Blog: The importance of maintaining access to learning for prisoners during lockdown

Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation demonstrates why it is important to maintain access to learning for prisoners during lockdown and provides some practical solutions on how to do this.

The latest lockdown is affecting the daily lives of every adult, young person and child in the UK. However, life for prisoners is an even greater lockdown as they are currently confined to their cells for up to 23.5 hours a day limiting access to education, rehabilitation, exercise or communications with family. As the Chief Inspector of Prisons said in his annual report “Given the obvious linkage between excessive time locked in cells and mental health issues, self-harm and drug abuse, it was concerning to find that the amount of time for which prisoners were unlocked for time out of cell was often unacceptably poor”¹.

As Government data shows, a high proportion of prisoners have low educational attainment with 42% of prisoners having been excluded from school². Approximately 48% of all prisoners have a reading age below that expected of an 11-year-old, and 82% have a writing age at or below the level of an 11-year-old (MoJ statistics). In addition, ‘47 per cent [of prisoners] have no qualifications, and only 4 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men are in work six weeks after their release’³.

Education is an important part of rehabilitation and can be a key ingredient in reducing reoffending (by 9% for those who engage in any form of learning⁴) as it provides offenders with the skills they need to find employment when they are released from prison. This is even more important, therefore, for those prisoners who have ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) needs, those who speak English as a second or additional language.

The language barrier means they may not understand what precautions to take in relation to Covid-19, or understand instructions from prison officers, what is expected of them, or even understand signs and official notices and many will struggle to read newspapers or understand discussions on the radio. Limited English language skills impact on every aspect of an individual’s life, from mental health to engagement with rehabilitation. This is particularly acute in prison where understanding language and being able to communicate is essential for individuals to cope with the day to day challenges of imprisonment as well as supporting rehabilitation and resettlement planning. Digital access in prisons is also limited “85% of prisons do not have in-cell cabling to enable access to online resources and/or they lack the high-level security systems to control and monitor prisoners’ use of technology²”.

The Bell Foundation has developed ESOL worksheets⁵ which are designed to help prisoners make sense of life in prison. These resources are free to download and can be printed and circulated to the prisoners’ cells. We have also developed an ESOL screening tool enabling ESOL needs to be identified on entry to the prison. We are currently trialling this with some prisons to improve it further. Look out for announcements on our website and the launch.

The Bell Foundation has also submitted a response to the Education Select Committee inquiry ‘Education: Are Prisoners Being Left Behind?’. The submission⁶ draws on the Foundation’s commissioned research and our partners’ expertise built through our Criminal Justice Programme over the last eight years. Our recommendations include:

  • The introduction of mechanisms which will ensure a consistent approach to data collection on prisoners with ESOL needs. The data must include ESOL needs and English proficiency, such as current pre-entry or entry levels as determined in an ESOL assessment, along with literacy and numeracy. These data must be recorded and used to understand the level of ESOL requirements in prison and to evaluate the impact of ESOL education in prisons.
  • Introduce mechanisms to ensure that data on language support follows the offender through the criminal justice system
  • Ensure ESOL prison education is relevant to the core skills required today by selecting ESOL curriculum based on day-to-day life
  • Embed English language provision within vocational courses in prisons. This can be achieved by improving language awareness of course tutors or providing language support assistants in the classes.
  • Ensure prisoners with ESOL needs have access to resettlement and offence-related programmes in the community by offering ESOL provision alongside employability and rehabilitation courses so that offenders can go into employment upon release

¹ HM Chief Inspector for Prisons England and Wales – Annual Report 2019 – 2020, October 2020

² Prison Reform Trust, Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, Winter 2019

³ The Centre for Social Justice, Digital Technology in Prisons: Unlocking relationships, learning and skills in UK prisons, January 2021

⁴ Ministry of Justice, Exploring the outcomes of prisoner learners: analysis of linked offender records from the Police National Computer and Individualised Learner Records, July 2017

⁵ The Bell Foundation, ESOL Worksheets (please note: to access the resources visitors will need to complete a free registration, the resources are also free to download)

⁶ The Bell Foundation, Submission to the Education Select Committee inquiry – Education: Are prisoners being left behind?, January 2021

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