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The RSA is to be congratulated for expanding and elevating the public debate about reforming our prisons. I literally cheered as I finished the executive summary of The Learning Prison. Not only does it contain several imaginative new ideas and many well-researched examples of existing but under-publicised good practice. It also has the advantage of being published by a respected institution from outside the ring of “usual suspects” who lobby for or comment on prison issues.

The sterility of the current debate on prison policy is depressingly but all too accurately summarised in the opening paragraph of RSA’s The Learning Prison as: “A dysfunctional public conversation often brokered by a media that combines righteous indignation with lack of interest in the detail”. And there’s the rub. Although the lock ’em up and throw away the key brigade are diminishing in influence, not least in the higher ranks of the Conservative shadow ministers likely to form the next government, nevertheless the more enlightened opinion formers on prison topics are either narrow lobbyists for this or that special angle or broad brush communicators who have not yet immersed themselves in the essential detail. My primary enthusiasm for The Learning Prison is that its authors and researchers have got well stuck into the details of how we might, as a society, use new techniques and technology to rebuild offenders’ lives so that they are skill-trained to lead employed and law-abiding lives. As I read the report’s sections on “digital inclusion” I thought back to my time as an attendee of the IT classes at HMP Standford Hill. They were heavily over-subscribed (thus excluding most prisoners) and hopelessly under-equipped with outdated computers and programs. On one memorable morning our teacher announced with pride that the prison service had authorised his purchase of a new software training package. But when the first lesson flashed up on our screens the instructions were in Finnish! No wonder the course had been available at a bargain price.

Aside from such comic glitches there were positive memories that I retain from life as a prison IT trainee. The first was that some of the most unexpected prisoners – superficially with poor educational abilities – took to computer skills like the proverbial ducks to water. A second surprise was that one or two prison officers obviously resented the successes of members of the class when they achieved good computer qualifications and certificates. Conversely a little appreciation of a prisoner’s improvement at IT skills often resulted in redoubled effort, especially when the praise came from a trusted mentor.

All these points, one way or another, have been sussed out and cleverly developed by the authors of The Learning Prison. For example I was encouraged by the report’s emphasis on the need to improve the training of prison offices so that they can take a lead role in wing-based learning. The Prison Officers’ Association, which can be a resentful and change-averse union in some places, might make difficulties here. But some intriguing new research cited by the report suggests that there is an untapped interest in learning provision from uniformed members of the prison service. The authors find grounds for hoping that the old barriers between us (the prison officers) and them (the civilian practitioners who work in offender rehabilitation) may be crumbling, especially in the field of learning.

The path of enlightened reform is not going to be blazed by magic bullets

This is an evidence-based report, well sourced by interviews from the quiet professionals who lead so much unsung good practice in our prisons. As they know, the path of enlightened reform is not going to be blazed by magic bullets. It is more likely to be a process akin to a setting up bespoke tailoring shops within particular prisons and the local communities around them.

Bold and successful experiments like the Electric Radio Station in HMP Brixton could be extended to the field of computer technology. The Learning Prison envisages a future in which secure wireless networks will deliver IT educational and skills training courses to individual prisoners on their in-cell computers. Up till now such dreams have been crushed by the security experts (or exaggerators?) who voice objections like “we can’t make it easy for inmates to plan their future drug deals/bank robberies online”. Can such fears be overcome by new 21st century technology? This report should start a serious debate on such issues.

The Learning Prison is long on vision but short on economics. There is barely a budgetary figure or even a concern expressed in the report as to how these good ideas should be funded. So perhaps the next move by the RSA might be to commission some additional work on what these learning initiatives would cost on a pilot scheme basis (eg: setting up a secure wi-fi network in say, HMP Norwich with instructors and in-cell computers for 200 inmates), and then identifying how it could be paid for. If such a study produced a viable plan, then perhaps an imaginative Prison Minister could give it the green light and put the RSA in charge or executing its own admirable blueprint for Britain’s first Learning Prison. That would create an exciting space which everyone would watch.


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