Recalling those dark days and the unnecessary squandering of human potential that followed, Mark Krumholz, volunteer and organiser of a prison education programme in California, tries hard not to despair at the sheer short-sightedness of it all. “You lock people up, do nothing with them, brutalise them, something’s going to happen when they come out. It’s not rocket science,” says Krumholz, who is also Associate Professor of Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In similar vein, Sean Pica, who provides educational programmes in New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison on a “zero state funding” model, fi nds it hard to conceal his frustration: “It’s the one thing reliably proved to cut recidivism, and it’s been the one thing cut from the budget.” Confi rmation of Pica’s belief came this month in a report published by the RAND Corporation, the biggest ever meta-analysis of the effi cacy of prison education. Its findings: there is “strong evidence” that prison education works.

Those participating in prison educational courses had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than others, while those who took vocational courses had a 28 percent better chance of securing employment post-release. But prisons are not, and never have been, sites where the voice of reason holds sway. They have, as French philosopher Michel Foucault says, functioned as theatres of punishment, symbolic stages upon which social anxieties and angers are played out.

What is compelling about the US carceral estate at this precise historical moment is that a new act in the drama appears to be developing. And it is a script that has yet to be formulated in the UK. A deep paradox lies at the heart of it: austerity has forced a penal rethink in ways that times of plenty never did. So what is the role of prison education in the USA in these defi cit-ridden days – and what lessons might there be for the United Kingdom?

The quantum of the problem

First, one must appreciate the magnitude of the US penal problem. In England and Wales the prison population is around 85,000; in the USA it is 2.2 million. However, it is far easier to cite these figures than to absorb the vast human cost they entail. The US custodial estate is the equivalent of the entire populations of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol behind bars at this very moment. When you add the people subject to the corrective control of parole and probation, the figure rises to 7 million. That is more than were in Stalin’s Gulags. How did US incarceration reach such stratospheric heights?

While many leading commentators cite the so-called “War on Drugs”, Linda Meyer, Professor of Law of Quinnipiac University, Connecticut also identifies an “empathy gap”. In a recent conference at Harvard on US mass incarceration, she stated that the image of the criminal “superpredator” still stalks the civic imagination. As she puts it, when we speak of crime and punishment “all the monsters come into the room.” One marker of the level of punitivism is the number of people consigned to a whole life term, without any prospect of release.

50 percent of the entire US prison population is incarcerated for non-violent offences

In the UK there are approximately 50 such people. In the United States, there are 40,000. Of these, 3200 will spend the rest of their lives in prison for non-violent offences. Indeed, more broadly 50 percent of the entire US prison population is incarcerated for non-violent offences. It is astonishing statistics such as these that, paradoxically, provides a way forward in the quest to reduce the prison population. For the first time in a generation, the US prison population is falling. Having peaked at its all-time historic high of 2.3 million in 2009, it has fallen in each of the subsequent years. This in large part has been forced on the nation. In California, for example, the Federal judiciary ruled that conditions in the state’s prisons were “unconstitutional”. The vast cost of it all, an annual budget of $50 billion nationwide, has proved intolerable in times of austerity. So steps have had to be taken.

Actions taken

In New York, judges have been conferred with a greater sentencing discretion to provide treatment and interventions for non-violent drug offenders. Result: the prison population has fallen; crime has not gone up. On the West Coast, Melissa Crabbe, who runs the Inside-Out project in Oregon, believes that the American addiction to ever-increasing incarceration has “crested” and education will play a roll in the rethink. She is finding formerly sceptical administrations more receptive. However, this has never been her experience of coalface Corrections Officers, who have been unfailingly supportive of her educational work. “They know that prison is a miserable failure,” she says. “They live it.”

So how and why does prison education work? Sean Pica explains how in the first 13 years of Sing Sing’s Hudson Project not a single student went back to prison. The workload on the students is onerous. There are classes from Monday to Friday, with three hours per day without a break. As he says, “That’s more than Harvard.” For Pica, “This is so much bigger than college. For the first time in their life they’re see that their thoughts have value. When they finish a course, it may be the first thing in their lives they’ve ever finished. And if you can do that in that place...,” he says, referring to Sing Sing. Pica is intimately acquainted with the obstacles: he is a graduate of Sing Sing’s programme, having served over a decade in prison himself.

What lessons can the UK learn?

So are there lessons here for the UK? Three points must immediately be made. First, one must keep a sense of proportion. Underlying rates of incarceration in the UK are around five times lower than in the US. And prison education, despite the controversial process of external tendering to run courses, has far greater state funding. Nonetheless, in numerical terms our incarceration levels hover around their historic high. The degree of everyday misery and degradation produced by these custodial figures is exacerbated by the intense overcrowding plaguing the system. The Howard League has discovered from a Freedom of Information request that 19,000 people share cells designed for single occupation. As its Chief Executive Frances Crook states: “It’s far worse than anyone imagined: one in four people behind bars are packed like sardines into cramped cells.”

Second, there is a danger of stasis or decay in UK prison education. In October Matthew Coffey, Ofsted’s national director of further education, stated that standards of education in prisons were “unacceptable”, and the equivalent delivered to schools would produce a “national outcry”. One is bound to ask whether impoverished education provision should be part of the punishment, particularly when lack of education so strongly correlates with criminal offending in the first place.

Finally, a cult of custody still looms menacingly over UK criminal justice policy. It is endorsed by a Justice Secretary with a self-styled “tough justice” approach. While Chris Grayling professes to having no inclination to reduce the prison population, were he to look across the Atlantic, he might find a valuable lesson to learn. There, in a refreshing display of realism and rationality, the US Attorney General Eric Holder stated: “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” The question is whether we can candidly say we are immune from this vice. A social illusion has haunted American penal debate for two decades. It has postulated a binary choice between spending tax dollars on decent facilities and services (such as education) for prisoners on the one hand, and public protection by prison building and filling on the other. But the empirical evidence demonstrates that money spent on prison education will save on future incarceration costs. RAND quantified the beneficial effect of prison education, estimating that for every dollar spent on prison education between $4 to $5 would be saved on incarceration costs in the three years post-release.

Therefore as we head towards the 2015 General Election in the UK, and the political position-taking around penal policy intensifies, a clear case can be made by criminal justice practitioners. It is that parties (of whatever complexion) that profess to be serious about reducing crime must be serious about strengthening prison education and the educational support and training of those released. In times of austerity, when justice runs on a budget, this must not be misrepresented as displaying some kind of leniency towards offenders. It should be viewed clearsightedly as an effective form of collective social defence. Crime and its prevention are immensely complicated social phenomena. It would be regrettable to ignore what demonstrably works.

Dexter Dias QC Practises from Garden Court Chambers and is a Researcher at Harvard