My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on securing this important debate and on his excellent opening speech. I welcome the Justice Secretary’s desire to introduce much-needed prison reforms because, as has been said repeatedly during this debate, far too many young men and women are ending up in prison for a variety of reasons, such as mixing with the wrong company, living most of their early life in care, suffering from mental problems, some sort of child-abusive background or maybe simply because society has failed them.
When I visit prisons, I find that young black men are disproportionally in this position, with no hope or encouragement to better themselves, and this often leads to a revolving door situation as they leave prison with no prospects or further education. Being in prison should offer them an opportunity to turn their lives around in a positive way, and this can be done through education, especially for those serving long-term sentences.
I visited Swaleside prison on the Isle of Sheppey last year to open officially a unique and original project in its A wing called the Open Academy. It gives long-term inmates the opportunity to change their future by studying for a university degree using distance learning. The feeling of enthusiasm and hope among the inmates was electrifying and inspirational. Men who never thought they could achieve anything in life were suddenly empowered to discover their potential and the world of education. As my beloved mother used to say, “Education is your passport to life”. This is a perfect example of the kind of initiative we should be promoting as part of prison reform.
The Open Academy at Swaleside, which was praised in Dame Sally Coates’s review of education in prisons, has been open for nearly four months now. During that time, Malcolm Whitelaw, the head of learning, skills and employment in the reducing reoffending department, along with two co-ordinators and prison staff, has worked tirelessly to ensure the continued progress and promotion of the project to all inmates. Prisoners are given the opportunity to move to A wing to live to enable them to be part of the community of learners. The project now has 30 students signed up to the self-study programme. Their academic levels and abilities are wide-ranging, but they work together.
However, this initiative has not been easily achieved. It happened purely through the vision and dogged determination of the then governor and her staff. They were fortunate enough to have the majority of the resources donated to them by libraries that had closed down and to have generous donations which enabled them to buy essential equipment. However, more resources will be needed to continue to engage all the inmates who want to learn and develop.
The staff on A wing have also benefited. They have responded positively to the change in the dynamics of the wing and, importantly, they have supported the work required in the Open Academy, as much of it has been somewhat different from their usual everyday job. They now share ideas and make contributions. The Open Academy has given them an identity and a positive purpose. Some staff have even shown an interest in engaging in distance learning themselves and will be using the facilities of the Open Academy to study and to develop their career path and abilities. What a success story this is.
Malcolm has said: “I have been very proud of the work that has been achieved and the commitment, dedication and passion shown by everyone. To see prisoners engaging in positive activity which no doubt aids in their rehabilitation and employment opportunities upon release, encourages my staff. Together we are achieving and impacting upon prisoners’ lives”. He also said: “I strongly believe that should other prisons use this unique model and roll this out in their prisons then they too will see the change and progression which we have started to see at Swaleside. With the correct support and drive I believe it is possible across the prison estate”.
I agree with Malcolm. This could be a fundamental part of prison reform for the development of prisoners, especially those with medium and long-term sentences, as there is little progression available through the normal channels. To continue this important programme, prisons need relatively low investment and, more importantly, they need to involve and train their committed staff, who will be essential to the running of not just the Open Academy at Swaleside, but all future academies of this type. Will the Government consider funding Open Academies like the one at Swaleside? May I suggest that the Minister visits Swaleside prison, if he has not done so already, to see for himself the good work that is being done there?