Despite lack of the internet, prisoners can study via distance learning, but there are many hurdles to leap
"When I was sentenced to 10 years, I was determined that I'd get something out of it and that I'd educate myself to a level where I could do a job I wanted to, with young people, when I got out," says former inmate Chris Syrus.
Having done four years of a psychology degree by distance learning with the Open University (OU), Syrus managed to secure a job on his release. Though he never completed the qualification, he says that the skills and knowledge he gained over that extended period of study while inside gave him the confidence to establish his own company, Syrus Consultancy, which uses personal development and creative writing workshops to help young people avoid getting into crime.
Stories of prisoners who'd barely seen the inside of a classroom being awarded degrees are untypical; the reality is that studying for anything more than a GCSE-level qualification while serving time is a very hard slog indeed.
Prisons aren't funded to deliver any education higher than level 2, explains Pat Jones, director of the Prisoners' Education Trust (PET). This means there's no money within the system to pay for tutors to come to teach A-levels, BTecs or degrees. Anyone wanting to embark on the kind of further study that will significantly enhance their employability on release will therefore be looking at distance learning.
As a system, it might seem tailormade for people stuck in a cell for hours every day but, according to Jones, a host of barriers must be overcome for a prisoner to have any chance of success. Even to apply to study at level 3 or above, she says, prisoners must first get permission from everyone in the prison involved in their daily routine, and the course must fit with their personal development plan. Once accepted ? and having managed to secure funding ? prison restrictions can frustrate even the most motivated learner.
"Probably the biggest barrier, because distance learning is now going online, is the need for the internet," explains Anne Pike, whose long involvement in prison education has led her to research the barriers to distance learning for inmates.
Internet access is strictly barred in UK prisons, which means that some of the techniques course providers employ, such as real-time participation in discussion forums, setting up virtual "buddy groups", and immediate, direct access to tutors for guidance and feedback are impossible. When assignments require skills in internet research as part of what is being assessed, another problem arises ? a prisoner can never gain full marks.
The Virtual Campus that is now being rolled out in UK prisons is a closed system that mimics some aspects of the internet. But in Norway, Pike says, inmates are given web access for learning purposes. Their browsing history is logged and certain types of content are blocked. Anyone abusing the privilege loses it.
Allowing inmates, many of whom may not see the outside world for years, to keep up-to-date with the technological skills they'll need to operate effectively both as citizens and as workers on release, she argues, is something prison authorities in this country should urgently consider.
At category-C prison HMP Ranby in Nottinghamshire, genuine efforts are being made to overcome some of the obstacles distance learners routinely face.
"We have a dedicated member of staff who has internet access and acts as a conduit between the learner and the provider," says Sue Bance, head of learning, skills and employment at the prison. "If the student has a query, she can get the answer."
Distance-learning students on OU courses at Ranby who are assigned to work placements in the daytime are able to access the library and computers in the evenings and at weekends. This is not a measure all governors are willing to authorise.
Bance also notes that while many distance-learning students in prisons have done well to embark on a course at level 3 or above, a good proportion will not have gained effective study skills while at school. Rather than wasting precious contact time with their OU tutor in discussions about how to organise their time, plan assignments and reference their sources, Bance and her team have developed support packs for distance learners backed up by a study-skills programme with regular group sessions.
The soft skills that prisoners develop through working to overcome the frustrations of completing their distance-learning course seem so worthwhile that helping students to develop them looks like a no-brainer.
"In a CfBT Education Trust report on employers' perception of best practice in prison education, the highest gap identified in offenders securing a job on release was that of soft skills and training," says Jones. "On a distance-learning course, prisoners have to keep on looking to their internal resources, learning how to tackle tasks, and how to overcome difficulties."
Sadly, not everyone who could benefit does, she adds. "When we asked prison staff how many could be helped by distance learning, it was twice as many as are doing it at the moment."
This clearly angers her. "What distance learning does is give them not just the self-esteem and knowledge, but the inner strength to deal with the downsides," which, she points out, they will inevitably have to deal with when they get out.
"Contrary to popular belief, most prisoners can read and write, and a significant number are capable of higher-level study. So it would make sense to give people the opportunity to progress."