Baroness Helena Kennedy: “Everyone has the right to an education – male or female, prisoner or not”

22 Oct 2013

"How do you convince the public that it’s important to rehabilitate prisoners?"

Speaking at PET's annual lecture on Tuesday evening, in response to a question raised by the audience, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, said: "When you give people opportunities to acquire skills and treat them in a humane way, that’s what works."

During the preceding lecture on 22 November 2013, Baroness Kennedy covered this issue at length, along with a range of challenges affecting women in prison, the difficulty of sentencing decisions for the judiciary and the impact of cuts and policy changes within the criminal justice system. She spoke about the importance of supporting charities like PET that lessen the impact of cuts to education, training and rehabilitation.

Baroness Kennedy also discussed the importance of addressing the dual aims of prison: punishment and rehabilitation, arguing that loss of liberty is itself an immeasurable punishment without looking for ways to add to the pain. She said:

"We are more likely to have success in rehabilitation if you work with people around their skills and talents. But we don’t. Education is not seen as a human right."

"For those who ask me: Why should criminals have human rights? The question is a total failure to understand the nature of human rights. Prison is the punishment for criminal behaviour. Why shouldn’t a prisoner be entitled to a privacy or opportunities to maintain family life ? You punish a person for their crimes through the criminal justice system, you don’t take their human rights away. Everyone should have the right to an education – this thirst to know about our world and understand it better is common to most of us – people should be given these opportunities, male or female, prisoner or not. And everyone should be a human rights champion because in the end these are needs we all have.

"The introduction of fees for education has made the idea of going to university frightening for many in the community, but imagine what that must be like to someone in prison considering taking out loans for the Open University? A good, varied education in prison often isn’t available to everyone and it is very ad hoc what prisoners receive around the country. But we need to change the narrative. Prison can make people worse and we should use it as an opportunity to turn things on their head. There will be less crime when you get people away from the reasons why they got involved in crime – a sense of worthlessness, a lack of job opportunities an absence of skills.

"I admire PET because it is about being inventive – education is a ‘drumbeat’ that we need to make our own. We need to find innovative ways of dealing with difficult things.

"For me the business of education is at the heart of any regeneration programme. And in a report I wrote in 1997 that was what I was saying.

"People are more than the worst thing they do. The thief is more than a thief, the killer is more than a killer, the people represented by the news are more than what the newspapers report about them.

"I believe the opposite of poverty is justice and you can’t have real justice without social justice. We can’t turn our backs on people in prisons. We must speak loudly and clearly about rehabilitation - and education is at the heart of that."

The event was hosted by Clifford Chance LLP in London. If you would like to support PET, please visit PET's JustGiving page to donate.

Editor’s Notes

For interviews, photos or further information please contact Susannah Henty, Media Manager:; 020 8648 7760 or visit Case studies about ex-prisoners whose lives have been transformed by education are available on request.

Interviews may be available with PET staff on request and Baroness Kennedy can provide the media with comment or opinion pieces.

About PET

Since 1989, Prisoners' Education Trust (PET) has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by providing advice and funding for approximately 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.

In 2012 PET launched the Prisoner Learning Alliance to work together with 18 other expert organisations to champion learning for people in prison.