Film: "I went to uni after a life sentence": Jason's story

"People who are on the margins of our society, people that get pushed to the outer regions of our society, we need their voices we need their experiences here as well."

By Jason Warr, DeMontfort University, Leicester 

When I entered into prison I read voraciously, right from remand right through conviction and then every week from conviction on. I was reading five to seven books a week. I would exhaust libraries, and then go back round and read again - any new book that come in, I was just consuming.

A rejection reversed

[When I decided to apply to university] I flipped over the Times Higher, and looked at Philosophy courses and which universities were the top six outside of Cambridge and Oxford, and I applied to those. I put a letter in with my UCAS form, explaining my circumstances, but what I also did was I looked up - on home leave, or during town visits - all the heads of the departments I was applying to, and then I put a sample of my Open University work in, and I put a letter in, targeted  at each head of department, and sent them to them individually outside of the UCAS  process.

Eventually what happened was ‑ because you can go online and check your UCAS updates - rejection, rejection, rejection, rejection, rejection… and then eventually all six of my options were rejected, which was disheartening because I’d had such a warm reception from academia. Not getting in, it felt like a blow to the stomach, I felt hollowed out. And then I got a letter from the London School of Economics, saying you can’t join: “Thank you for your application but we’re not offering you a position at this time”, and then about three days later I got another letter from the London School of Economics going, “Congratulations, we’re giving you a place!” and I was like, “Ah! Which one of these two letters is [real]?” Because they were dated on the same day, I just got one much later, so I didn’t know which one was [legitimate], so I’m phoning up the London School of Economics, but of course at that time of year trying to get through to student undergraduate admissions was a nightmare - no one knew. [I later found out that] what had happened was Colin Housen, who was the convener of the department of Philosophy of Social Sciences at the LSE, had got my package and was intrigued by my interest and qualifications and background, and he’d overturned the rejection, he’d overruled and accepted me on those grounds. I can’t even envisage my life if I hadn’t been accepted.

Adjusting to a new world

I think there’s a number of hurdles that can arise for people who have been through the criminal justice system [when they go to university]. For instance, when I started my undergraduate everything was online, [but] I didn’t have a computer. I’m wandering around the building looking for notices that tell me what classroom I need to be in, but everything was done online, and because I didn’t have a laptop, I didn’t have a computer and smartphones weren’t around then, I had no mechanism of accessing these systems of information that everyone else just took for granted. [It’s like] Jewkes and Johnston ‘Cavemen in an Age of Speed-of- Light Technology’ - that’s how I felt. I was a Neanderthal in terms of these technologies - I didn’t know what I was doing , and I had no way of accessing those processes because they were alien to me.

I mean forget for a moment living for years with a lack of autonomy and the kind of lack of freedoms and lack of kind of agency that you have in prisons: forget all that for a moment. It was that I had no awareness and no-one could tell me – no-one in my social life, no-one in my family life, could tell me what these process were because they didn’t know either. This is true of people who don’t have a family background of people going into university, but it’s just compounded and compounded by layers of unfamiliarity with the kind of systems that exist in universities or within institutions. And those can alienate people.

I was asked when I started my undergraduate degree not to talk about my background with people, which meant that I couldn’t be fully open or fully honest, and how do you develop friendships if you’re constantly keeping things from people? That’s the social hurdle that people with criminal records have when they’re coming into an institution such as an university - that fear of rejection,  that stigma that’s so attached to your history and your background you wear it like stigmata. You wear it as ingrained part of your self, that is what prisons and the criminal justice system and institutions do to you to as an individual. They stain you.

Institutional gains

Universities are always going to benefit from having as wide a range of student backgrounds as possible. Look at the way universities want to internationalise their students - yes some of that’s fiscal, but a lot of that’s about actually opening people up to different cultural experiences. Many universities are like that – the university I’m at now has this idea of instilling and embedding international cultures within our students. We want our students to learn from as broad a range of perspectives as possible. But part of that kind of cultural awareness is actually people who are on the margins of our society, people that get pushed to the outer regions of our society, we need their voices and we need their experiences here as well.

I work in a department of applied Social Science. We are a Criminology and Criminal Justice team, where actually many of the staff have professional backgrounds, many of the degrees programs are tied to professional practice. But that only gives us one perspective! What we need the other side. And the more students we have coming through, who can actually offer that other side of experience, then naturally what you begin to get is a dialogue between practice and experience and academia and research. And the moment you have that, what you’ve got is what universities should be doing - progressing knowledge, progressing the conversation. And for students that is essential. I think universities sometimes forget that actually their student body are part of that conversation, but they necessarily are and always should be. The more experiences we have, especially in an applied Criminology department like this, the better that conversation’s going to be, the better that student experience is going to be, the better our teaching experience is going to be, the better the research is going to be, the better future researchers we produce, and the better the future knowledge that we produce is going to be.