A private company has prematurely pulled the plug on a contract providing education to inmates at High Down prison as the numbers attending lessons meant it has been delivering the service at a loss.
A4e has provided the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to High Down, in Banstead, since 2012, as well as to its neighbouring prison Downview, and 10 other London prisons.
It was due to continue providing the £17m service until July 2016.
But this month, A4e announced it has ended early its contract at the 12 prisons because the "heavy impact" of changes to the prison estate have meant the service has not been making a profit.
It is understood that the low number of prisoners attending lessons, due to issues such as staff shortages, has meant A4e - which is paid for the amount of training it provides to individual prisoners, rather than a fixed amount per class - has been delivering the service at a loss.
An A4e spokeswoman said: "Over the last two years, delivering the service in London has become extremely challenging due to a number of constraints beyond our control and which could not have been anticipated when the contract was let.
"These have had a heavy impact on learner attendance, completion and achievements.
"We have been in constant dialogue with the Skills Funding Agency, over the past 12 months, to outline and discuss potential options to enable us to continue delivery of the OLASS contract.
"We have concluded, in order to not continue to deliver the contract at a loss, to give notice to the Agency to terminate our provision of OLASS4 in London.
"This has been a very hard decision to make because A4e and its employees are passionate about the delivery of education services to offenders and believe education is critical to an offender’s long-term rehabilitation."
In the past six months, a number of concerns have been raised with this newspaper by worried relatives and friends of prisoners inside High Down and the conditions they have been experiencing, including claims that inmates stay locked in their cells for up to 23 hours, unable to attend rehabilitative classes - something the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has denied.
The prison next door, Downview, closed as a women's prison last October and is due to re-open later this year as a Category C resettlement prison for adult men, complete with a new education centre so prisoners can "use their time in custody constructively", according to the MoJ.
On A4e's announcement, Rod Clark, chief executive of the Prisoners' Education Trust, said: "The delivery of education for prisoners across the country is being seriously affected by overcrowding and staff shortages which are leaving people locked up for longer, so they can’t get to class and providers struggle to meet their targets.
"These pressures are having a negative impact on safety and rehabilitation.
"It may be that this latest decision by A4e to stop working in London’s prisons is a result of these problems.
"Education reduces re-offending on release but to benefit from rehabilitation, learners need to be able to go to classes, and receive a good quality and consistent education from teachers who feel confident in their work."
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said prisoners spending increasing amounts of time locked in their cells is a far cry from the "rehabilitation revolution" championed by the Government and Epsom and Ewell's MP, Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice.
Ms Lyon said: "It's difficult to know precisely why A4e finds itself running this contract at a loss but it is clear that prisoners are spending more and more time locked down in overcrowded cells in under-staffed prisons.
"Wasting time rather than doing time is a far cry from the rehabilitation revolution.
"Withdrawal of prison education calls into question both this Government's capacity to award contracts for delivery of essential services and its commitment to rehabilitation.
"Our prisons are being reduced to warehouses - nothing more."
As well as literacy and numeracy, A4e has provided a range of vocational courses at High Down including cookery, radio production, alcohol awareness, customer service, assertiveness and decision-making, plastering and computer graphics.
In 2005, High Down's reading group won the Penguin Orange Readers' Group prize and was visited by author Nick Hornby.
A statement from the Government's Skills Funding Agency said: "A4E’s decision to terminate their London contract was their commercial decision and therefore we cannot comment on this.
"There has been, and will be, no disruption to the education provision in London prisons."
It said that discussions are underway "to secure ongoing provision" and it expects to announce A4e's successor in good time for a December handover.
A MoJ spokesman added: "There has been, and will be, no disruption to the education provision in London prisons.
"Discussions are ongoing with a potential new provider and A4e will continue to run services until a new contract is awarded."
A4e will carry on providing its OLASS contract in prisons in the East of England where it said it will "continue to provide offenders with the vital skills and qualifications they need to succeed post-release".
High Down opened in 1992 and is a Category B local prison for men. It mainly houses prisoners awaiting trial or directly after conviction, who do not require maximum security but are still deemed to be a danger to the public.
Do you have concerns about High Down prison? Contact Hardeep Matharu by calling 020 8722 6346 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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