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Holloway lets prisoners swap cells for college

TOMORROW morning, Natalie will go to college, as she does every weekday. When she returns she will hand over her bag and be strip-searched before being locked in a cell for the night. For Natalie is serving a four-year sentence for fraud in Holloway jail.

Also tomorrow, Judge Stephen Tumim, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, will launch a report - Unlocking Potential - that will give official approval to Holloway's experiment in educational parole. Since September 1991, 16 women have been offered the chance to attend university access courses, which offer intensive study and a taste of degree subjects, at nearby colleges. Thirteen have passed, guaranteeing themselves a university place after their release.

Most did exceptionally well: 16 credits are necessary to pass; the women averaged around 20, and several achieved the maximum 24. Of the three who failed, only one broke her parole.

The women selected by prison education staff and governors for the courses, which cater for people aged over 21 with poor school records, were serving sentences from four to seven years, mostly for drug trafficking or dishonesty.

None had more than a few low-grade CSEs, and some had passed no exams at all, but they showed great enthusiasm - one even stayed in her cell on the morning of her release until she had finished her final essay. They chose access courses on new technology, science, business, design, media studies and humanities.

Natalie is attending a further education college in Hackney. Her course ends this summer, at the same time that, with good behaviour, she will leave jail. She could then take up a place at Essex University reading English and European literature. Like most of the women, she needed persuading to join the scheme.

'I thought - I'm in prison, you don't do things like that,' she said. 'When I was told I could go out on my own to be interviewed for the access course I was terrified. I begged one of the education tutors to come with me.'

The women are allowed out from 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday. They receive fares to college, and pounds 3.10 a day for meals - they miss both lunch and supper at the prison. They are strip-searched every morning and evening, and must leave forbidden items such as Tipp-Ex and pencil sharpeners at prison reception, although they can take in books and papers to work on in the evenings.

Judge Tumim's report says that most fellow prisoners and officers support the scheme, although some remand and deportee prisoners, who are forbidden to leave the prison unescorted, resent it, as do some officers whose shiftwork prevents them taking up educational opportunities themselves.

The prisoners varied in how much they told other students about themselves. 'When I said I was in Holloway they thought I was joking,' said Andrea, 28. 'One thought I was an officer.' Ann - jailed, like Andrea, for a drugs offence - told few on her course, and since being freed has told only the tutor on her business studies degree course. 'It was very hard never being able to be honest with the other students, to do the things they did in the evenings,' she said.

But studying from prison has its advantages. Prison education staff provide advice and the women are guaranteed food and shelter - some felt they were better off than fellow students - and there are few distractions. Three women took access courses after being freed, but none completed them.

Ewan Smith, the Holloway access tutor who organised the scheme, said: 'I could find 30 people to do a course tomorrow.'

But their chances may be in doubt. FE colleges have been removed from local authority control, so from September each access student will cost the Home Office more than pounds 500 instead of the pounds 15 concessionary fee now paid. And plans to privatise prison education, due in August, make it too uncertain to set up a course for September.