How Prisoners Education Trust is offering vital second chances in Yorkshire: Alan Billings

Thirty or so years ago, a couple of lawyers, who were regular visitors to a London prison, realising that inmates would only reoffend if they left prison unable to find work, resolved to do something about it.

They set up the Prisoners Education Trust (PET).

While prisons have education classes for all, they wanted the trust to provide specific accredited vocational courses to meet the needs of particular prisoners. Only 28 per cent of prisoners find employment after release. Last month I met (remotely) the current Chief Executive of PET, Jon Collins.

He wanted to tell me how they had used a small grant we had given them to fund online courses for eight South Yorkshire prisoners.

Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings. Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings.
Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings.

The initial contact comes from the prisoners themselves.

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They want to do something positive with their lives post sentence and realise that their time behind bars offers them a unique chance to take some crucial educational steps.

PET helps them find the right course and then negotiates with prison staff to enable them to tackle it – with support from the charity. Steering prisoners to what will be most helpful to them on release is the key first step.

I asked what the most popular courses were. It seems that business start-up and health and safety courses were the most asked for, though PET will be open to any suggestions.

Because courses are online, they can generally be made available in every prison across the country. And the courses are of good quality. They have 40 organisations that can supply accredited courses – and that accreditation is critical for many career possibilities.

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The lock-downs during Covid were a hard time. On the one hand, prisoners had long stretches of uninterrupted time for study. On the other, they were receiving less support, which affected general mental health, and there was a bigger than usual drop-out.

The inability of family and friends to visit was particularly damaging. Prisoners who receive family visits are almost 40 per cent less likely to re-offend than those who receive none. They are especially critical for female prisoners. It was also difficult to arrange for people to sit exams during the time of Covid restrictions.

In 2020, PET had 1,717 applications for courses. In 2021, this grew to 2,315 and in October 2022 they had already received 2,124 as prisons gradually began to return to post pandemic normal.

Before my meeting with the Chief Executive, some of the prisoners had written about their experiences. I found the range of the courses surprising and the hand-written comments quite moving.

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One said: “I’d really like to demonstrate to my family that I have the capability to commit to something like this.”

We have four prisons in South Yorkshire, all in Doncaster, and one of my new members of staff is a former NACRO employee, who used to spend time in one of them. So we have a particular interest in the educational needs of prisoners. Occasionally, people tell me that prison sentences should be made harsher and longer.

The truth is that however long a prison sentence is, men and women will one day come out. I would sooner them come out with at least a chance of getting a job than having no chance at all. For all our sakes.

Alan Billings is South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner