Inside the convicts' computer school

Clayton Hirst goes behind bars to see how a joint initiative between the Government and systems giant Cisco is equipping inmates with the skills for future employment in the IT industry
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The Independent Online

It's 11am and inmates at Wymott Prison near Preston are labouring in the workshop. Over a blaring radio and the clank, clank, clank of metal-bashing, the prisoners shout to each other as they complete the daily tasks - today constructing heavy-duty prison gates and repairing children's bikes.

It's 11am and inmates at Wymott Prison near Preston are labouring in the workshop. Over a blaring radio and the clank, clank, clank of metal-bashing, the prisoners shout to each other as they complete the daily tasks - today constructing heavy-duty prison gates and repairing children's bikes.

But in a corner of this prison sweat-house there is a room with an eerie calm. Fifteen inmates, wearing prison- issue burgundy shirts and close-shaved haircuts, quietly tap away on their sleek silver computers.

"Wymott is a shithole; it's the way it's run, the way they treat you," says Riley, an angry 24-year-old who was arrested after a car chase with the police. "This place," he says, pointing around the room, "is the best thing: it offers me a second chance to sort myself out, to make a fresh start."

Riley and his fellow inmates are part of a pilot project between the Government's Offenders' Learning and Skills Unit and Cisco, the giant US IT company. In 18 prisons across the country, so-called Prisons Information Computer Technology Academies (Pictas) have been set up with a £2.6m grant to teach IT skills and offer a chance to gain a Cisco-accredited qualification. The idea is that this will give inmates - many of whom left school early and have never held down a full-time job - a better chance of gaining employment when they are released. "You can say that this is Blairite social inclusion, but it works for us," says Pauline Hewitt, the head of learning and skills at Wymott.

There is also a cool-headed business reason for the initiative. As the IT industry continues to expand, a worldwide shortage of skilled computer engineers and technicians is emerging. It is estimated that in the UK alone 70,000 IT vacancies are unfilled, and the problem is beginning to cost companies dearly. Cisco insists that its involvement with the prisons is mainly philanthropic, but Jane Lewis, who is fronting the initiative for the company, says: "In the past, our customers have asked us whether they can borrow our engineers, because of the shortage. So we are doing this partly to fulfil our customers' needs."

More than 1,000 convicts are locked up in Wymott, which is protected by a 20ft fence, topped with rolls of barbed wire. Five, locked, four-inch-thick steel doors separate the prisoners' cells from the outside world. Wymott houses two types of prisoner: Category C, judged untrustworthy but unlikely to attempt an escape; and Vulnerable Prisoners (VPs), mainly sex offenders. The two groups are separated in different wings as the Category Cs are considered a danger to the VPs.

The Picta workshop is in the prison's Category C wing, and inmates attend daily three-hour lessons.

The Picta regime is different to the traditional, manual prison workshop. Students have to want to go on the course and before they are accepted they must fill in an application form and attend an interview. "We are re-creating what it would be like to get a college place or job. This is to help resettlement when they are released," says Mr Hewitt.

Nick Dickens, project manager of the custody-to-work programme, adds: "It is important to remember that if an inmate goes into employment when he is released, then the chances of reoffending are reduced by up to a half."

The course deals with all abilities. Some inmates just manage the basic IT skills course, while others progress to the CCNA, the full Cisco qualification, which requires roughly the same amount of study as two A-levels.

In the Wymott Picta workshop, the students are being taught how to assemble a PC. Dave, the IT instructor, gathers the inmates around a computer screen and plays a video supplied by Cisco. A woman with a soft American accent introduces the components of a PC and describes how the machine is put together.

"I've been here two weeks and it seems pretty useful," says Gary, 46, a heavily built man who is serving time for aggravated arson. He is aiming to complete the most advanced Cisco exams and get a job in computer networking when he is released. "I actually started looking at the course before jail. It would have cost me £5,700 to do it under my own steam. Unfortunately, I found myself in jail, so I was surprised that I could do it here."

Many of Wymott's Category C prisoners will be moved to an open prison before they are released. And it is the Picta workshops in these prisons that are now at the sharp end, preparing students for potential new careers in the IT industry. Already, three former inmates are now finishing their Cisco training at a college or university. One, who left HMP Latchmere House in Surrey, has been offered a possible work placement by Cisco if he completes part of his course.

Twenty minutes' drive from Wymott is HMP Kirkham, an open prison that established a Picta workshop 10 months ago. The contrast is stark. Instead of cells, prisoners live in small blocks, surrounded by grass. And while security is high at this 500-strong prison, it is not as visible, with greater freedom for inmates to walk around the old RAF site.

Kirkham's focus is on resettlement. As well as IT, it runs a number of low-tech enterprises - wood machining, industrial laundry, vegetable preparation and horticulture - turning over around £2m a year. As a result, links between the prison and business are strong.

John Marsden, Kirkham's director of enterprises, says: "I had a businessman from Burnley in here the other day. He was interested in lads with IT qualifications for the office. He was looking for trained personnel and knows that we train the inmates to a high standard."

Not everyone on the Picta course wants to go into IT. Johnny, 44, a former stand-up comedian and youth worker, was convicted for possessing 67 ecstasy tablets. He says: "Before this, the only computer I'd seen was in the bat cave of Batman. My kids are computer literate; they leave me behind, so I want to catch up. I guess that I want to get back to youth work when I'm out. Nowadays, you have to understand computers because kids do."

Lee, 36, was convicted of robbery to feed his drug addiction. He has been clean for two years. "This is a chance for me to get a qualification, to make a fresh break when I leave and go into employment."

Other Kirkham inmates are plotting their future careers in IT. Naveed, 24, assembled computers before he was arrested and pleaded guilty to possessing 6oz of heroin and 2oz of crack cocaine. He is big on ambitions but short on IT qualifications. "Before I came here, I planned to go to the States and knock on Bill Gates's door. Obviously I can't do that now with the restrictions on travelling there.

"I'm now considering being self-employed, developing a network of clients. You can earn £75 an hour doing that sort of thing. I'm mapping it all out now." Like Cisco, Naveed has spotted a gap in the market: "Because of the shortage of IT skills, employers don't look at the conviction. There is a fine line between discrimination and being selected for a job on the basis of qualifications."

It's nearing the end of the working day for the inmates at Kirkham, and Duke, the Picta instructor, is wrapping things up. He clicks on his computer mouse, which projects a slide on to the screen summarising the mechanics of the computer. He clicks again, and a large still from the film Pulp Fiction beams up. It's the famous scene where John Travolta and Samuel Jackson have their arms stretched out, guns in hand, pointing at their victim. "This," says Duke with a grin, "is to make sure my students stay in line."