the learning resources as a result of the pandemic and for Jon it has also shone a light on just how far behind prisons are when it comes to access to education.

“The longer-term issue shown by the pandemic is the lack of proper digital access within prisons,” he said.

“In every other education setting, such as schools and further education settings, what has prevented it all grinding to a halt has been the ability to access education online via digital devices and that has not happened in prisons to the same extent.

“This has highlighted how far behind prisons are in terms of digital access and how much catching up there is to do.”

Jon called on the Ministry of Justice and the prisons service to provide greater support to ensure there are resources available for in cell learning.

He added: “That means working with the education providers and with the prisons to ensure that every prison is providing in cell learning to people where mainstream education isn’t available.”

He said that it was vitally important for the government and prisons service to get a proper digital strategy in place to ‘ensure that digital devices are available within prisons and to ensure safe and secure access to the internet.’

Jon also described the government’s decision not to prioritise those in prison for vaccination as a ‘missed opportunity’ given the ‘very clear health risks for people in prison’.

He said: “At the very least now, it’s very important to make sure that the vaccination programme in prisons doesn’t fall behind what’s going on in the community and that as many people as possible in prison are vaccinated as quickly as possible which will help to enable prisons to get back to running a full regime.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve kept education running wherever possible through the use of digital technology and in-cell learning.

“We know it is key to reducing reoffending and cutting crime and face to face learning is restarting where it is safe to do so.”

Basit Mahmood is co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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