Rehabilitating Prisoners’ Human Rights: The Right to Education

by | Feb 20, 2024

author profile picture

About Isobel Renzulli

Isobel Renzulli is a Lecturer at the Law School of Brunel University. She specialises in international human rights law and is currently researching prisoners’ rights and the role of international and domestic torture preventive mechanisms.

Education is recognised as a human right for everyone, yet for prisoners it remains largely elusive. A recent interview with His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMIP) painted a grim picture of the current state of prisons in England. HMIP expressed serious concerns about prisoners’ illiteracy levels, lack of education and the resulting impact on prisoners’ rehabilitation and ability to navigate life after prison.

A joint HMIP and Ofsted thematic report published in 2022 found that many prisoners have had disrupted schooling and that high numbers cannot read at all or are functionally illiterate, that is, having a reading age of 11 or lower. The provision of education in English prisons is found to be at a basic level, only available in key subjects, usually literacy and numeracy.  Higher education provision fares even worse. Education opportunities are patchy, sporadic, restricted, and since 1993 have been privatised and contracted out. The quality is often found to be poor or in need of improvement. There are of course individual success stories and examples of access to excellent educational programmes, but these are outliers that resulted from individual initiative and extraordinary commitment, rather than necessarily the product of State or individual institutional policy.

Providing quality education

The call by HMIP to provide for prisoners’ education is a reminder of its significance and benefits for individuals as well as the wider society. The 2016 Coates review into prison education argued that ‘[e]ducation in prison should give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment, and become assets to their communities. It is one of the pillars of effective rehabilitation’. For prison education to be an integral element of rehabilitation, the latter must be grounded in the understanding of prisoners as possessors of rights, as opposed to objects of interventions. Importantly, education is not only an enabler of other rights but a right in itself. The State is therefore obligated to provide prisoners with access to good quality education.

Under domestic law, prison education is regulated by the Prison Act 1952 and the 1999 Prison Rules. Domestic law is complemented by a comprehensive international human rights framework. Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR protects the right to education. Under the ECHR, States must guarantee the right without discrimination on a range of grounds, including “other status”, which according to the ECtHR includes “being a prisoner”. Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights asserts that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity (…)”. This provision is echoed in the UN Basic Principles on the Treatment of Prisoners.  Furthermore, the UN General Comment on the Right to Education identifies the principles of availability, accessibility, acceptability, and adaptability as essential and interrelated features underlying the right to education. The right to non-discrimination and these principles provide some normative guidance for rights-compliant prison education policies and practices.

The Parliamentary Education Committee’s recommendation 25 demonstrates that ‘acceptability’ and ‘adaptability’ require a broader prison education curriculum that supports prisoners’ learning plans and is also flexible enough to provide opportunities for prisoners with different types and levels of qualifications. In response, the government has stated that through ongoing market engagement, participation is being encouraged from a wide range of providers. However, a diversified curriculum cannot be at the expense of quality. Whether the State funds or outsources prison education to private providers or not, it retains its responsibility to ensure that all providers conform to national educational standards, and that, as far as practicable, the education of prisoners is integrated with the educational and vocational training system of the country (European Prison Rule 28.7).

Access to higher education through student loans should also be more flexible. The current six-year restriction on eligibility means that prisoners on long sentences potentially face years of wasted time. While the restriction might seemingly pursue the legitimate aim of ensuring the taxpayers’ interest, it is arguably disproportionate and discriminatory, as student loans in the wider community are not conditional on the ability to pay back fees as soon as possible.

Crucially, to implement these and other educational measures, greater investment is needed. With a growing prison population, however, this is likely unsustainable unless accompanied by wider prison reductionist reforms.


Share this:

Related Content


Submit a Comment