Martin Narey said he believed having access to in-cell TV would mean inmates could watch more educational programmes and might encourage more to enrol on courses with the Open University.
But the main aim, he said, was to combat illiteracy, a reason many former inmates fail to find work and then go on to reoffend. The prison service introduced the scheme last year and it is now being extended to all 65,000 inmates in the country's 135 jails.
The plan allows prisoners to rent a television from the prison for pounds 1 a week and it is hoped the scheme will eventually become self-financing. Yesterday a Prison Service spokesman said providing prisoners with educational videos and a text page with information about the prison, such as lunch and dinner menus, was also under consideration.
"It is a reward for people who have behaved well and have used their time usefully," the spokesman said. "Prison's purpose is to treat people humanely in an attempt to rehabilitate them; using TV to educate them is one of the ways of doing that."
As many as 65 per cent of prisoners are ineligible for 96 per cent of jobs because their reading, writing and maths skills are so poor. Mr Narey said: "Having employment is the single largest factor in stopping offending and if we transform levels of literacy and numeracy, we'll get a lot more people into jobs."
Bob Isdale is a governor at Stocken Prison, near Oakham, Rutland, one of the first prisons to introduce the scheme. "In the main it works well because people tend to look after themselves and their rooms when they have that quality of equipment," he said.
"It creates a calming influence in the place. It allows prisoners to keep up to date with news and that helps with basic literacy skills because it creates an interest that education units can use in discussing current affairs."
Critics have complained that in-cell TV is being used to keep inmates under control in over-crowded jails and is a sign of regimes "going soft". Julian Brazier, the Tory MP for Canterbury, said yesterday: "I am in favour of more education in prisons but I don't believe delivering TVs to individual prison cells is the most effective way of achieving that."Reuse content