A change I want to see in prison education: Does education pay?

Home > A change I want to see in prison education: Does education pay?

08 December 2022

In this blog, PLA member Oliver Goodwin draws on his lived experience to describe a change he would like to see in prison education, why, and what difference it would make.

Oliver outlines the choices people in prison have to make when deciding between whether to participate in education or in work, and suggests that the cost of living crisis will only make these decisions more difficult. Heating, Eating or talking to Daddy – does education pay?

Would you choose a role that is stable and well-paid or one where the pay is considerably lower and is only guaranteed for a couple of weeks at a time? It’s a no brainer, really.

In many private prisons, the going rate for a ‘session’ of education is approximately £0.95, this means about £8.55/week. Educational courses run for two, maybe three sometimes four weeks at a time, meaning that students don’t know what will happen when that course ends. Will you be on another course? What will your (new) fellow students be like? Or will you be back behind your door on no pay?

An alternative to education is that a person in prison could go to workshops – starting at about £1.12, and in many cases quickly rising to the lofty heights of £1.36, £1.84 and if you get a sought after supervisory role then potentially £2.50, or more! This equates to £12.24, £16.56 or £22.50/week! Even at the lowest level this is approximately a 50% pay increase – would you take a job with a 50% pay increase that offered additional perks? Prisoners who work in workshops have the potential for ‘progression’, the knowledge that they will be in that role until they choose not to be, a secure income and knowing who they work with on a daily basis – and knowing that you can trust those around you in prison is worth a huge amount, as you may be able to imagine. In many cases prisoners may have the opportunity to undertake additional ‘overtime’ for an extra £5 a week.

Prisoners in education don’t have the capacity to take on ‘overtime’. They don’t have the chance to gain promotions or more income. They don’t have a stable group of co-workers to build up meaningful relationships with. They will gain qualifications, they may well help develop themselves and improve future life chances – but this does not help in the here and now, in the misery of prison life and separation from family and friends. Given that many people in prison have previously poor experiences in education, they are further disincentivised to make a choice to try and equip themselves with skills, education and qualifications in time for their release.

The reality is that if you are trying to maintain communication with family back home and also supplement the inadequate diet you are on, prison life can be very expensive. £20 of phone credit will probably give you enough money to make a 20 minute call a day for a week – it would therefore come as no surprise to learn that many prisoners with family are financially supported. Given the current cost of living crisis and the link between lower socio-economic status and incarceration, how many families are having the conversation of heating, eating or talking to Daddy? And how many times does this mean we will see a growing gap between families, communities, and people in prison? What might this do to the reoffending rate?

By having such a large discrepancy in pay, we are asking prisoners to choose between making it through prison with intact relationships or taking a gamble on an education system that many see has routinely failed them up to now, and offers little to nothing to get them through their sentence.

Don’t we want prisoners demanding more and better quality education provision? Don’t we want prisoners who are determined to better themselves and ensure that when they leave they are as well-equipped as they can be to find stable employment or start their own business so they don’t fall back to offending for a way to provide? If we want prisoners to learn soft skills in the classroom that aren’t going to be taught in the workshops, if we want education to be held in high esteem and for students to be vying to undertake classes, if we want to create a culture where people aspire to be better rather than to keep doing what they have always done – then we need to be insisting that the package for going into education is at least equal to undertaking menial work in workshops so a prison can make money from fulfilling external contracts that benefit private companies. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.


The writer served 11 months inside prison and is a former teacher. The writer is aware that he can only write from his own perspective and with limited knowledge of other institutions, not to mention the financial actions of a variety of privately owned prisons.


* This blog is an opinion piece by a PLA member and may not represent the views of all members. It is the fifth in a series – ‘A change I want to see in prison education’ – written by PLA members with lived experience of prison.

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