Higher Education study in UK prisons: Ex-offenders’ perspectives and lived-experiences.

This study examines how ex-offenders perceive existing barriers to undertaking HE study while in prison or following a custodial sentence, their lived-experiences of the labour market following release and to what extent they view it as aiding them to overcome barriers to employability. A qualitative approach was adopted, focusing on a small number of ex-offenders’ perspectives and lived-experiences. Consequently, this paper aims to demonstrate and justify the necessity for institutional, cultural and legislative change to remove barriers for both inmates undertaking or wishing to undertake HE study, and graduates leaving the prison system who wish to gain employment.
Offender learning in England and Wales is almost solely focused around English and maths, and low level trade-related qualifications, most of which are at Entry Level and Level 1 on the National Qualifications Framework. Czerniawski (2016) states the main reason for this focus is due to short-termism and neoliberal funding structures that encourage prisons to run very low level, short term courses that present little challenge to most inmates and hence have consistently high pass rates, thus securing regular and reliable funding for prison education departments. The narrow curriculum and neglect of more advanced courses serve to turn many inmates away from education, especially those who entered prison with qualifications (Hughes 2012).
For those who can study at HE level, many institutional barriers exist that prevent them from undertaking university study while in prison. These barriers include enduring staff shortages, a limited understanding of student loans, few quiet spaces to study and difficulty accessing literature.
This qualitative study was carried out in the form of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with the participants on an individual basis by telephone, due to the large geographical spread of the participants. Each of the participants have served or are reaching the end of their custodial sentences and have studied for an undergraduate degree while in prison or shortly after their release.
Results so far indicate that the participants experienced complex and extreme barriers to HE study. Moreover, ex-offenders also face significant cultural and legislative barriers to employability upon release. However, all participants displayed an exceptional drive for self-improvement and a distinct change in identity from ‘ex-offender’ to ‘graduate’.
Coates (2016) suggests that those who gain higher level qualifications while in prison have increased rates of employment following release. As there is a distinct connection between employment and recidivism, ex-offender graduates consequently exhibit consistently lower re-offending rates.