From prisoner to student

Pike, Anne and Mcfarlane, Ruth (2019). From prisoner to student. In: Earle, Rod and Mehigan, James eds. Degrees of Freedom: The Open University in Prison. UK: Policy Press.


The Open University (OU) has a long history of championing access to Higher Education for people whose prior experiences of education have not always been positive. In particular, almost since its inception, the OU has supported people who wish to study for a degree whilst serving a prison sentence, many of whom have had troubled pasts and been excluded from school. In 1974 HMP Wakefield celebrated the first OU prison graduate and since then thousands of students have gained a degree while in prison, with thousands more gaining certificates and diplomas or simply beginning their learning journeys. There are currently almost 1800 OU students in prisons and secure hospitals across the UK, with degree pathways in all Faculties. For many of these students, the OU is life-changing, providing a new perspective on life and an opportunity to become a valued member of society upon release. This chapter discusses the benefits of OU study in prison, stressing the importance of developing the whole person and of having a positive, pro-social student identity. However, there are huge challenges to studying in prison which are also discussed. Key milestones over the last 50 years highlight how legislative changes and rapid advances in digital technologies have influenced delivery over that time. Despite some advances, there is still limited access to digital study materials in prison, most students use offline printed packs, often amounting to several hundred pages, which they study within the confines of a small cell. Yet their academic achievement is on a par with mainstream students, with many earning exceptional results. Continuing to provide a learning experience which is comparable with mainstream students, whilst still adhering to the strict requirements of the secure estate is extremely challenging for the OU. This chapter explores the students’ journey and the practical issues involved in developing and delivering the OU curriculum in prisons and introduces some of the exciting digital opportunities just emerging which may enable many more students in prison to transform their lives.

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