David Cameron’s recent speech on prison education and reform has been met with suspicion in some quarters, with speculation the proposed initiatives are more about expanding and privatising the criminal justice system than addressing its “scandalous failure”.
In “the first speech purely focused on prisons by a British PM in more than two decades”, Mr Cameron set out his vision for a “truly twenty-first century” prison system. Six new reform prisons will be created this year and the prison education system will be totally transformed, with full autonomy being handed to prison governors.
Another highlight of the PM’s speech was his promise to protect the £130m prison education budget, adding credence to his call to make reform the “great progressive cause in British politics”.
The ‘Open Academy’ Model
Hot on the heels of this news came the announcement that HMP Swaleside in Kent, the first prison to create a university-like campus (the Open Academy), which opened last September, is set to revolutionise prison education.
The project has been very successful so far, with a waiting list of 45 prisoners hoping to be accepted on to a course by eight skills advisers (prisoners who have been recruited to encourage other inmates to join the project).
The Open Academy allows inmates and prison staff to study together, which improves staff-prisoner relationships and creates a sense of camaraderie. Plans are also afoot to enable inmates with appropriate security clearance to study alongside undergraduates from outside the prison walls via the Inside-Out scheme.
By transforming prisons into places of rehabilitation and learning, it’s hoped prisoners will be seen as “assets to be harnessed” rather than “liabilities to be managed”.
That might sound idealistic, but clearly something needs to be done to combat the current, frankly embarrassing, levels of violence, drug-taking and self-harm within the prison system.
Better Prison Education Leads to Better Citizens
Statistics show that 46% of all prisoners (and 60% of short-sentenced prisoners) will re-offend within a year of release, which costs the taxpayer up to £13 billion a year.
More than half the prison population have primary school level English and Maths skills and/or learning difficulties, so Dame Sally Coates soon-to-be-published review of prison education is expected to make recommendations for attracting the brightest and best graduates to teach in prisons.
Swaleside’s governor, Paul Newton, says “The end game is not to produce better prisoners, but better citizens.”
Benefits for Probation Officers
It stands to reason that better education will lead to more effective rehabilitation, which should lower the risk of re-offending by improving former prisoners’ prospects.
This would also have a positive impact on the relationship between offenders and their probation officers, whose job it is to help them re-integrate into the community and lead law-abiding lives.
Clearly, the job will still have its challenges and not every newly released prisoner will be a successful product of the prison education system, but if Swaleside’s Open Academy model is embraced, real progress can be made in realising David Cameron’s desire to “change lives, improve public safety and bring hope to those for whom it is in short supply.”
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