Garry’s story: studying for a degree in prison

Home > Stories > Garry’s story: studying for a degree in prison

Garry | 29 November 2021

I knew I had a big sentence, and I knew that in that time you could probably do a degree. I thought, ‘I’m going to be sat in here for six years, so I just can’t sit here doing nothing.’ And I knew I had to come away from my past because the next time I’d probably be doing 20, 30 years because it’s my third time.

I didn’t have any previous qualifications. I had an O Level Art back in the ‘80s which I think they threw away. So what am I going to do? What’s my trade? Haven’t got any. What am I going to be when I get out? 56. So my trade would have to be education.

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I wanted to do marine biology but obviously I couldn’t do that in prison. Then, looking through the PET prospectus, all I saw was a bait ball of fish and I thought ‘Well that’s alright – I love fishing!’ I’ve been involved in fishing for 30 or 40 years, even as a kid just sea fishing. So I applied to study for my Fisheries Management Certificate through PET.

Then I moved onto studying for a BSc (Honours) in Environmental Science with the Open University. I didn’t have any qualifications, and now I’m doing a degree! Even though I couldn’t study marine biology, I could still learn about how ecosystems worked, about climate change, and how it was all so delicate.

Studying ate up my time. Your study week was supposed to be 15 hours; mine was more like hundreds of hours. The next thing I knew, it was September… October…. and I had another module to do. So that kept me going. There wasn’t much time for me to be sat there twiddling my thumbs.

I didn’t have any qualifications, and now I’m doing a degree!

It was a lot of studying behind the door because with prison life you’re virtually banged up all the time because something’s kicking off. The intrusion of spice was just horrendous. And studying was hard because it was pen and paper. I had to go back from using capital writing to baby joined-up -they wouldn’t accept it otherwise! The only books I had were the books I was given. I couldn’t use Google Scholar like everyone studying in the community does.

But it was great to have help from PET’s Advice and Support Officer Iva. We weren’t just forgotten about. We mattered. And that’s what I thought was brilliant from PET: you actually care.

No one cares in there. You’re just a number. They’re there to lock you up. And as soon as you’ve gone, you’re another space and that is it. For Iva to come in as another human being – to actually want to help and provide a service – was brilliant. It was like PET said, ‘You want to do something and we’re here to support you. We’ll actually help you get a qualification.’

No one cares in there. You’re just a number. They’re there to lock you up. And as soon as you’ve gone, you’re another space and that is it… That’s what I thought was brilliant from PET: you actually care.

I got jobs in prison that were going to help me too. I ended up in the education department and became the Shannon Trust coordinator. I found it was a sort of vocation of mine to help people. When I found out about PET, I put it out to the other lads: I took that information, photocopied it, and stuck it on walls.

I was seeing all these young lads come in who were just not educated, a lot of people who couldn’t read and write, and I was just trying to help them out. It was basically to empower them. ‘If you want to get your level one maths and English – brilliant, I’ll help you, happy days.’

Prisons would do wisely to be more proactive with colleges in the community. With one student I knew, some of the officers had their nose put out of joint because he wanted to study on ROTL. ‘Can I go out and do my degree?’ ‘No, you can’t. Why don’t you go to work like everyone else?’ There’s a lot that goes on like that. So that is the divide: I think there’s a lot of issues with some officers that don’t see education as a tool to get you back in work in society.

I did education and came out of [prison] at the end with a degree… that’s an amazing achievement. Even speaking about it now just makes me go, ‘Wow, I’ve actually done that.’

Since coming out of prison, I’ve carried on studying but it’s been hard. With one university I tried to get into, they weren’t happy until I’d done a year’s probation without getting nicked again. I thought, ‘You’re not the probation service. Who are you to judge me?’ It’s horrible because they still think that at any moment now you’re going to be back at it. And all they want to say is, ‘Yeah we knew you would.’

But what I found was, if I did education and came out of it at the end with a degree and knew I’d done so much on my own, with no support… that’s an amazing achievement. Even speaking about it now just makes me go, ‘Wow, I’ve actually done that.’ I can have all the letters behind my name now, my BSc (Hons). Now I count for something. It can mean something: that, yeah, I’m not an idiot.

I just want to try and promote that there is time to change. I’m 57. It doesn’t matter. When I went into prison I didn’t have any certificates or anything. I ended up with 17 level ones and twos and a BSc Honours.

Every year we fund over 1,000 people to pursue an education in prison, giving them a fresh start. With your help we can fund even more, enabling learners like Garry to find their potential and put them on a new path.

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