What I've learned teaching Britain's inmates

For the past seven years, Coracle CEO James Tweed has been providing laptops to prisoners so they can learn in their cells. Here's what he’s learned 
James Tweed
James Tweed in a prison

Imagine you were sent to prison for the worst mistake you ever made in your life. Imagine spending years locked up. 

Imagine emerging today into a world that has been totally transformed in the time you were away. Where a digital revolution has taken place and affected every part of society. 

When you went inside, the internet wasn't central to everything, social media wasn't huge and smartphones were on the horizon. The world has changed and now you've just emerged into it and you don't even have a phone.

This is the reality for many people leaving prison today and it’s not good for anyone. The UK’s reoffending rate is incredibly high with more than 50 percent of prisoners reoffending within two years of being released.  I work with these people every day and I see their challenges.

I am the founder and CEO of Coracle, which provides inmates at 86 prisons in England and Wales with access to education in their cells through laptops. In April 2023, Coracle won a King’s Award for promoting opportunity. Our mission is to end digital exclusion.

Here are five things I’ve learned which I’d like everyone in business to know about. 

1 Prisoners are poorly educated

Prisoners often have very negative views of education and a remarkably high number were excluded as children. In the wider UK population, permanent exclusion from school is rare, roughly 0.1 per cent. In the prison population, 42 per cent were permanently excluded while 63 per cent have been removed from school at some point. 

There is a much higher than average occurrence of learning difficulties and special educational needs. I have met people with dyslexia, ADHD and all manner of other learning problems. Some of these people are obviously very bright. But it’s easy to see why they found school so challenging.

2 Prisoners want to work

Prisoners spend most of their time locked up in cells and they are incredibly bored. It’s not uncommon for some to spend 23 hours per day in these tiny rooms, so they are eager for any kind of meaningful activity. Most want to work and will gladly take shifts as cleaners, cooks or other roles. But often, prisoners have to make a choice between work or education. Work is almost always better paid than education. If there was one thing I’d change in a flash it’s this insidious choice between work and learning.

3 Prisoners need hope

Many of those serving time are dejected and desperate for some kind of horizon. We’ve come to realise the laptops we provide are so popular because they offer prisoners hope. Prisoners control very little about their existence. They are told when to eat, sleep, wash and exercise. They can’t even turn off lights. Our laptops are the one thing in their lives they can actually control. They provide some glimmer of hope that they may one day be able to control their lives. It’s a truly humbling experience to issue a Coracle laptop to a prisoner and see their reaction. These laptops are highly prized and treasured by those who are allowed to use them.

4 Prisoners are incredibly isolated

I’ve seen prisoners emerge with no ability to look after themselves. One man given day release after many years inside was given a mobile phone and told to call if he needed help. However, he came back dejected as he simply didn’t know how to make a call.  Prisoners are released every day into a digital world where they often have no relevant skills, often have no CV or even a basic ability to look after themselves. 

There’s virtually no internet in prison, which leads to an enormous disconnect between them and the rest of the population. I often find myself explaining my cultural references - one prisoner I met had never even heard of Sky TV. Prisoners are an incredibly isolated group and this causes big issues when they are released.  

5 We can do better

There are some excellent people working in the prison estate, but the sector is seriously under-staffed and under-resourced. Many employers I meet are keen to do more and there are some very progressive people that really want to help those with criminal records to reintegrate.

We waste billions on reoffending every year - the Ministry of Justice estimates that we spend £18bn a year as a result of reoffending. Imagine the impact we would have if we spent a few percent of that amount in a different way.

Written by
James Tweed
Coracle CEO
February 20, 2024
Written by
February 20, 2024