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How the new Justice Secretary can build ladders of opportunity for learners in prison

Education in prison, should, as the Education Select Committee recently identified, support people to climb the ladder of opportunity. The Justice Secretary, in his speech at the Conservative Conference, which I attended, rightly highlighted the role of employment after prison in both reducing reoffending and growing our economy. We welcome the news that people in open prisons can now access apprenticeships, following a long-overdue change in the law. However, the government’s rejection of some of the Committee’s key recommendations places this ladder of opportunity on unsteady ground.

One year ago, the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) worked with nearly forty of our members to set out a vision for a criminal justice system that offers purpose and connection to people in prison, setting them up for success on release. This briefing explains that the resources currently earmarked for expensive prison building and expanding the prison estate would be better spent improving rehabilitation and supporting resettlement. 

One priority in prison education that requires urgent investment is digital technology. It is essential to enable access to bespoke educational and practical resources to prepare for release, for example to contact probation, employers, family and community organisations.  As the digital world increasingly expands and evolves, people who are leaving prison without up-to-date digital skills are at an unfair disadvantage when trying to secure employment. This is compounded with other barriers, including the stigma of a criminal record.  

The Committee recommended that the government set out, by the end of the year, a date by which all prisons will facilitate broadband.  It is disappointing that the government has refused this recommendation, stating that new equipment will only be in 15 out of 122 prisons by the end of the year, and that ‘rolling this equipment out across the whole prison service is subject to continued and long-term resourcing so at present we cannot set a timetable for deployment across the whole estate.’ We urge the government to re-consider this plan, and to instead expand the provision of technology across the prison estate. Without access to digital technology, people in prison, and our country, are being held back.

There are other common-sense solutions by the Committee.  Examples include: to pay people equally for work and education, so as not to disincentivise skills training; greater use of Release on Temporary Licence to incentivise engaging with education; and to enable people on long sentences to study for degrees. The implementation of these suggestions could make a significant difference to participation and progression in education by people in custody. The government must change its approach. 

Another concern is the rejection of the Education Select Committee’s recommendation to establish a long-term strategy and budget for prison education. It is this lack of planning that will undermine efforts to reduce reoffending and increase employment, as new prisons will further spread the already limited resources for education and rehabilitation even more thinly.

It is not too late for the government to redirect its focus towards education, a proven solution to tackle reoffending. The new Justice Secretary must act now to halt prison expansion plans, and instead prioritise building the solid foundation for people leaving prison to climb the ladder of opportunity to a brighter future.


Nina Champion, Director of the Criminal Justice Alliance, October 2022