Thinking through access and participation work for those who have experienced prison

Andi Brierley and Ruth Squire set out the barriers faced by prisoners and former prisoners in accessing higher education

Andi Brierley is Head of Access, Participation and Outcomes at Leeds Trinity University

Ruth Squire is Evaluation and Impact Manager at Leeds Trinity University

It is an unfortunate reality that accessing higher education can often present various barriers for people who have experienced prison, despite evidence highlighting how effective it can be at reducing chances of returning to prison.

Higher education has been shown to develop a “hook for change” and can later become a conduit towards a better life for serving and ex-prisoners.

One of the primary challenges to accessing HE for ex-prisoners is the presence of policies and practices that restrict their access. Many providers have policies that require applicants to disclose their criminal history, which can result in automatic disqualification or create significant hurdles in the admissions process. This can perpetuate a cycle of marginalisation and limit opportunities for individuals seeking to rebuild their lives.

For many ex-prisoners there are intersections with other forms of disadvantage, which can further impact on access. A quarter of the prison population have spent time in the care of local authorities, according to the Ministry of Justice, but as potential HE applicants they can fall outside the age limit or remit for many sector-led initiatives targeting care experienced young people.

For many, the route into any form of education can be a challenge with 42 per cent of the prison population having been permanently excluded from school, and three-fifths of prisoners leaving prison without employment, education, or training.

Financial constraints can also pose barriers. Many ex-prisoners face financial difficulties upon release, with 30 per cent of the adult prison population leaving custody with no accommodation, and therefore the cost of education can be a significant deterrent. Limited access to financial aid, scholarships, and other forms of assistance further exacerbates the issue. The Longford Trust have been leaders in supporting ex-prisoners to overcome these barriers and DWRM also provide support in this area – however, widespread sector-led initiatives are limited.

The regulatory landscape

There is growing recognition of the need for change from the sector.

There have been several positive steps in creating more inclusive policies and programmes that support ex-prisoners in pursuing HE. For example, some providers have implemented “ban the box” policies, which remove the requirement to disclose criminal history during the initial stages of the admissions process.

Although positive, this does come with the additional challenge of meaning that we do not have easy ways to identify this group (once in HE) to provide appropriate support. Additionally, there are programmes that provide educational opportunities specifically tailored to ex-prisoners, both during and after their incarceration. The inclusion of “ex-prisoner” in the Office of Students’ Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR) will also bring more attention to this issue.

When the EORR was released in March 2023 to support the development of access and participation plans (APPs), it included a list of student characteristics to help providers identify groups most likely to be affected by a risk. Many of the categories were relatively familiar to those working in access and participation, such as disability, race, ethnicity, or free school meals status. Others were slightly altered or new, reflecting a need to align with research, and cross-sector or more inclusive terminology.

The included category of “ex-prisoner” is not wholly new but stands out for being unconnected in the register to any of the OfS risks to access, success or progression. This suggests we have a few gaps in our collective knowledge about this group in relation to HE, as well as some scope for thinking more about what this category could cover.

Given the OfS’ focus on young people and on schools and colleges as sites for access work and raising attainment, “ex-prisoner” is relatively unusual (though not alone) on the list in being focused on a largely adult population. According to the Prison Reform Trust, only 433 children were in custody at the end of October 2022, making this a very small target group, should providers wish to make young people their focus.

In developing our own APP, we felt that “ex-prisoner” as a category was potentially limiting, as it excludes those currently in and not old enough to be in the prison system. We have tried to think about this category more broadly, recognising the clear structural barriers and risks of marginalisation for ex-prisoners in HE, but also considering how we might support engagement with education for justice-involved people as a target group.

Clearly, other parts of the sector have similar thoughts about the role of universities and education in the lives of those involved in the justice system. The term ex-prisoner implies a post-prison state, when many current serving prisoners have access to Open University (OU) courses – and there are numerous examples whereby access to education for serving prisoners has been transformational.

There are also many examples of universities providing education and work transition programmes to current and ex-prisoners. This work has been significant – but is not without ongoing challenges and need for support, and would appear to be an appropriate investment for providers who are seeking to enable access to HE to support desistance.

Solution-focused approaches

While “ex-prisoner” in the EORR identifies a group with clear structural barriers at risk of marginalisation throughout the student lifecycle, it fails to engage with full consideration of the intersectional characteristics of those in the justice system and the potential for HE providers to think more broadly about access and success.

We’d suggest that “justice-involved people” provides a broader encompassing, while also less stigmatising, term. Although Ban-the-Box seems a helpful initiative to reduce barriers, the sector may want to consider how to ensure this group does not fall through the gaps of widening participation activities if they are not identifiable post-entry.

Given intersections with other at-risk groups, and the barriers specific to having been engaged with the justice system, we believe that providers and the OfS should consider whether the risks for this group do extend beyond just access. This would enable greater attention and exploration of what additional support might be required to mitigate risks to equality of opportunity.

One response to “Thinking through access and participation work for those who have experienced prison

  1. I can understand many Universities being wary, especially with their child protection duties, yes some do admit 16 year olds on specific courses, and with the ever growing clamour to protect vulnerable (adult) students I can’t see this situation getting any better for those where in person teaching is the norm.

    In some areas of life an ex-prisoner can be legally barred from certain activities, for life, often thanks some recidivist criminal breaking the laws around those activities, so opening up opportunities to learn is a good thing, with the protection of others in mind. An enhanced CRB type check and the right to refuse based on what ever form of criminality led to imprisonment might the only way this might work, how would a University be able to defend it’s self should a previously convicted and imprisoned individual offend against another student or their family members through access gained via the University?

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