Higher level distance learning in prison gives prisoners a positive student identity, resilience and high hopes for a better, crime-free future. These qualities help them to tackle the immense challenges facing ex-prisoners. Maintaining their student identity and belonging to a learning community after release, also enables them to integrate into society more easily.
Contrary to popular belief, not all prisoners are illiterate. Yes, they mostly come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds but many prisoners have either acquired at least a secondary education before prison or have passed all the basic education on offer in prison and want to go on to higher level (post-secondary) study. Around 4000 prisoners in the UK are thought to be studying higher level education courses, mostly through distance learning. Prison-based Higher level Distance Learning (PHDL) is offered in most prisons and the Open University is the largest provider, with approximately 1600 prison students in the UK (in 2011).
There are many barriers to PHDL. It lies outside the funded education process in English and Welsh prisons, so prisoners face a complex screening procedure and must either self-fund or find funding through charitable trusts such as the Prisoners' Education Trust (or, since 2013, a government loan). There is no Internet access in prisons, so student-prisoners cannot interact with their study material in the normal way. They depend on an intermediary in the prison, often a member of the prison education staff to post their -- often hand-written -- assignments. Prison education departments may have good computers but distance learners are low priority and do not get easy access to them. Prison libraries tend to cater for prisoners with less developed reading tastes, so getting the books they need can be difficult.
Despite these problems, previous research suggested that student-prisoners were transformed by their learning, felt empowered and aspired to a better life, free from crime. However, there was no research into the long-term effects of their learning and so very little understanding of how PHDL might actually make a difference to them after release.
I have carried out ethnographic and longitudinal research into how student-prisoners are changed by PHDL, whether it equips them with the skills and qualities required to manage life after prison and how it relates to their integration into society. As a pilot, I first interviewed ten ex-prisoners who had completed PHDL and perceived themselves to be successfully integrating back into society.
After that, I interviewed 51 prisoners, due for release from 10 prisons across England and Wales; about a quarter of this group had not engaged with their studies and so formed a comparison group. I traced more than half these prisoners after their release and re-interviewed them up to five times during the following year, generating unique longitudinal data. The interview data were backed up with field notes, observations and informal conversations with educators, prison and probation staff, family and peers.
Support for PHDL varied widely across the different prisons. The majority of prisons were ‘working’ prisons, had fragmented organisational structures and a working culture that left little space or time for learning. Distance learners mostly had to study in their cells, which are cramped, noisy and inappropriate spaces for learning. Support in these prisons came mostly from a few dedicated individuals who bent the rules to help student-prisoners. Some prisoners fell by the wayside; many felt isolated and struggled to find the conditions in which they could complete their assignments; while some lacked the skills or cognitive abilities to be able to study alone.
In the rare ‘learning’ prisons, with a learning culture, distance learners were offered dedicated spaces to work on their assignments. They felt valued, were encouraged to become peer mentors or teaching assistants and developed a learning community. Across all prison types, those participants who persevered with their learning developed resilience by overcoming the barriers to distance-learning in a prison environment, developed a strong positive student identity and had high hopes for their future after release.
Life was chaotic for all the participants in the early weeks and months after release. They faced immense physical, infrastructural and organisational barriers and self-esteem dropped sharply. Some of the accommodation offered, such as bed and breakfast or probation hostels, was unstable and inappropriate for learning. Some participants were unable to cope with the instability and quickly returned to prison (see failure point A in Figure 1). Those with families often had greater stability but still needed to mend broken relationships.
Most found looking for work extremely demoralising and far harder than they had thought. The work they could find was mostly menial and very far from what they had anticipated. Planned college places failed to materialise and, although there was no proof, many thought this was related to their criminal past.
Information, communication and technology problems, such as old computers which refused to start, forgotten email passwords, or having to use free texts on borrowed mobile phones, caused a lot of frustration and difficulties in communicating with large organisations. Lack of information, such as how to contact their distance learning provider, was a fundamental problem and a major reason why released students abandoned or failed their courses (failure point B in figure 1).
Probation trusts, distance learning providers, colleges, universities and banks were perceived to have obstructive and discriminatory policies. Participants were labelled as ‘druggies’ or ‘ex-offenders’, causing them to feel worthless and raised barriers to continued study or employment. Nina had been at university before being imprisoned and hoped to return to complete her final year but the university rejected her and the bank stopped her student loan. She said:
I actually don’t see myself as a student any more because other people have taken that title away from me, basically, like the bank, the university and so I feel like, basically, an ex-convict that’s a waste to society.
Many participants made long journeys to probation offices only to find their offender manager unavailable. This caused communication problems and at least one participant was recalled to prison on a ‘technicality’ (failure point C in figure 1).
Distance learning providers were unresponsive to released students’ needs, often mistakenly believing students could and would notify them post-release to continue their studies. Online access to course material took a long time and was poorly organised. Participants felt neglected and powerless, with low self-esteem; many failed to continue their studies (failure point D in figure 1).
Participants were offered very little support. Other than their own personal resilience, participants could only call on individual staff, who had to work against the system, their families or carefully selected friends. Old friends, who might be criminal influences, often had to be avoided.
The few participants who were able to continue learning after release maintained their student identity, benefited from belonging to a learning community and integrated more successfully into society. Doug said:
It made me feel like I was part of society. It was a new circle of people, I wasn’t mixing with villains I was mixing with students and I was part of society, with other students and it was just a completely different institution with a different attitude and conversation.
A positive student identity, resilience and high hopes are the main qualities that enable student-prisoners to overcome the huge post-release barriers to being accepted as a member of society. Being able to maintain that student identity and belong to a learning community are powerful forces supporting improved integration into society and hence reducing numbers of ex-prisoners returning to prison. Policies and practices that nurture a positive student identity and develop a learning community, both in prison and after release, should therefore be a priority.