My degree: lock downs, noise, strain and certificates

Ben, a  prisoner who is now studying his second Open University degree in prison, strongly believes that education has had a profound impact on his life but it has been both rewarding and challenging. In a letter to Prisoners' Education Trust, he describes his experiences:

“I was just awarded my Law degree LLB (Hons) last year in November via the Open University after I arrived here in 2009 at a prison that allowed me to study Law, but it took a huge eight years to get there!

I wanted to study it for a number of reasons including an interest in how law affects our everyday lives, understanding my own rights, especially whilst in prison.

Also, as a person maintaining my innocence I hoped this would help me. This degree will also help me in relation to the current legal aid cuts as it will hopefully help me make sense of prison law.

It is an achievement that I am proud of as I found it both very challenging and rewarding. Studying in a prison environment is particularly challenging. Many think that we have all the time in the world, and to a certain extent that is true, yet we can still have the same difficulties everyone does, such as deaths in our families. Also, when we have difficulty in understanding one of our modules, we cannot email a tutor there and then; we have to wait until next time we are in education. We are at the mercy of the prison authorities, so ‘lock downs’ can easily set you back, and access to computers was at times rather challenging; but this has gotten better over time.

The worst part is relying completely on others, so I would like to thank the education staff for doing this on a regular basis for me; without them, completing the degree would be all but impossible.

I would also like to thank the tutors for understanding some of the difficulties that we face and allowing extensions when needed. Another difficulty is the environment. Having people around you that seem to be having a disco almost every night in their cells means that it is all but impossible to study, and prison is a depressing place at the best of times so it can be difficult to motivate yourself. This is where other learners can be a great help as well as family giving you a swift kick as necessary, or just allowing you to rant. Yet every second of strain is worth it once you complete the final exam and are given your certificate.

At any rate it has given me confidence in myself in being able to study at a high level and compile a large amount of data and make sense of it! I also hope it will show employers that I have the ability to manage my time effectively, the capability to self motivate and the dedication to complete the degree regardless of the obstacles.

I am now in the process of completing my second degree, studying Myth in the Greek and Roman World. This will give me a BA (Hons) Humanities with Religious Studies hopefully at the end of May. I chose this pathway because as well as learning the skills I mentioned previously, I thought a subject area as diverse and varied as Humanities would help me in almost any career when I am released, plus I have always had an interest with the ancient world and how they are still affecting our lives today.

Doing both these degrees has given me a target to aim for and gives meaning to my days that otherwise become ‘grey’ and just run into one another. It has also given me self confidence in believing I won’t be useless upon release and will be a useful member of society once more.

The main advice I can give anybody in similar circumstances is don’t get lost in the whole degree, but concentrate on the next deadline and congratulate yourself when you meet each goal. If you have a done a number of courses before, just remember you have done it once before, you can do it again. Don’t lose sight of why you are doing it. When you reach your goal it is such a sense of achievement absolutely impossible to describe, and is worth every minute of blood, sweat and tears it took to got there.

I truly believe education is the route to reducing re-offending as it gives you the skills and the self confidence in being able to achieve the goals you set – thereby in many cases – to stop the need of robbing people or taking drugs to ‘escape’.

You can see light at the end of the tunnel. You can use the skills you have learnt to start a new crime free life. I really believe this.

In regards to my qualifications coming to prison, 5 A-C GCSEs – Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths, English and a Diploma of Higher Education in Nursing.

I’m still waiting on a number of applications for funding with my Masters degree and after release I hope to pursue a PhD or possibly whilst in prison and then maybe go into lecturing. I really would like to give something back into the education field and/or penal sector as it has made an unbelievable impact on my life."