Why education is a must for women in custody, by Vicky Pryce

8 Mar 2016

In 2013 Vicky Pryce was sentenced for accepting speeding points on behalf of her ex-husband. She served nine weeks in prison, first in HMP Holloway and then in East Sutton Park. Having now returned to her work as an economist, Pryce also acts as a patron of Working Chance, a charity that finds jobs for female ex-offenders. This International Women’s Day, Pryce shares her observations of the experience of women within the estate, and explains why education and future employment must be priorities.

Women in prison are even more vulnerable than men.

A huge number have suffered abuse and have faced significant drug and alcohol problems; a great percentage have grown up in social care and have left school without many – or any – qualifications. They are often separated from their children, and are often depressed as a result - self-harm is far more common for women in prison than for men.

Providing education and training in this context is difficult. When someone enters prison they have often had all of their self-confidence and self-esteem taken away. Women are likely to be distracted, many are unfamiliar with formal education, and prisons are often at a loss about how to occupy them with vocational work. Many women find themselves moved from prison to prison, and required to learn the same thing again and again. Many want to learn at a much higher level than is offered inside prison, but you can’t do much of this if you don’t have internet access, and there’s just not good enough possibility to get resources from outside.

I was particularly struck by the generally low level of literacy among the women I met in prison. While I was receiving  books and lots of letters every day, many of the women in there didn’t read much at all. While in open conditions I used to regularly attend faith sessions. I’m a Greek Orthodox, and these were Anglican services. I had never really learned many of the hymns sung in churches here, but I was able to participate using a hymn-book. There were a couple of women in the group who knew most songs by heart – they could sing every word without referring to a book once. I was incredibly impressed. Only later I realised that the reason they did not look at the words was because they could barely read.

On numerous occasions I found myself helping people out with reading notices around the prison for example, or assisting with solicitor letters they were trying to write in the IT room. Not having basic educational skills makes being in prison even more difficult - you simply can’t understand much of what’s around you if you can’t read. And without basic maths skills you can’t do things like work out what you can afford from the canteen or what a particular job is worth. It can make women more vulnerable, exposed to bullying and exploitation.

On the other hand, it really was a huge pleasure to see how delighted women were when they passed examinations. Even when someone was in early middle age, you saw a person completely transformed when they had achieved something.

And it was good to see women given opportunities to make links with employers or even be offered jobs while still in prison. Less than 10% of women – compared to 25% of the general population – enter employment after release, so the difference that the prospect of a job made to their outlook was extraordinary to watch, especially when they were facing continuous worries about where they would live on release and what was happening to their families.  

Knowing as we do, just how disadvantaged and undereducated the prison population is and how high the unemployment rate is for those leaving prison, it is vital that we take all the steps we can to offer a proper prison education. Though I welcome the Government’s decision to close institutions like Holloway, one danger with the reorganisation of prisons is that women are going to be moved yet again, losing the ability to have a continuous education and losing the links with other prisoners and with employers they might have made. 

A prison sentence costs women, their families, the economy and society dear. We are sending too many people in prison when other types of non-custodial sentences may be more appropriate. Overcrowding, which seems like the most pressing issue at the moment, is surely a direct result of the current sentencing norms. But, if we must send women to prison, the surest way to cut reoffending is by ensuring that they have better access to education while there. And I don’t mean  just basic numeracy and literacy skills, though that is important of course. 

There needs to be more emphasis on higher levels of attainment including tertiary education for those spending longer in prison. Greater access to the internet, sensibly controlled and monitored by the prison authorities, would make a huge difference.

People on the outside tend to forget that the vast majority of prisoners are released at some stage. Better access to education and training, preferably continuing on release, increases the chances of employment and reduces the chances of committing a new crime.

This is why education and employment for offenders is a must.

Vicky PryceVicky Pryce’s book Prisonomics: Behind bars in Britain's failing prisons, analyses the personal and economic cost of keeping women behind bars. All royalties will be donated to Working Chance.