At Milton Keynes College we have a strapline: Transforming lives through learning. It is so much more than a strapline - we really believe in it and a brilliant example of it in action is a month-long exhibition which has just opened at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, "Transformations," showing artwork produced by students at eight of the prisons where the College provides education and training under government contract. It is a symbol of possibly the best investment in education any society can make.
The work of college staff in prisons and young offenders' institutions covers a whole range of courses from the most basic literacy and numeracy to university-level study. Some people bristle at the prospect of convicted criminals being given the benefit of being taught, particularly at a time when education for those in the outside world is suffering some of the worst effects of austerity. I would argue that such investment represents great value-for-money and delivers significant public benefit, and that recent evidence of reduced opportunities for learning in prison should be of serious concern to us all.
Last month, a report came from the House of Commons Justice Committee which focused on falling levels of safety within prisons due to budget cuts. This has left fewer, less experienced staff, to cope with our overcrowded jails. The report states, "The Chief Inspector of Prisons' assessment was that access to purposeful activity had "plummeted". Provision for purposeful activity was judged to be adequate in only two-fifths of prisons inspected between November 2013 and March 2014, the lowest level in the last nine years. We heard two main explanations for the reduction in access to education and training. First, there was a shortage of officers to escort prisoners to learning activities as priority was given to other tasks (such as escorting out of the prison and incident response), and, secondly, there were too few education and training places for the number of prisoners held."
So what, you might say? Why should criminals not feel the full force of austerity when law-abiding people are struggling? An internal Prison Service paper from 2001 (D Clark, Effective Regimes Measurement Research) found that those who had not taken part in education or training while in prison were three times more likely to be reconvicted than those who had. In other words, deprive prisoners of education, of the chance to improve their prospects on release, and all you get is more costly crime.
Education in the Arts can be as important as training in employment skills. A new report from The Arts Alliance, "Re-imagining Futures," (https://www.artsincriminaljustice.org.uk/re-imagining-futures-exploring-arts-interventions-and-process-desistance ) highlights the positive impact of creative interventions for offenders. It examines how music, visual arts and creative writing can support an offender's journey to a crime-free life. The report, based on research carried out by Northumbria University and Bath Spa University describes how participation in arts activities enables individuals to begin to redefine themselves. Arts projects facilitate high levels of engagement and can have a positive impact on how people manage themselves during their sentences, particularly on their ability to cooperate with others. Interestingly, engagement with arts projects also facilitates increased compliance with criminal justice orders and regimes.
Some of the prisoners artwork at MK Gallery.
The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that violent crime - not all crime - costs the UK economy more than £124 billion a year, equivalent to £4,700 for every household and this is just a monetary value, not taking into account the emotional costs to all of those involved. That figure equates to 7.7% of GDP, as opposed to the 5.2% we spend on education. The Ministry of Justice report, Prisoners' childhood and family backgrounds, says this: "59% of prisoners stated that they had regularly played truant from school, 63% had been suspended or temporarily excluded, and 42% stated that they had been permanently excluded or expelled.. Thirty-seven per cent of prisoners reported having family members who had been convicted of a non-motoring criminal offence, of whom 84% had been in prison, a young offenders' institution or borstal. Prisoners with a convicted family member were more likely to be reconvicted in the year after release from custody than those without a convicted family member." In effect, a lack of educational opportunity is a big cause of crime and families which have suffered such lack are more likely to perpetuate the same problems across generations, costing us all a fortune.
In many cases, prisoners are people already failed by the education system. The Clark report for the Prison Service goes on, "Half of all prisoners are at or below Level 1 (the level expected of an 11-year-old) in reading; two-thirds in numeracy; and four-fifths in writing. These are the skills required for 96 per cent of all jobs."
For those who argue that one of prison's main purposes is to punish it does this by locking people away, depriving them of their liberty and isolating them from all the people and places they would choose to be among. Depriving prisoners of educational opportunities not only punishes them still further but it damages the rest of us. Even if we are not directly victims of crime we pay through our taxes and insurance premiums. Little over a hundred and fifty years ago Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, "The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons" (The House of the Dead, 1862).
Today we might even call it a mark of financial good sense.