By Rod Clark

Back in the Grayling days, the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms were promoted on a prospect of universal support for all prisoners on release – improving lives and leading to a reduction in reoffending. Three justice secretaries later, the reality is light-years behind.

Yesterday's joint report by the chief inspectors of prisons and probation exposed a system that is not only unfit for purpose; but which may as well not exist. "If Through-the-Gate services were removed tomorrow, the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible," it states.

After surveying 98 prisoners in nine different prisons, the report found inadequate support in all resettlement areas, from accommodation, to mental health provision, to help with addictions. It said that Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) were more focused on meeting contractual targets rather than individual needs.

The picture was particularly bleak for Education, Training and Employment (ETE). Despite being identified as the number one need for prisoners finishing sentences of more than a year, not a single person in the study had been helped by Through-the Gate services to enter ETE after release.

This flies in the face of evidence showing that ETE is one of the best ways to ensure someone does not reoffend. And it undermines two of the 'minimum requirements' of rehabilitation outlined by the report: access to money to meet basic needs; and ‘a sense of hope for the future’.

'Hope' may sound like a nebulous term, but it can be a bedrock to those stepping out of prison with a plastic bag of belongings and a criminal record. It is a theme that repeatedly comes out from letters sent to the Prisoners' Education Trust (PET) by people we have funded. Adam, who we helped complete a sports diploma in prison, wrote saying that taking the course and writing business plans "kept [his] hopes and dreams alive at a time when they'd all but died". He told us that he had been inspired to encouraged another inmate, 'Paul', who had attempted suicide, to complete a horticulture course. "A journey out of despair begin with something as simple as the hope found in an A4 prospectus," he wrote.

Research shows how important it is to build on education and training done in prison with immediate placement into work or learning. It can help people like Adam or Paul maintain and build on new identities: 'student', 'personal trainer' or 'gardener' rather than 'offender'.

Education or employment can give a daily structure and purpose; and can open up new, pro-social networks. But CRCs operating to the Transforming Rehabilitation contracts are not helping this to happen. In fact, there is an argument they are making things worse – their existence creates an illusion that government-funded help is available. This is harmful for both prisoners, whose expectations are raised then dashed, and for charities, who are finding it increasingly difficult to raise funds for services that the government is meant to be providing. And the sad truth is that the landscape before Transforming Rehabilitation saw many excellent examples of high quality practical help given by charities and community organisations. They were driven by zeal, philanthropy and hope. The coverage may have been patchy but the experience of national contracts appears to have replaced that with provision that may be uniform and operating to minimum standards at minimal cost, but uniformly token in actual effectiveness.

It may be too late to improve Transforming Rehabilitation. As the inspectors say, the gap between aspiration and reality is too great, and there is little incentive for contract holders to agree to change their terms. But the inspectorates' stark critique should prompt government to do whatever it can to make the situation better.

The demise of Grayling's vision does offer a stark warning for other areas of commissioning within the prison sector, particularly upcoming changes to education contracting arrangements. These need to be made carefully and with sufficient consultation involving a wide range of stakeholders.

People can achieve remarkable things in a prison environment – PET has funded people who started their sentence barely literate and left with a degree, who successfully battled a drug addiction and went on to mentor others, who started painting in their cell and have now exhibited their work. Two of our former learners have even been recognised for their services to the community in this years Queen’s Birthday Honours List. But time, money and potential is simply wasted if we do not support people to build on these aspirations once they are released. Disastrous shortcomings in post-prison provision means were are failing not only those most in need of our support, but who could gain the most extraordinary benefits, and give the most back in return.

Rod Clark is the Chief Executive of Prisoners’ Education Trust, a charity that funds distance-learning courses in prison and advocates for better prison education policy and practice throughout the UK.

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