Punishment and access to education in prison today

Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski
Friday, 7 February 2020

Since the first national penitentiary, Millbank, opened on British soil in 1816, the debate in England and Wales over what prisons are actually for, and what they should try to achieve, has continued almost unabated.

Public pronouncements by the government about the aims of the prison system makes clear that its most important objectives are punishing offenders, protecting the public and reducing reoffending. This suggests the prison system has the capacity to simultaneously punish and rehabilitate individuals. However, the hegemonic role of punishment and its impact on the ability of prisons to also rehabilitate those in its charge remains one of the most contentious issues.  

The neo-liberal approach to punishment

While prisons have always been synonymous with punishment, the large increase in the number of disturbances in prisons in England in recent years has raised questions about whether the prison system is on the verge of another major riot. Access to education in prison should be part of its rehabilitative 'culture'. Maintaining a focus on the deficiencies of prison education highlights the continued dominance of the neo-liberal approach to punishment, a continuation of the pre-Strangeways era, at the expense of rehabilitative approaches.

According to research from the Open University, education in prisons dates back to the nineteenth century, at a time when the idea of mass education was non-existent. The Victorian desire to punish offenders whilst deterring would-be criminals through punitive institutions of 'hard labour, hard board and hard far' did not prevent consideration of the potential for more humane alternatives. 

Indeed, the Victorians were keen on the idea of the rehabilitation of offenders and introduced literacy programmes as well as apprenticeships, which were not particularly popular with a public who were often not offered the same opportunities.

Recidivism and prison education

According to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), high rates of recidivism can be tackled through the use of prison education. Forty-six per cent of all prisoners will reoffend within a year of release, 47 per cent of prisoners have no formal qualifications on entry into custody, 42 per cent were expelled or permanently excluded from school, and 13 per cent never had a job. 

In North America, official data indicates an associated reduction in reoffending of around 13 percentage points for those engaged in education during their sentence. Similarly, research on the impact of prison education in England and Wales looks very promising. The most recent and large-scale national study reported a 7.5 per cent reduction in one-year reoffending rates. International evidence suggests education can increase the chances of employment after leaving prison.

Why education?

Although the existing statistical evidence does not tell us what it is about education itself that improves outcomes, it is reasonable to suggest that education might help to improve employability which in turn improves reoffending outcomes. It has a transformative effect that helps people to move away from crime, and it may also help prisoners cope with the negative effects of life in prison, or experience a different routine or culture.

If this is true, why is access to education in prison still problematic today? Why is there a glass ceiling where study above level 2 (GCSE equivalent) is difficult including studying at university level?

When it comes to university-level study in prisons, the situation could not be starker. Prior to the introduction of student loans for prisoners engaged in higher education in 2012, prisoners received a study grant to study. Following the introduction of student loans for university students in England, this was rightly extended to prisoners.

Extra barriers for prisoners

However, eligibility rules by the student loans company which applies to prisoners but not to other students - the so called six-year rule where prisoners are required to be within six-years of their earliest release date to be eligible for a loan - is curious, if not unfair and counter-productive. It must be frustrating for prisoners seeking to improve their prospects through education in prison but are met with such structural barriers.

I suggest these policies and practices can feed into a wider sense of injustice, and you know where that can lead.

Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology and Regional Manager – Students in Secure Environments, Academic Services, The Open University.

Stephen will be talking at our upcoming conference, After Strangeways: The past, present and future of prisons. More information can be found here