Learning behind bars: the shifting fortunes of prison education

While US prison reform campaigners celebrate reversal of 30-year ban on incarcerated students accessing Pell Grants, counterparts in England and Wales express concern that government inaction has stalled progress

April 3, 2024
An inmate reads a book in jail to illustrate Books behind bars: the shifting fortunes of prison education
Source: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis / Getty Images

When Paul left school at 15 with no qualifications, he had no big plan apart from earning some money to contribute to his family. Though he had always been interested in art, education had never really appealed to him.

It was a 17-year prison sentence that would lead to him becoming the first person in his family to attend university – and to a successful career working in the arts and social justice.

“Even though I’m well into my middle age, I never thought I would end up where I am today. This wasn’t even a dream,” Paul, who is now in his mid-fifties, told Times Higher Education.

“None of that would have been possible had it not been for…taking that first step.”

However, there are many obstacles in the prison service before that first step – and to every step after it. 

The Open University, the primary provider of education in prisons in England and Wales, has just under 2,000 students registered for 2023-24 – out of a total of around 82,000 inmates.

A former student of the Open University, Andrew Malkinson, who was recently released after serving 17 years for a rape he did not commit, recently said he faced “resistance” from prison staff while studying.

Campaigners in England and Wales have told THE that participation fell during the Covid-19 pandemic and has not yet recovered, and explained how the increasing digitisation of higher education and inaction from the government had stalled progress.

In contrast, their counterparts in prison reform in the US recently celebrated arguably the biggest step forward for 30 years.

A 1994 ban on accessing federal subsidy Pell Grants meant those who wanted to enrol on college courses had to pay for them themselves, effectively blocking the vast majority from doing so and making it harder for colleges to offer courses.

There were approximately 770 programmes operating in more than 1,200 prisons in the early 1990s, but by 1997 only eight remained.

The eventual reversal of that controversial decision – which was championed at the time by then-president Bill Clinton and then-senator Joe Biden – has had a “long political arc”, according to Ruth Delaney, director of the Unlocking Potential Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice.

“We’ve kind of reached that point where it’s almost a full reversal,” she said.

“In the 1990s there was bipartisan agreement on being tough on crime…and now we have bipartisan agreement at the other end on saying we need to address [rehabilitation],…and college is a primary way of doing that.”

The Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, which provides need-based Pell Grants to people in state and federal prisons, enabled more than 40,000 students to enrol in higher education while incarcerated between 2016 and 2022.

Ms Delaney said that the decision to lift the funding barrier completely would have a huge impact on a prison system that had begun to resemble a “revolving door”.

“It impacts on people’s ability to get jobs and stay out of prison,” she said. “We know that these programmes have a huge impact on these two things, so the lack of [access to higher education means] just more cycles of incarceration, more families disrupted, more people living in very destitute circumstances.”

An undergraduate course in communications from California Polytechnic State University recently became the first to be approved by the US Department of Education to offer Pell Grants to incarcerated students.

Ms Delaney said that, due to the lengthy bureaucratic vetting process, there has not yet been a massive increase in participation, but she does expect a surge.

Vera, a national advocacy organisation working to end mass incarceration, estimates up to 70 per cent of the prison population are interested in college. There are more than 2 million people in jail or prison in the US.

Insufficient awareness of the importance of prison education, coupled with limited funding, remain significant hurdles in most countries worldwide, according to Marie Macauley, programme specialist and prison education expert at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Institute for Lifelong Learning.

On top of policy and financial obstacles, logistical challenges often impede progress on the ground.

“For in-person offerings, security clearances, limited communication with students, interrupted classes, inmate transfers and constantly changing headcounts can pose difficulties for educators,” Ms Macauley said.

“Meanwhile, for online higher education courses, a lack of connectivity or suitable electronic devices can restrict access for prisoners.

“Lastly, even when valuable higher education opportunities exist within prisons, inmates frequently lack information on how to enrol or engage with these programmes.”

Ms Macauley said investing in prison education constituted a valuable long-term economic and social investment – and highlighted some “remarkable initiatives”, including France’s MoodleBox, which allows inmates to access courses without an internet connection.

Similarly, she said, a virtual campus known as Educonline@Pris had opened up digital higher education opportunities for incarcerated individuals in Portugal, and the National Open University of Nigeria significantly contributed to the educational advancement of prisoners by allocating funding for 3,000 inmates.

