The criminal justice system in this country disproportionately affects people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, and prison education is failing them, says Nina Champion
The overwhelming message from David Lammy’s groundbreaking new report is the depressing lot faced by minorities at every stage of life: from school exclusions, to engagement with the police, to charging, sentencing and treatment in custody, BAME youngsters get a disproportionately worse deal, and the ill-effects of a criminal record follow them as they return to the community.
Sadly this state of affairs has long been known to students of the UK justice system.
Education has been proven to significantly reduce the likelihood of reoffending
What the Lammy Review does is put forward a number of valuable proposals, including making allowances for younger defendants’ immaturity and in certain cases sealing criminal records to help former prisoners find work. These steps could go some way to redress the injustice, and it is hugely important for the long-term sustainability of our justice system that the government responds energetically to the recommendations. The Prisoners’ Education Trust, alongside every other informed commentator on criminal justice, will endorse that call.
But crucial though the Lammy Review has been in highlighting the most egregious points of injustice, it is only a start at looking at the experience of BAME people in custody. In particular, it does not tell us enough about how they access education in custody, education that has the power to transform lives and has been proven to significantly reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
The report confirms that BAME prisoners are likely to have better prior educational attainment than white prisoners on entry to custody. But what the report doesn’t tell us is what happens next. Given the level at which they enter the system, are they being engaged equally in learning opportunities during their sentence? Are they being supported to progress to the higher levels of educational achievement which can help transform their lives after release? These were questions raised by our alliance of prison education charities, the Prisoner Learning Alliance, in our submission to the Lammy Review, but which went unanswered in the final report.
Our questions went unanswered in the final report
The chapter ‘Education, Training and Employment’ focuses on criminal records as a significant barrier to employment, and suggests measures to tackle disclosure obligations. But another – arguably bigger – barrier to employment is a lack of skills, meaningful qualifications or the attitudes employers look for. Learning in prison can support the development of these crucial skills and attributes. If BAME prisoners are not getting equal access or support to progress during their sentences, this is something we should know.
Its omission from the report matters. Education is not a side issue: it is the engine of rehabilitation. Named in the Queen’s birthday honours this month were two men, Chris Syrus and Frank Harris, both of whom were first funded by PET to complete distance-learning courses while serving prison sentences. Both are black men who have gone to achieve degrees and serve their communities, doing vital work with young BAME people at risk of committing crime. This is the positive ripple effect of education: it has the power not only to change one life but to create role models.
Governors should be held to account for equality of access to education
As governors take over commissioning prison education from next summer, and become accountable for the educational progress of their prisoners, they should also be held to account for equality of access to education and equality of outcomes for all prisoners. This will require the Ministry of Justice to examine data concerning BAME educational progression and use it as a baseline against which governors are measured and held to account.
It will also require governors to listen to BAME prisoners and understand their needs, interests and barriers to learning when planning the curriculum. It will hopefully encourage governors to seek the expertise of specialist education providers and voluntary and community sector organisations. This is particularly important in young offender institutions and prisons with high numbers of young adults where the proportion of BAME prisoners is up to 40 per cent.
The Lammy Review should provide a starting point for further urgent and critical investigation of every aspect of the prison experience for the BAME population, including whether they leave prison with more skills and qualifications they entered with. Because these are the skills and qualifications that could determine whether they are equipped to build a crime-free life after release, realise their potential and become assets to their families, communities, and our society.
Nina Champion is head of policy at the Prisoners’ Education Trust