Education behind bars: why university students are learning alongside prisoners



With reports of increasing violence and drug use, along with high levels of suicide and a lack of staff, prisons in the UK are currently seen to be in a state of crisis.

In recent years, the condition of British prisons has come under political, academic and public scrutiny. But what a lot of people seem to forget is that prisons are part of the local and national community, and are there to provide a public service. Indeed, it is this lack of recognition that prisons are a part of our wider communities which has created a sense that they are problematic.

This has drastically overshadowed the good work that is taking place within prisons to help transform them into places of reform. Some of the positive work taking place in UK prisons involves “socially transformative educational experiences”. These are experiences that connect people, enabling them to learn with and from each other through discussion and the sharing of experiences.

This responds directly to Dame Sally Coates’ call following her review of education in prisons for better access to higher education and partnership work between prisons and universities. And is in addition to wider political calls for education to become one of the key focal points of prison regimes.

Working together

With this in mind, across the country, prisons and universities are coming together to help bring higher education to offenders. These programmes centre on a core belief that meaningful educational experiences can and do happen when you bring together a group of students who have the power to break down social barriers during the process of learning.

Programmes include Learning Together, which brings together students from universities and prisons for shared learning experiences.

Then there is also the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program which is running at Durham and Teeside Universities in the UK. The programme sees undergraduate and masters students studying in prisons. On completion, they join the Inside Out international alumnni community.

A more recent addition from the US is the Prison to College Pipeline. This programme funnels prison students into colleges in the community to complete their degrees upon release.

An education

Our own Learning Together programme is being delivered at HMP Full Sutton, near York. The module has been developed by founders of the Prison Research Network, alongside Shaun Williamson, who is in charge of reducing re-offending at the prison.

All students – university students and serving prisoners – who are successful in the application and interviewing process, are registered with the university for the duration of the module. Those who complete the module successfully receive 20 university credits.

The module has been designed to replicate university level education in a prison setting using formal lecturing techniques integrated with seminar discussion and debate. The programme falls within the BA (Hons) Criminology and BA (Hons) Criminology with Psychology degrees and is being taught in collaboration with colleagues from Leeds Beckett, Cambridge University, Royal Holloway University and the Open University.

Unlike many new university modules where technology is at the forefront of teaching and learning, the innovative element of learning on this module is the removal of online technology from the classroom and independent study.

This means that all learners have the same tools at their disposal. It also enables university students to physically understand the difficulties prisoners can come up against in trying to get an education without all the latest technology on hand. For serving prisoners, it creates an opportunity to engage with the wider community. It means they can make a valuable contribution to their own personal development and that of others.

Breaking barriers

Through programmes like this, students are helping to break down social barriers and create positive social change. They are challenging their existing ideas about people from different backgrounds and we are already seeing this happen, even in the early stages of the module. This can be seen in the module blog which is following the progress of all involved in the module delivery and learning.

What we are seeing is that this way of learning is working, because it is opening all students’ eyes to new ideas and concepts and enabling them to realise their own potential, and the potential of others.

It is changing students attitudes about people they wouldn’t usually meet. University students are already describing the experience as “life changing” and those in prison have been given an outlet for their clear academic talents.

Programmes like these also enable all students to establish meaningful connections with others and imagine new possible futures – something that access to higher education makes possible for those on the inside.

Author Bio: Helen Nichols is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Beckett University