As well as the benefits to the individual students and to wider society, there are noticeable improvements to the prison regime when groups of students engage with education at this level. Prisoners who study a higher education course often take on a wide range of additional support roles within the prison relating to education, violence reduction, equalities, tackling drug misuse, counselling and listening.
They often become the trusted prisoners who contribute to a settled environment and use their study experiences to guide others of a lower academic ability into educational pathways. They act as role models and take on formal mentoring within educational departments and vocational skills workshops.
The opportunity to study for a degree also contributes to a sense of wellbeing that cannot otherwise be easily met within the confines of a prison regime. It brings a sense of purpose and hope as well as offering a realistic pathway towards living a different life on release. Studying for a degree is a long-term commitment that not only helps the person while they are in prison, but also encourages positive behaviour that can over-ride many years of an ingrained criminal lifestyle.
For students themselves, the outcomes are broad and incorporate a change to their whole mindset.
Studying for a degree instantly focuses the mind and translates into a complete change to the structure of your day and week. It gives a purpose to the “dead time” which is now defined as “study time”. As a result, previous instances of negative behavior during this idle time cease and this is both observed and mirrored by others on the wing. Similarly, the attitude of staff changes. Students who choose to spend their association time focusing on their studies are seen as role models, which is both settling and reassuring to others. When staff witness this change in demeanour, they tend to engage more positively with the men or women and frequently this leads to the offer of new roles of responsibility. For students, this new mindset of experiencing positive treatment from both officers and peers is liberating. Often it is black students who feel the biggest shift in attitude.
As things become more positive over time (and a part time degree takes 6 years to complete), students start to believe that things really can be different when they are released. They make a personal commitment to recidivism changes and show a determination to secure employment relevant to their qualifications. They start to feel responsible for others and want to impart this success by persuading others to take the same path.
There is a risk that students who are not part of a learning community feel isolated and lack confidence about their academic abilities because they are not able to check their progress against that of their peers. Lack of reassurance and of structured study support is one of the key reasons why students decide to drop out of a study pathway. This demonstrates the benefits of having a study group within the prison, supported by university groups and academic input, peer mentors and distance learning orderlies.