Academics bring university to prisons

9 Jun 2015

As the US congress debates new proposed legislation giving prisoners financial aid for university studies[i], Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) welcomes professors from America and the UK to discuss their innovative partnerships at its Academic Prisons Symposium on 9th June, at the University of Cambridge.

Since grants were banned in American prisons in 1994, access to higher education is extremely limited for people in prison, so programmes such as Inside Out and the Prison to College pipeline were set up to offer them an unique opportunity to begin degree-level study.

As part of the Prison to College pipeline, once a month a three hour seminar is held at Otisville Corrrectional Facility with Professor Baz Dreisinger, faculty staff, learners in prison and ‘outside’ students.

Last year, the longstanding US initiative Inside-Out, which also brings university students into prisons to study alongside prisoners as part of a 10 week 20 credit Criminology course was launched in the UK, for the first time, at Durham University. Since then, it has achieved real success first in HMP Durham and then category A prison, HMP Frankland and in September 2015, five more universities in the UK will launch new projects. 

Professor Fiona Measham, who has been running the UK projects, and Dreisinger agree that an important part of these projects is changing public perceptions about people in prison by creating partnerships between the community and prisons. In the next academic year, Durham University will roll out Inside-Out a women’s prison for the first time and train the previous term’s alumni to mentor the new intake at Durham and Frankland:

“My role is to take a step back and create a dialogue between the students, challenging each other’s stereotypes, and their reaction has been fantastic. The prisoners say for the first time they are treated like human beings and the outside students are so moved by it, some of them have totally changed their career plans, one wants to teach Inside Out.”

Where the Prison to College pipeline differs, is its ‘re-entry’ programme, helping formerly incarcerated learners to finish the university experience in the community when they are released. John Jay College of Criminal Justice works in partnership with a range of organisations including the Osborne Association to ensure when students leave prison they also gain support with issues re-entering society such as finding housing and jobs. 

One of the aims is to end the cycle of repeat imprisonment and stop people committing crime on release as numerous studies in the US have shown that the higher the educational attainment, the higher the reduction in recidivism, but also importantly higher education gives them an opportunity to live successful lives on release.

As Dreisinger says: “I watched the men in my class transform from ‘inmate’ to ‘college student’…This process continues once they are released: seeing all of my formerly incarcerated students come to school within their first week of release, and being welcomed to a campus that is not a school but a new home and a new start is tremendous. They now see themselves as part of a community that is bigger than they are, and far bigger than a correctional facility.”

The Prison to College pipeline has just finished the 4th year of the pilot programme and has shown real impact; with students scoring high grade averages, winning a number of awards and scholarships. Out of the 20 students released to date one has been accepted on a summer course at Ivy League university Columbia, while another is on track to becoming the first to graduate with a degree in Philosophy next year. The project currently has around 10 students enrolled in prison with a further 17 starting in Autumn.

Both projects have helped to transform the culture of the prisons they’ve work in for the better, as staff recognise the value of higher education and its role in creating a positive, productive community.

Also joining the panel ‘Bringing together universities and prisoner education’ are Dr Amy Ludlow and Dr. Ruth Armstrong: University of Cambridge and PET alumnus academic Stephen Akpadio-Klementowski, from the Open University.

Editor's Notes

For interviews with speakers, photos or further information please contact Susannah Henty (PET), Media Manager:; 020 3752 5676 or visit

Further event details:

Prisoners’ Education Trust has always supported prisoners to access degree-level study. Currently PET provides funding for students to try Open University Access courses for free and then if they want to continue a full degree they can apply for a Student Loan.

About Us

Since 1989, Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) has supported prisoners to engage in rehabilitation through learning. The charity does this by providing advice and funding for approximately 2,000 people per year for distance learning courses in subjects and levels not generally available in prisons. PET also carries out research, informed by prisoner learners, to improve prison education policies.

In 2012 PET launched the Prisoner Learning Alliance to work together with 22 other expert organisations to champion learning for people in prison.

 [i] On 21 May 2015 Congressman Edwards introduced the proposed: Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act focusing on restoring Pell Grant funding to prisoners after a 20 year ban.