Not just another brick in the wall

Author: | 18 May 2022

This week prisons and the justice system have been in the news. Firstly, a joint justice inspectors’ report found recovery from the pandemic at ‘unacceptable levels in some areas’, whilst education is too often neglected. Today, MPs have called for urgent action to strengthen people’s access to high-standard education whilst in prison.

Our Director Peter Stanford, who gave evidence to the House of Commons Committee has written for Longford Blog:

There are some pressing, damaging problems that face us as a society where readily achievable solutions are hard to find, or else hotly contested.  Thankfully, that is not the case when it comes to tackling the staggeringly high number of prisoners who reoffend within 12 months of release. Depending on which figures you use, the current rate is between 40 and 60%.  We know a good part of the answer.  So the only real question is why are we not acting on that knowledge.

Today’s report, Not just another brick in the wall: why prisoners need an education to climb the ladder of opportunity, from the Select Committee on Education on prison education once again confirms that a decent, well-funded education system in our prisons has enormous potential to change lives, cut reoffending, reduce the cost to the taxpayer of prisons, and make us all safer.  But this message is nothing new or surprising.

In 2015, for example, I was a member of the panel working under Dame Sally Coates on a report on prison education. We handed Unlocking Potential, our recommendations, to the then Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, in 2016 and he promised, in public, to implement them ‘without hesitation, repetition or deviation’.

Yet, as the Select Committee’s report sets out, next to nothing has happened about the vast majority of Coates recommendations. So it makes them all over again.

Will it be different this time round?  Well, I have faith that, if you say something sensible often enough, eventually someone will listen.  I therefore agreed to appear before the committee in April 2021 to offer once again the perspective of the Longford Trust from its work supporting young serving and ex-prisoners to go to university.

At the end of my session, I was asked by the committee chair, Robert Halfon, what I would most like to see change.  At the risk of repeating myself, I said supervised internet access for serving prisoners so they can benefit from all the life-changing opportunities that distance learning with providers like the Open University offers.

And the Select Committee makes that one of their main recommendations. It also backs another long-standing wish of the Longford Trust – that student loans should be available not just to serving prisoners with six years or less to go on their tariff (the so-called Six-Year-Rule), but to all who can demonstrate that higher education studies would improve their prospect of rehabilitation.

On this second point, though, a junior minister at the Department for Education is reported as having told the Select Committee that the government did not want to give student loans to prisoners, ‘who have no prospect of paying those loans back’.

Does he think that prisoners never come out, never go on to use the educational qualifications they have undertaken while inside to get well-paid jobs?   More than 80 per cent of Longford Scholarship award-holders, all of whom receive student loans, do precisely that.

Evidently not, which dampens hopes that this Select Committee report will succeed where others before have failed in focussing minds on improving prison education. But we will continue unceasingly to argue the case because we know from experience that it is unanswerable.

Education changes lives for the better, in prison as everywhere else.