I’m mentoring an ex-prisoner through uni

I’ve always viewed the perceived success of Rhys’s experience as his ability not to reoffend [...] for me it’s about offering higher education as a way to develop yourself personally, professionally and socially.

Jamie Grundy is the Community Engagement Officer for Cardiff Metropolitan University’s Widening Access team. His mentee, Rhys, tells his story here.

In Cardiff Met Widening Access we work with non-traditional adult learners. This is a broad definition and can include a multitude of people, including learners from an offending background. Our work in this particular sector neatly coincides with the time I’ve been mentoring Rhys with his education – from about spring 2017.

I first met Rhys when we ran some business skills training for the front-of-house staff at the Clink Cardiff restaurant and he told us was due to be released shortly from HMP Prescoed and wanted to attend university. He was apprehensive about applying and disclosing his convictions. Together with another university, I was able to set up meetings with the necessary admissions tutors to put a face, a person and a context to the application. He was advised that a science Access course would be a best first step prior to application, to give him the necessary lab experience he did not have.

While he was studying at college I met him several times to see how he was settling in, check how he was finding the transport, that kind of thing. I also got him a decommissioned laptop through IT to give him the chance to do work at home. Following the Access course he eventually he decided to apply (and was accepted on to) a BSc Biomedical Sciences programme with Cardiff Met. The university said that a condition of his acceptance with us was that he met with me on a regular basis. There's no official support in place beyond what the university offers any other student like Rhys, as it would then be open to offering support which is not available to other students and could be seen as giving him preferential treatment, so it’s been informal mentoring – sometimes regular and sometimes less regular. Although supporting his education only, there have been times where issues in his personal life have impacted on his study – just like any other student.

The support has been reciprocal too as I’ve been studying on an MA Education programme and have been able to use Rhys’s experience for a couple of my modules – with his permission of course. I’ve always viewed the perceived success of Rhys’s experience as his ability not to reoffend, not necessarily his continued attendance on his course – although I know others in my university would disagree. But for me it’s about offering higher education as a way to develop yourself personally, professionally and socially.

Rhys now has stable part time employment in a hospital lab directly related to his Biomedical Science degree. He is in a stable relationship, is a father and no longer spends time with the people who led him towards a prison sentence. Although I did not know him prior to his prison term, all the indications are that he grown up immeasurably during his time studying in prison and in further and higher education.

To prisons and universities considering how they can better support and encourage people like Rhys to access higher education, they might be surprised to learn that both institutions share similar characteristics. Universities move slowly, and if you want to do a project and you miss your window then you might have to wait until the next academic year before trying again. Similarly prisons move incredibly slowly and keep in mind their role around public protection at all times - no risks or chances are taken. Universities are the embodiment of silo mentality with academic schools working in isolation. And prisons in my experience are the same: one department may not necessarily be talking to another so the onus is on you to ensure this happens. Don't rely on it - persist with your communication efforts in a nice and benign way and doors will open. Often because (eventually) they can see and share in the tangible successes that can result.

Rhy’s experience has shown that prison education, colleges and universities can offer life-changing opportunities for learners like him. His journey with Cardiff Met has informed the staff in the department I work in but also other departments, such as admissions and student services. It’s also led to the university accepting learners on ROTL [release on temporary licence] – something unthinkable until recently. It has led to Cardiff Met being prepared to take a chance/a risk on learners like Rhys, simply by giving them an opportunity to be like any other student: by helping them reintegrate into society and all the responsibilities and rights this encompasses.