PUPiL Blog: Insider Perspective on Learning Inside

In part two of our feature on HMP Coldingley we hear from Mark, Carl and Raj about their experience of higher education in prison. All are supported in their learning by Amanda Baldry, who featured in last month's blog, and take part in a monthly criminology reading group run by Drs Sacha Darke and Andreas Aresti of British Convict Criminology.  

Mark, Carl and Raj are serving prisoners at HMP Coldingley, studying at Masters or degree level. 


Drawing on a combined 30 years spent in prison, they talked to us about their experience of higher education in prison, their engagement with university partnerships, and what they would like to see more of in terms of university engagement with the prison estate. 

I would like to see all universities give more opportunities and scholarships for prisoners, to truly support their position, that engaging in higher education can be a true turning point in a prisoner’s life and rehabilitation.

man studying 2

What did you think about higher education before you came into prison? Had you had much contact with further or higher education? 

Carl: I thought universities were a good spot to socialise, good experience (parties etc). Pointless qualifications (as most of my friends were doing leisure and tourism and degrees which did not seem to offer much on completion). Those who did pass did not get jobs specific to their degree.

I attempted to complete my A-levels over three years but only did my AS levels. I did go on to get my Personal Training qualifications. I saw no point doing any further education as I had no direction/no idea what I wanted to do career-wise.

What was your experience of prison education before taking part in a prison university partnership?

Raj: I have found some of prison education very condescending as it seems to assume one to not have the ability to go further than level 2 education. I believe that this is based on the standard of teachers that are employed and not solely based on the actual learners’ ability.

After much perseverance I eventually graduated, achieving higher marks in prison than I’d ever achieved outside while I was on campus.

Mark: I was surprised by the barriers facing students like myself keen to engage with Higher Education programmes at mainstream universities, and it often felt like I was being judged on the basis of my status as a prisoner, rather than on merit.

After much perseverance I eventually graduated, achieving higher marks in prison than I’d ever achieved outside while I was on campus. This was thanks in large part to the support of various charities, who invested their belief in me.

There is a general sense that prison education caters for the lowest common denominator, and so there is rarely much on offer for HE students. In my experience they tend to be left to get on with it, without a great deal of support. Access to IT and research facilities needs to improve across the board in a big way if prisons are ever going to be truly conducive environments to study.

cell desk 2 How have you gone about accessing funding for your degrees?

Raj: I was not funded for higher education as I am not in my last 6 years of sentence. I therefore paid for my first year of university with my personal savings and contributions from family members. I have since been funded by the Longford Trust and I am hoping that this will continue for my ongoing studies.

Carl: My first Open University module was funded by Prisoners' Education Trust (PET). Also PET has part-funded some of my postgraduate study.

It has been very beneficial in me seeing myself as a true university student and not just a prison student.

What have you enjoyed about working with universities in prison? 

Carl: Meeting people from the public, being able to give them an insight into prison life. Having a perspective from those not in prison.

Raj:: I have really enjoyed working in the study groups with outside university students as this has allowed me to engage with other academics who have studied at the same level of higher levels of education than myself. It has been very beneficial in me seeing myself as a true university student and not just a prison student.

Mark: Many students approaching HE for the first time in prison without internet access or being able to attend lectures or seminars get but a taste of what life at university is really like. When Westminster University started their reading group here at Coldingley it was for the vast majority of us our first experience of a seminar group. It was proved to be an immensely rewarding and invigorating learning experience. For me, it brought back a lot of memories of my own time at uni, and enabled me to vocalise a lot of ideas and concepts that I had perhaps not had the opportunity to previously formulate in any coherent fashion.

Group learning is such a fundamental aspect of the traditional university approach to study that we perhaps take it for granted, forgetting that it is wholly absent from prison institutions. Discussion brings course material to life, so this reading group has been an invaluable supplement to study.

I think every prison in the country ought to be affiliated with its local university.

What would you like to see universities offering in prison?

Carl: Courses that target those from demographics that would not expect to go to university. Poorer backgrounds, certain ethnic groups or certain locations.

teaching 2

Mark: I would like to see all Russell Group universities accepting applications from serving prisoners, where distance learning is available – as is increasingly the case. It would be great to see more prison-university partnerships taking root, given the symbiotic benefits of such projects. I think every prison in the country ought to be affiliated with its local university.

Raj: I would like to see all universities give more opportunities and scholarships for prisoners, to truly support their position, that engaging in higher education can be a true turning point in a prisoner’s life and rehabilitation.

Some names have been changed. All photos credit @rebeccaradmore

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Join us next month when we hear from Dr Alison Lamont, University of Roehampton, about the university's partnership with HMP Belmarsh.

This is part of the PUPiL blog series. If you would like to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Rosie.