Prison-based higher level distance learning and its role in life after prison

Anne Pike of the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University (email:, Twitter: @annepike2) discusses her PhD findings about higher level distance learning in prison. She reports that such learning gives prisoners a positive student identity, resilience and high hope for a better, crime-free life on release. These qualities help them to tackle the immense challenges facing ex-prisoners on release. If they are also able to continue studying after release then they are better placed to fully integrate into society.


Higher level education in prisons is offered mostly through distance learning. There are thought to be approximately 4000 prisoners studying through distance learning (Schüller, 2009) although the actual numbers are unknown. Prison-based Higher level Distance Learning (PHDL) is offered in most prisons in England and Wales but it is outside the funded Offender Learning and Skills Service education process. Applications to study PHDL involve a complex screening procedure and self-funding or funding through charitable trusts such as the Prisoners Education Trust (or, since 2013, a government loan). The Open University is the largest provider of PHDL, with approximately 1600 students across most prisons in the UK (in 2011) and funding for an initial Access course is partially subsidized by the Government.

Previous research (Forster, 1976, 1996; Hughes, 2012; Pike and Adams, 2012) has highlighted many barriers to studying PHDL in England and Wales. There is no internet in prison so prisoners cannot access their study material in the normal way. The education department has good computers but distance learners do not get easy access. The prison library tends to cater for those prisoners with less developed reading tastes so accessing intellectual books is difficult. Despite the problems, it was found that student-prisoners were empowered by their learning and developed aspirations for a better life, free from crime. However, these studies had not followed the prisoners out into the community after release so the longer term effects of the learning were not known and there was very little understanding of how PHDL might actually make a difference to them on release.


This research was an ethnographic and longitudinal investigation into how PHDL was transformative (Mezirow, 1997), how the student-prisoner was changed, whether it equipped them with the skills and qualities required to manage life after prison and how it related to their integration into society. The research was led by qualitative data, primarily from in-depth semi-structured interviews with prisoners before and after release. Data was collected between April 2011 and September 2013. Initially 10 ex-prisoners (including one woman) were interviewed as a pilot. They had studied PHDL in prison and had already successfully integrated into society. Then 51 prisoners (40 men and 11 women with sentences of between 2 and 20 years), who were due for release, were interviewed across 8 prisons in England and Wales. Approximately 25% had not engaged with their studies and formed a comparison group. Field-notes from observations and informal conversations with educators, prison and probation staff, family and peers provided background data. More than half of the original participants were traced after release and some were re-interviewed up to 5 times during their first year after release, providing unique longitudinal data in this field. All data was thematically analysed (Braun and Clark, 2006).


Prisons varied widely in their support for PHDL. The majority of prisons were ‘working’ prisons with fragmented organizational structures and insufficient space or time for deep, critically reflective learning. The physical structures meant that unlike the classroom-based students of Crewe et al (2014), who attended the ‘emotional zone’ of the education department to do their studies, the distance learners did most of their study in their cells, in the ‘reality’ of prison, with mostly cramped, noisy and inappropriate learning spaces. Support for PHDL came from dedicated individuals who worked against the system. Some participants fell by the wayside. They felt isolated and if they could not find work which allowed them access to a learning space with a computer, they struggled to complete their assignments. More importantly, some lacked the necessary skills or mind-set to be able to study alone. Poor assessment and guidance at induction and a lack of classroom-based education above a basic level led to some participants attempting distance learning without adequate cognitive ability or preparation. Also, many participants were anxious about how to continue their studies post-release and this posed significant problems for them later. In the better ‘learning’ prisons, participants were provided with a dedicated space for independent learning, creating a learning community where participants felt valued and a peer mentoring scheme encouraged participants to take responsible positions as teaching assistants which improved their social capital. However, across all prisons, those participants who persevered with their learning built resilience by reflecting on the barriers overcome to successfully study in prison. They developed a strong positive student identity and high hope (see Burnett and Maruna, 2004) for a better future on release. These were the main qualities which equipped the learners to manage life after prison.

In the post-release environment there were immense physical, infrastructural and organisation barriers which were mediated by a few social support factors. Life was chaotic for all the participants in the early weeks and months after release. Figure 1 is a model of the participants’ journey from prison to integration into society. Much of the accommodation, such as bed and breakfast or probation hostels, was unstable and inappropriate for learning. Some participants were unable to cope with the instability and returned to prison quickly. For those who had families, there was often more stability but there were broken relationships to mend. Most participants found the whole process of looking for work extremely demoralizing and far harder than they had anticipated. The work they found was mostly menial and very far from the employment or college places they had anticipated. Most planned college places had not materialized and, although there was no proof, it was thought that the reasons were related to the participants’ criminal past. Self-esteem dropped sharply.