Learning Together, which was an innovative prison university partnership (PUP) in England and Wales, was scrapped following the London Bridge terror attackUsman Khan, who had taken part in the University of Cambridge education programme while in prison, killed delegates Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones at Fishmongers’ Hall in London in November 2019.

With the end of the programme, most other PUPs were put on hold pending further guidance from the Ministry of Justice – which is still yet to be published.

Almost five years on, Jon Collins, chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust (Pet), said now was the time for that guidance to be published either way “whether PUPs are a good thing that should be nurtured, with a clear idea of the risks involved, or if it’s something they don’t think should be happening.

“Our view is they have benefits, they can be delivered carefully, but there needs to be guidance.”

A key barrier standing in the way of prison education is one that will sound familiar to those in the US 30 years ago – politicians.

Peter Stanford, director of the Longford Trust, which supports young serving and ex-prisoners to enter higher education, questioned why the prison service did not allow supervised use of the internet from those with proven track records.

“The answer seems to be because politicians worry that public opinion will see it as going soft on prisoners,” he said.

“They talk about prisoners using internet access to control criminal empires or harass victims. There is little evidence that this is a real threat and, if access is monitored and it is abused, it can be swiftly removed. 

“Those who genuinely want to do degrees have too much to lose to break such rules.”

Mr Stanford said the blank refusal to allow serving prisoners to have controlled, supervised, limited access to the internet prevented them from taking advantage of the burgeoning number of online higher education possibilities.

“On a broad level, if prison is about rehabilitation – because we don’t want people to come out and offend again – then we need to be releasing people who understand that the whole world is digital now.

“By refusing to equip them with such skills, it makes it more likely that they will reoffend.”  

Pet’s Mr Collins said the Open University did a great job in making courses available on paper, but that it was “pretty archaic” and made both applying for and studying a degree more challenging.

“As higher education in the community moves more and more online, the gap between what’s available in the community and what’s available in prison will get harder and harder to fill and I think it’ll get more and more expensive to provide courses,” he said.

“It will become a bigger challenge for both the providers and the learners. In almost no other higher education context would you expect people to do everything on paper.”

Prisoners in England and Wales are also currently restricted from applying for tuition fee loans until they have less than six years remaining on their sentences.

Mr Stanford said this policy delayed many people in prison from using their time productively and getting degrees.

“While they are waiting, their enthusiasm is lost, they cause more trouble in the prison, which pushes up staffing costs, and generally it is a wasted opportunity,” he said.

The House of Commons Education Select Committee, chaired at the time by Robert Halfon, the former higher education minister, also called for the six-year rule to be removed in 2022.

But the Ministry of Justice said the policy struck the “right balance between access and value for taxpayers”.

The digital divide, and the delay before prisoners can start studying, are obstacles that did not put Paul off.

It took him five years of posting hand-written work to get it marked and waiting for it to return for him to complete the first year of his fine art degree in time for his release.

However, these issues dissuade many others.

“For some people that can be a help because it’s overcoming those obstacles that gives you thinking and learning skills, but I’ve seen a lot go by the wayside as well,” said Paul.

“It’s just so much hard work if you’re not getting the feedback that you need when you need it, and it can be disconcerting.”

He completed one further year while on licence, then two more years when released, eventually graduating from Teesside University with a first.

Since then, he has completed a master’s degree and has acted as a mentor for a prison arts charity, while working for a charity that helps people at risk of homelessness and helps train young prison officers.

Paul said he never could have imagined himself in this position 30 years ago, and all of that stemmed from the belief that higher education gave him.

“I spent a lot of my life taking and now I’m spending most of my life giving,” he added. “It sounds a bit twee, but it’s who I am. I can see a future now.”


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Reader's comments (2)

Over ten years ago I interviewed for a prison education job and told them that I'd set them up an internal intranet with no contact with the outside world to teach over. They were horrified at the mere thought... Just how they thought I could teach convicts computer science I have no idea. Anyway my husband wasn't happy at the thought of me working there and I changed my mind when they said the first thing I'd have to do was take a 3-day control & restraint class. I have no intention of fighting my students!
There are some great models of higher education provision in Australia. The University of Southern Queensland since 2011 have been taking digital devices into prisons to provide access to digital higher education. They took higher education numbers in Queensland from 1.5 to 6.2 per cent of eligible prisoners engaged in HE. Those students have better results and higher retention rates than for their non-incarcerated peers. The university is also active across New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. Curtin University are also doing great things in Western Australia. Again, they are providing digital devices into participating prisons. It is possible to provide high quality digital higher education into prisons. My advice would be to look to those places that are already doing it well.