When prison meets higher education: can collaboration go too far?

New York proposes free college courses for inmates while Romania cracks down on its ‘publish or perish’ loophole, finds Ellie Bothwell

January 20, 2016
Prison cell
Source: iStock

There have been a number of schemes launched by universities in recent years focused on educating prisoners to aid rehabilitation.

In 2012, the London College of Fashion launched a Fashion Education in Prisons programme, where 11 female prisoners teamed up with 11 students to produce a fashion magazine. The college subsequently won Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards in 2013.

Meanwhile, last year, Durham University announced that students at its School of Applied Social Sciences would join an equal number of offenders for a 10-week course in criminal justice. The initiative was based on the US Inside-Out Prison Exchange programme, originally developed in 1997 at Temple University in Philadelphia, which has involved more than 20,000 learners.

In a similar vein, earlier this month Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, proposed an initiative for the state to pay for college courses for inmates. Although the concept will not involve university students working with prisoners, it will expand college courses in prisons by about one-third and improve them so that credits can be more easily transferred to colleges outside prison walls, according to The New York Times.  

The initiative would use about $7.5 million (£5.3 million) in criminal forfeiture funds from Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr and an additional $7.5 million from private matching funds, and would offer colleges up to $5,000 (£3,500) per student. Only inmates who have a high school diploma, are within two to five years of completing their sentence, and are not serving a life sentence would be eligible. The governor said that he hopes to offer courses to about 1,000 inmates state-wide over the next five years.

But can the relationship between prison and higher education go too far?

In Romania, officials are looking to repeal a bizarre law that entitles prisoners to 30 days off their jail sentence for every piece of academic writing they author. The move follows a reported surge in prison literature in the past two years. According to figures from the Romanian Ministry of Justice, just four such scientific papers were published between 1969, when the law came into place, and 2010 (one each year from 2007).  In 2014 and 2015, this number escalated to 391 scientific papers, which were authored by approximately 200 inmates.

As a post on Retraction Watch noted: “Talk about publish or perish…in a cell.”

Politicians have proposed an amendment to the legislation, which will go before the Romanian senate for its first reading next month, to repeal the law and eliminate the possibility of reducing sentences by publishing scientific papers.


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