Comment: Grayling should help prisoners educate themselves – not hinder them
By Rod Clark
"Freedom doesn't have to begin when those gates are flung open in the distant future. It can begin now and be found within the pages of a book."
This quote, from one of the 2,000 people we fund each year to study distance learning courses like GCSEs, A-levels and degrees, proves just how vital books are for prisoners who want to educate themselves.
Learning in prison works. The government's own research has proved what we do reduces reoffending by a quarter. Education helps to stop people from breaking the law time and time again, making society safer and reducing a bill for reoffending that costs up to £13 billion per year.
However, to successfully complete their courses our learners need access to essential books and learning materials. The majority of the people we support complete their courses, but of the small proportion that don't, the main reason they give is not having access to these vital resources.
Earlier this week, my colleagues were on the phone for hours trying to track down a parcel of books and materials after it had been returned to the course provider by prison security officers. As one of our alumni, Chris Syrus, says: "I was able to study Psychology with the Open University through the funding of the Prisoners Education Trust. Without their support and my family sending me in books. I wouldn't be running my own social enterprise today."
Libraries can provide a solution for some people, but not for anyone with specialist requirements. As one learner recently told us: "I am studying A level history. Textbooks and access to suggested preferred extra reading is difficult ie: funding and lack of availability through a non-academic prison library."
In a recent survey we carried out of nearly 350 prisoners, a third said access to libraries was poor. This is backed up by half of last year's prison inspection reports which found 21 libraries needed to improve provision or access.
When we asked prisoners what would make study easier, almost 60% said more books and 70% said access to online resources and computers. Prison learners effectively have no internet access in our prisons. As the Prisoners Education Trust's recent report with the Prison Reform Trust showed, computers could transform rehabilitation and offer a potential solution to the security concerns of sending items into prisons. A huge range of e-learning resources, tutorials, books and research could be made available, via secure, controlled and monitored access to the internet.
We are delighted at the outpouring of support from the public, media and celebrities for the value of books and education in prison. Thousands of people clearly share our belief that this is not a privilege but a vital route to rehabilitation.
With its new strategy to put education at the heart of rehabilitating young people in custody, the government must also recognise how important a culture of learning is for adults.
We ask that barriers to learning and reading in prison be removed making it that little bit easier for prisoners who want to escape their life of crime and find a more positive path.
Rod Clark is chief executive of the Prisoners Education Trust.
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