Education in prisons must be overhauled to reduce re-offending and make prisoners more employable, the justice secretary has said.
Michael Gove suggested “earned release” for inmates in England and Wales who work hard and gain qualifications.
Prison officers said they had heard similar “rhetoric” before and questioned how the plans would work.
Labour said it had long argued for better prison education, but detention conditions also needed improving.
Mr Gove also spoke about closing “ageing and ineffective” prisons and giving more powers to governors – citing Pentonville in London, which inspectors recently found was overcrowded and where most inmates felt unsafe, as “the most dramatic example of failure”.
But in his first major speech since being appointed justice secretary in May, Mr Gove said there were “technical and complex policy questions” about how change should be implemented.
How educated is the prison population?
- Just over half the prison population (53%) have any qualifications compared with 85% of the working-age population
- More than one in five prisoners (21%) say they need help with reading, writing and numbers
- More than four in 10 (41%) inmates need help with education and to improve work-related skills
- The proportion of people in prison who attain GCSE grades at A-C level, 22%, is the same as the working age population. The Ministry of Justice said this might be because of prison education programmes
Source: Ministry of Justice, 2012
Speaking at the Prisoner Learning Alliance, Mr Gove, a former education secretary, called for an end to the “idleness and futility” of prison life.
The proposals could be piloted first or introduced in a more radical way, he said.
If prisons moved to a system of “earned release”, it would be a major change from the current policy under which most prisoners are automatically released on licence at the halfway point of their sentence.
BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw
The prison problems Michael Gove faces are the same as his predecessor, Chris Grayling – overcrowding, rising violence and drug-taking – but his tone is markedly different.
Mr Gove referred to St Matthew’s Gospel and quoted Churchill as he spoke of the need to transform the “soul” of prisoners through rehabilitation.
He believes education is the key.
But his plans – more control to governors over education provision and “earned release” for offenders who gain skills and qualifications – are far from fully formed.
Civil servants are working on the proposals, perhaps with a pilot scheme at some point.
Letting inmates out early if they become trained or qualified would be politically very tricky for a Conservative justice secretary, so Mr Gove will want to ensure it isn’t seen as a soft option or a mechanism simply to reduce the prison population.
Shadow justice secretary Lord Falconer welcomed the government’s “change of tone”.
But he added: “How can prisons focus on improving the quality of education when violence and drug-taking are rife, there is persistent overcrowding and serious assaults on staff are rising?”
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “The challenge now is to translate this marked new reflective tone set by the justice secretary into sensible policy.”
Prison education, work and re-offending
- £145m spent every year in England and Wales on prison education
- Almost half of adult prisoners re-offend within one year of their release
- 60% re-offend if they serve sentences of less than a year
- Two-thirds of offenders under 18 re-offend within twelve months of release
Jonathan Robinson, who was jailed for 17 weeks for theft in 2011 and campaigns for education in prisons, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was “thrilled” Mr Gove had “flagged education”.
“During a totally deserved prison sentence I saw missed opportunity after missed opportunity after missed opportunity for rehabilitation in prison via education,” he said.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association union, “cautiously” welcomed the proposals but said clear policies and resources were required.
He said the “root causes” of people going to prison, such as drug and alcohol dependency and mental illness, also needed to be addressed.
In his speech, Mr Gove said: “In prisons there is a – literally – captive population whose inability to read properly or master basic mathematics makes them prime candidates for re-offending.
“Ensuring those offenders become literate and numerate makes them employable and thus contributors to society, not a problem for our communities.”
Mr Gove proposed giving governors more control and rewarding them if offenders do well.
Earlier this week, chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick said the government’s “rehabilitation revolution”, launched five years ago at the outset of the coalition, had not even started.
He said in his annual report that prisons were in their worst state for a decade and some jails were “places of violence, squalor and idleness”.