David Gauke’s recent speech on prison reform had a lot in it to like, writes Peter Cox, who explains what he sees as the next steps

The justice secretary recently outlined his views on the role of prisons within society. Sitting in the audience, I was struck by his honest overview of a prison system with challenges, but also the capacity to address them. As he said, we send people to prison “as a punishment not for punishment”, and it was heartening to hear that rehabilitation is one of the main aims.

But to make this happen we need to rely on investment made by both the system and the prisoner, providing hope and aspiration, so the right choices can be made and supported through education, skills and employment to reduce reoffending.

Mr Gauke referred to a “key-worker model”, which would see prison officers build relationships with small groups of offenders.

To me this is a fantastic starting point, and the crux of getting prisoners into the classroom to support their education. Prison officers are the pillars of the prison system; they have maximum exposure to the prisoners and they know their needs, fears and aspirations.

For education to affect rehabilitation, there must be a flexible strategy integrated into each establishment’s regime

Prison education providers should collaborate with prison officers to close the loop and get offenders into the classroom. As an education provider we first come into contact with an offender during their induction process, along with other agencies. This can be a stressful time for them, and it’s only an initial point of contact. Prison officers have day-to-day contact with offenders and a greater opportunity to build rapport, and potentially influence their decision to engage with education.

If the education provision can be matched with examples of success, we can improve these relationships further.

We currently run a peer-mentoring programme, where offenders use their existing skills or develop skills to support their fellow inmates to engage with education. They also introduce them to others on their wing who are positively engaging in education, and reference former inmates who have successfully benefited from education.

A key-worker model would function similarly, and collaboration with education providers will create a cycle of support to underpin rehabilitation efforts.

Crucially, Mr Gauke suggested that his education and employment strategy would be released soon.

For everyone working in prison education, it cannot come soon enough. Our hope is that it will address ways we can balance the need for core skills such as English and maths with practical support and access to technical education and apprenticeships.

For education to affect rehabilitation, there must be a flexible strategy integrated into each establishment’s regime, but which sets clear outcomes for progress and successful rehabilitation.

It’s a difficult balancing act and it is vital that the education and skills learned in the prison classroom are valuable to employers in a prisoner’s home community, and not just to those around the prison.

The focus on education and employment is important, but addressing only one factor will fail to reduce reoffending.

I agree with Mr Gauke that release on temporary licence needs to be looked at further and could be a means of linking rehabilitation and learning with practical support around housing, community and, fundamentally, a job.

Crucially any changes in ROTL must include access considerations to training opportunities, and this in turn raises questions about how systems such as adult education budgets are used, targeted and commissioned.

Finally the idea of a cross-government effort to reduce reoffending is, in my opinion, long overdue and very welcome.

It makes absolute sense to link rehabilitation and reoffending with the services that ex-offenders often need but cannot always access. However, a cross-government group must recognise that most of these services are provided locally, but that local government, mental health trusts and colleges have major challenges, vastly reduced budgets and limited capacity. They must, however, all be part of the conversation.

Mr Gauke has a compelling overview and vision for prisons. We welcome the opportunity for change, and the emphasis on rehabilitation being so clearly linked with education is especially welcome.

Peter Cox is managing director of Novus

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