PM pledges to ‘get smart’ on prison rehabilitation

20 Oct 2015

Nina Champion, Head of Policy, Prisoners’ Education Trust,  reports back from the Conservative Party Conference where the Prime Minister David Cameron called for a smarter approach to prison reform and Michael Gove, Justice Secretary, set out his vision for education to give people to skills to lead successful lives. Read her blog:

"It was a moment many in the criminal justice world have been waiting for, when the Prime Minister called for prison reform at a party conference speech. The speech was a particularly significant for those of us focused on the importance of prison education and members of the Prisoner Learning Alliance who have long called for more focus on this area, summarised in our report ‘Smart Rehabilitation’. PM David Cameron said:

“Half of criminals offend within a year of being released. Nearly half go into prison with no qualifications; many come out with none either. And all the problems that may have led them to that life – drug addiction, mental health problems, childhood abuse – remain unchanged.

We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this.

"When prisoners are in jail, we have their full attention for months at a time – so let’s treat their problems, educate them, put them to work”.

The conference also heard from an ex-prisoner, Elroy, who works at St. Giles Trust. Elroy said he spent a long time in and out of prison, then tragically, a younger prisoner he had been trying to help died from a drugs overdose weeks after his release. This gave Elroy the motivation to engage in education for the first time inside and it offered him a different path.

Gaining a range of qualifications, including a degree, Elroy now works to help young people get away from gangs. His powerful story prompted a standing ovation.

His boss, Chief Executive Rob Owen, then told the delegates that more prisoners needed help to get level three (A-level equivalent) and above qualifications in prison in order to give them opportunities, like Elroy has had, to give back to their families and communities. He also highlighted on the importance of having those with ‘lived experience’ running services to prevent crime and reduce reoffending.      

In his conference speech, the Justice Secretary Michael Gove set out his vision: “A new and unremitting emphasis in our prisons on reform, rehabilitation and redemption. Prison should offer individuals a chance to change their lives for the better. People like those you have already heard about this morning. Yes, they've done some terrible things. They broke the law, they crossed the line, and no moral society can tolerate law-breaking without punishment. But we should never define individuals by their worst moments.”

 “Prison should offer offenders the chance to get the skills and qualifications which they need to make a success of life on the outside" says Gove.

"When so many come into custody illiterate and innumerate it would be a crime if we didn't get them reading and writing when they are in our care. Far too often at the moment those sent to prison spend their sentences in pointless enforced idleness rather than purposeful and constructive activity. That has to change. Let us ensure our prisons are places of hard work, rigorous education and high ambition,” he added.

Exploring these themes in more detail were a range of experts speaking at fringe events. Danny Kruger, CEO of Only Connect, made several key recommendations for the Justice Secretary.

Firstly, ‘community is key’. He described that in Texas, the community steps in to help. (BBC’s Panorama recently filmed Michael Gove seeing this approach for himself in a visit to Texas to see how they have reduced their prison population.) Kruger argued that the wider community should have a stake in the prion population and there needs to be local accountability.

He said: “Walls are good at keeping prisoners in, but also keeping the community out. We need the community to come in especially community, voluntary sector (CVS) organisations.

"The CVS should be part of the mainstream inside prisons as a means towards re-introduction into the community", says Kruger

"Relationships with family and wider community are vital and that is where the CVS is so useful to help bridge that gap,” he added.

Prisons Minister Andrew Selous agreed and highlighted ‘The Yellow Ribbon project’ in Singapore as a great example of how the community has to play its part in supporting prisoners to have a second chance after release. The Minister also said: ‘we need more strategic use of charities’.

Kruger also criticised the prison regimes as resulting in ‘enforced idleness’ and said that ‘prisons should be energetic places’. He suggested that the arts could offer effective ways of engaging prisoners in learning and would like to see teams of artists working in prisons.

Lastly he touched on the issues of agency and identity, which are key aspects of desistance theory. He said: “Too many prisoners are passive recipients of services. Prisoners are first and most importantly agents of own change. At Only Connect we don’t talk about ‘service users’, they are members, a term which highlights belonging and responsibility.” This linked to a broader discussion about the importance of not ‘doing’ education ‘to’ prisoners, rather empowering them to use education as a means of becoming their own agent of change.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League, agreed that years of classroom-based literacy and numeracy lessons ‘hadn’t worked’ and that a different approach was needed.   UK Youth highlighted the importance of agency in an event about empowering young people. Their ethos is for young people to: “be a positive force for change in their own lives and the lives of others. To have self determination of their own future.” They said: “Learning through doing and social action projects helped develop a pathway from self–awareness, to awareness of the world, to empathy and cognitive skills.’

Priorities for the Prisons Minister

Selous spoke at three fringe events and made several points:

Getting the objectives and measures right: He said: “The first priority has got to be education. How prisoners get to level 2 English and maths matters. However on visits Governors couldn’t give me numbers who got these – sometimes nor could the education managers!” However, rather than blame the staff, he said it was the fault of the contracts which were: “not clear about objectives and did not measure the right thing It is fault for not structuring the contract right.”

Skills for employment and engaging employers: Like Michael Gove who praised the work of Timpsons, Selous welcomed the partnership between Halfords and HMP Onley teaching prisoners to repair bikes and offering them opportunities to work in Halfords in the community. He said he had been speaking to employment minister Priti Patel about how to address national skills shortages with prisoners, such as by focusing on construction skills training.

In response to an audience question he said that he would love to see traineeships and apprenticeships in prisons but ‘there are a number of hurdles to overcome’.

Crucially Selous also recognised that prisoners must have opportunities to develop interpersonal skills alongside functional skills in order to be employable.

He also talked about ‘qualifications that mean something to employers’ but conceded that offering level three qualifications in prison was difficult as prisoners had to take out loans like those aged 24 + in the community in order for there to be parity.

Not wasting a day: In response to a question about how education would work for those on short sentences, Selous was passionate that ‘we shouldn’t waste a day’. He said: “There has got to be follow through, prisoners should be able to carry on with learning in the community.”

And there seems to be public support for a smarter approach to prison reform too as at a fringe event hosted by the Howard League, the Editor of The Sun said: “We have too many people in prison. I think that Sun readers would support focus on education in prison.”

On that note, I think the conference showed we have a rare window of opportunity to influence positive change in prison education and to also work with the media to help more people understand and support this agenda.