The number of applications rises every year. Mostly young men – because men make up 95 per cent of the prison population – write in to the Longford Trust asking for the support, in terms of money and mentoring, that we offer to help them continue their rehabilitation by going on to higher education.
They are all desperate to avoid the revolving door that will currently take at least 60 per cent of them back to jail within two years of release. And they believe passionately that education is the key.
As we struggled last week to make impossible decisions about the minority who our funds allow us to assist, and the majority who we can't, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has been promising a "rehabilitation revolution" in prisons. He wants an end to the "prison works" mentality of recent governments, which has resulted in a near doubling in inmate numbers, from 44,600 to 85,500, since he was last in charge of Britain's jails in 1993.
Clarke's message may have upset the hangers and floggers still to be found on the Tory benches, but it has provided some solace as we write our too-many rejection letters. We are not, however, holding our breath. Recent history shows that it is all too easy for politicians to talk up prison numbers – best demonstrated by Michael Howard, Clarke's successor as Home Secretary – but nigh on impossible to talk them down. This is even when you are willing publicly to acknowledge that almost every statistic available shows that prison does not deliver what we all ultimately want – that those who commit crime learn not to do it again.
Here's Jack Straw on 12 July, 2007, just after being named Justice Secretary: "We cannot just build our way out of [prison] overcrowding," he said. Instead we need a "national conversation" on use of custodial sentences, and that has to happen even if he could "magic an extra 10,000 [prison] places".
The result of these fine words? Well, Straw's a hopeless magician, so instead he had to spent £170,000 for every single one of the new prison places he created and £44,000 per year to keep each inmate in them. Numbers of those in custody continued to rise and there was no "national conversation": just a lot of grandstanding from ministers about how tough they were on crime.
So beware prison ministers bearing gifts. If there are grounds for hope with Clarke, beyond his fabled tendency to speak his mind and to hell with the electorate, they lie in the perilous state of the public finances. We can no longer afford New Labour's £4bn jail building programme, so we have to find a way reduce prisoner numbers regardless of ideology.
Here's a statistic from the Longford Trust's experience that may interest Clarke. In pure pounds-and-pence terms – ignoring the voluntary effort put in by our mentors – we "invest" an average of several thousand pounds in each of our "Longford Scholars". The programme has now been running for six years since it was established in memory of the indefatigable prison campaigner, Lord Longford, and its success rate currently stands at 70 per cent. That means seven out of 10 of those we support go on to get their degree, join the labour market and have no further contact with the criminal justice system. How much better than spending £44,000 a year only to see six out of 10 (and that's at the low end of a range of figures available) reoffend?
But of course, this is not just a question of money. There is also the public's entirely justified but sometimes insatiable insistence on punishment. Jeremy Clarkson recently spoke for a sizeable proportion of the nation (why else do they buy his books in such numbers?) when he lambasted prison reformers as "lily-livered, eco-hippie vicars" who want inmates "treated with tenderness and a lot of crisp Egyptian cotton".
I have seen much that is seared on my memory during visits to prisons but no Egyptian cotton. But behind his trademark straining to be gratuitously offensive, Clarkson was making the perfectly valid point that prison isn't all about rehabilitation.
But neither is it – as set out in statute – only about punishment. If Kenneth Clarke is to get anywhere with his "rehabilitation revolution", the rest of us must retreat from polarised positions on punishment vs rehabilitation, and agree you can balance both.
One key to that must be an understanding that, once a sentence has been served and a debt to society paid, those released should be allowed to get on with rebuilding their life, at first under the supervision of a properly funded probation service. Instead we continue to punish them.
Among recent Longford Scholars have been too many individuals who have their initial offer of a university place withdrawn when they disclose their criminal record. It is never explained in those terms, of course, but how else, for example, do you account for the student this year with the top grades in his subject at his further education college who has been turned down by the local university when others in his class were accepted? The only difference is that he has been to prison and they haven't. Or there's another who applied to the London School of Economics, which promises all first years a place in halls. He was told that offer didn't apply to him because of his criminal record. The list of disappointments is endless.
Faced by such double punishment is it any wonder that even well-supported ex-prisoners, determined to stick to the straight and narrow, go on to reoffend? If we insist on assuming the worst about people, then we are creating a climate where our prediction is more likely to come true.
That is the real context for the sentencing and rehabilitation reviews that Kenneth Clarke has now ordered. Their final outcome is down to us. They will no doubt make exactly the same sensible suggestions as similar committees in recent years on the need for well-resourced community punishments, reduced use of indeterminate sentences, a restoration of judges' flexibility in determining individual tariffs, and an end to excessive recall to jail of prisoners out on parole for trivial reasons (one of our students because he was pulled over by police for not wearing his seat belt).
How far Mr Clarke is able to act on these conclusions will be dictated in part by the Treasury, but mostly by a political judgement of public attitudes to rehabilitation. And so far, despite an avalanche of evidence that it can and does work, we still seem to have a blind faith in punishment to do the job of reforming criminals all by itself.
Peter Stanford is director of the Longford Trust