November 21 2023

Rejecting the brutality at the heart of prisons policy

Rejecting the brutality at the heart of prisons policy

The instinctive reaction to punish prisoners harshly, to deter current and future prisoners through brutal conditions, is a natural one for some.  In the aftermath of an attack like last week’s London Bridge attack, the desire to exact vengeance from those who have wreaked havoc and devastation is understandable, especially when such an  attack seemingly rejects the very notion of rehabilitation. 

But while an Old Testament-style fire and fury response may appeal to our primitive passions, it is poor policy- unless the aim is to incite more crime, not less.  

Learning Together, which was last week celebrating its fifth anniversary until the cries of celebration turned to cries of horror, is a charity which fundamentally rejects the idea that brutality and suffering should lie at the heart of our prisons policy.

Lsat year we interviewed John Crilly, the ex prisoner who fought the London Bridge attacker. He had had his conviction for murder quashed in the first and only successful challenge of a joint enterprise conviction. John talks about his experience on Learning Together and on meeting the judge that sentenced him.


Imagine struggling to read a letter from your bank. Or looking at the change handed over in Tesco’s, unsure if it’s right or not. Or applying for a job when you don’t have anything to put in the box labelled ‘educational qualifications’.  Half of the UK’s prison population is functionally illiterate. 

Learning together is premised on the ideal that few are truly beyond redemption, and that all deserve, at least, the opportunity to try and rise above their past actions.  Founded at the University of Cambridge in 2015 by Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong, it aspires to change prisoners’ lives through education, fulfilling its motto of ‘education as the practice of freedom’.

Students at Cambridge and partner universities are encouraged to work with prisoners in courses that range from criminology to literary criticism, developing prisoners’ and students’ knowledge and skills, whilst giving students awareness of a life which may have been hitherto foreign to them.  Ludlow told the Guardian in 2016 that students had found it to be ‘the most engaging way they’ve studied’, allowing them to see prisoners as names and faces, rather than mere statistics. 

Even if few and far between, programmes such as Learning Together and Durham University’s Inside-Out recognise that prisoners should not be defined by the label ‘criminal’. Instead, they allow inmates to learn and develop, enabling both them and the students with whom they sudy to discover that they are not bound to a single track in life, but have genuine choice. 

For inmates on advanced courses like this, the aim is to lay a path to higher education, with modules taken on the Learning Together course accepted as credit towards an undergraduate degree if they pursue one, and Cambridge now offering bursaries to some participants. 

Other charities offer more foundational work, like the Prisoners’ Education Trust, which helps inmates and ex-offenders gain basic qualifications, giving them the opportunity to achieve the credentials and hone the tools necessary to meaningfully participate  in society.  

Admittedly, these courses are labour-intensive and expensive.  Yet prison is already hideously expensive, as I have previously written here, as well as woefully inefficient.  For nearly half of prisoners, prison is a mere staging post on a ceaseless track, their detention a repeated cost for the state to bear. Currently 46% of all offenders re-offend within a year, whilst those sentenced for less than a year are more likely than not to return to prison. 

In contrast, while we do not yet have figures for Learning Together and Inside-Out (which, strictly speaking, target prisoner education, rather than rehabilitation), the Ministry of Justice’s own data suggests that prisoners who engage on a learning programme are 10% less likely to reoffend, whilst the Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland has seen a 22% reduction in the rate of re-convictions. 

Programmes like this may be long-term, but are proven to bear fruit, saving criminals from a lifetime of prison, and would-be victims from the trauma of crime. Many have been quick to point to Umran Khan’s participation in the scheme, forgetting that those ‘citizen heroes’ who bravely challenged his attack were also participants in it. We should not judge an orchard by a single apple.

Providing meaningful education to those incarcerated is only one step towards developing a just, humane and effective penal policy.  Alongside education and rehabilitation, opportunities need to be offered beyond prison, opportunities like those provided by Redemption Roasters, a coffee company which runs its coffee-roasters from Aylesbury Prison, and trains inmates in ‘competition-level barista skills’, employing some in their London coffeeshops.  It gives inmates a purpose in prison, and prospects out of it. 

It is ideas and companies like this which should be implemented wholesale, not ridiculous and embarrassing policies like banning books or making libraries a reward instead of a well-funded, well-manned resource. 

Jack Merritt’s father puts our government to shame. In the face of his son’s murder, he personified his spirit, rejecting the shallow, cynical response of the prime minister, and instead wrote for the Guardian about his, and Jack’s, belief in the ‘inherent goodness of humanity’. 

If Dave Merritt can set aside his pain to champion the need for a better world for those most in need, it behoves us, and the government, to listen to and engage with his words. So far, our prime minister has disappointed. Should he remain in No. 10, let us hope he can do better.