From education to employment

Digital exclusion in prisons is a catastrophe in waiting

james tweed stock

With Friday October 13th marking the International Day of Education in Prison, the founder of digital learning company Coracle has said that we must act now to ensure our prisoners have the skills to operate in a digital world.

I’m James Tweed, founder and managing director of digital learning company Coracle. We provide inmates at 86 prisons in England and Wales with access to education in their cells. I believe that failing to educate our prisoners in digital skills is a catastrophe in waiting.

With Friday October 13th marking the International Day of Education in Prison, I want to make the point that we must act now to ensure our prisoners have the skills to operate in a digital world.

My team at Coracle and I are on a mission to tackle digital exclusion. Earlier this year, we won a King’s Award for Enterprise for promoting opportunity through social mobility.

My company’s tech platform means prisoners can safely access content from organisations such as The Open University, Prison Education Trust and the Aim Awards without using the internet.

We’re one of the few companies permitted by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prisons and Probation Service to provide prisoners with laptops for education.

We recognise at Coracle that many of our prisoners are re-entering a very different society to the one they left behind. It’s clear to us that the level of digital exclusion we’re seeing right now is causing a serious divide in society. 

Many of us are enjoying the benefits and opportunities provided by the digital age. But what is also painfully obvious to anyone working in prison education is that a sizeable part of the population is being left behind. This gap is only going to get wider unless we ensure everyone is able to gain digital skills.

Many prisoners lack even the most basic of digital skills. I’ve met inmates who simply don’t know how to move a cursor on a screen, others who cannot fathom a mobile phone.

These are people who leave prison without the ability to do simple day-to-day things such as access a bank account online or fill in a digital benefit application form, activities which most of us would now take for granted.

A lack of digital skills can and does lead to reoffending. Former prisoners just don’t know how to survive in a digital world so they return to their old neighbourhoods and associates and get drawn back into crime. Watching this exclusion increase when you understand the implications is horrifying, it’s like watching a ticking time bomb.

International Day of Education in Prison falls on Friday 13th this year, perhaps a fateful sign that we fail to educate our prisoners at our peril. But we’re working to change that for good.

The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that reoffending currently costs taxpayers over £18bn a year. Yet we could educate all prisoners for a fraction of that amount.

By providing inmates with access to laptops which they can use in their cells for learning, we can reduce reoffending by helping prisoners gain the skills they need.

But more than that, we can also offer hope. We have this treasure trove of new technology which can help people to develop skills, and to become more innovative and creative, but we aren’t doing enough with it.

Many prisoners I’ve worked with are keen writers or artists and have a unique take on the world. We need to do more to help them develop these skills. By doing so, we could ensure they leave prison with a very different mindset to the one they went in with.

Gaining creative skills can build a sense of purpose, hope and inspiration for the future. Employability is not just about learned skills, but also about having the initiative to think outside the box and problem solve in an innovative way.

Our offline virtual learning environment can be supplied to a prisoner for as little as just a few hundred pounds per year. We could affordably provide all prisoners with access to education via a laptop and help them gain vital digital skills before release.

I’d love this ‘International Day of Education in Prison’ to be the day when that decision was made.

By James Tweed, founder of Coracle.

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