Information, communication and technology problems such as old computers which refused to start and forgotten email passwords, caused a lot of frustration. Most participants only had ‘pay as you go’, text-only, mobile phones which made communication with large organisations impossible. Lack of information, such as who, or how, to contact the distance learning provider for continued study was a fundamental problem. It caused significant hardship for released participants and was a major cause of course abandonment or failure (see failure point B in figure 1).

The probation trusts, the distance learning providers as well as colleges, universities and banks had obstructive and discriminatory policies and procedures. Consistent with Farrall et al (2010), participants were labelled as ‘druggies’ or ‘ex-offenders’, causing them to feel worthless and providing significant barriers to continued study or suitable employment. For example, Nina was in university before incarceration and hoped to return for her final year on release but the University had rejected her and the bank had stopped her student loan. She said,

“I actually don’t see myself as a student anymore because other people have taken that title away from me, basically, like the bank, the University and so I feel like, basically, an ex-convict that’s a waste to society”.

Many participants made long journeys to probation offices only to find their offender manager unavailable. This caused communication problems and at least one participant was recalled back to prison on a ‘technicality’ (see failure point C in figure 1). Distance learning providers were also unresponsive to the released students’ needs. They worked on the mistaken principle that students could and would notify them post-release to continue their studies. Online access to course material was a long and poorly organised procedure. Participants felt neglected and powerless which reduced self-esteem still further and many participants failed to continue their studies (see failure point D in figure 1). There was very little support offered as a matter of policy so, apart from participants’ own resilience, the majority of social support offered to mitigate these structural barriers was individual staff who worked against the system, family or carefully selected friends, since many old friends were to be avoided as they were negative criminal influences. The final failure, point E on figure 1, was recall (to prison) due to re-offence which occurred for a few participants who had not engaged with PHDL.

The few participants who were able to continue learning after release maintained their student identity, benefitted from belonging to a learning community and integrated more successfully into society. See Doug’s comments,

It made me feel like I was part of society. It was a new circle of people, I wasn’t mixing with villains I was mixing with students and I was part of society, with other students and it was just a completely different institution with a different attitude and conversation.

In conclusion, this research has found that the positive student identity was fundamental to transformative higher level distance learning in prison. That student identity, together with resilience and high hope were the main qualities which enabled participants to face the huge post-release structural barriers. Continuing study and belonging to a learning community was a powerful force for improved integration into society. Policies and practices which nurture the positive student identity and develop a learning community in prison and post-release should therefore be a priority for all concerned.

Relating these findings to the desistance literature, I would suggest that the positive student identity change could be the “shift in identity and self-concept” consistent withsecondary desistance. Similarly, perhaps continuing study post-release and belonging to the learning community could be the “shifts in one’s sense of belonging to a (moral) community” consistent with tertiary desistance (McNeill, 2014).


Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology, Qualitative research in psychology, 3 (2): 77-101

Burnett, R. and S. Maruna (2004) So Prison Works, Does It? The Criminal Careers of 130 Men Released from Prison under Home Secretary, Michael Howard, Howard Journal 33(4): 390–404

Crewe, B., Warr, J., Bennett, P., Smith, A. (2014), The emotional geography of prison life, Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 18, pp 56-74.

Farrall, S. Bottoms, A. and Shapland, J. (2010) Social structures and desistance from crime, European Journal of Criminology, Vol. 7 pp 546-569

Forster, W. (1976) The higher education of prisoners, Vaughan papers in adult education, No. 21, Leicester, Leicester University.

Forster, W. (1996) England and Wales: the state of prison education, Journal of correctional education, Vol 47, No. 2.

Hughes, E. (2012) Education in Prison: Studying through distance learning. Farnham, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

McNeill, F. (2014) Three aspects of desistance, blog-post based ona short paper prepared for a University of Sheffield Centre for Criminological Research Knowledge Exchange Seminar at the British Academy in London on 15th May 2014, online at

Mezirow (1997), Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice, New directions for adult and continuing education, No. 74, San Fransisco, Jossey-Bass.

Pike, A. and Adams, A. (2012) Digital exclusion or learning exclusion, an ethnographic study of adult male learners in English prisons, Research in Learning Technology, 20(4): 363-374. Online at

Schüller, T. (2009), Inquiry into the future for lifelong learning, Thematic Paper 5: Crime and Lifelong Learning, Leicester, NIACE.


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