Second chances for ex-offenders through education

The Longford Scholarships

Scholars report back

"I do believe that for me keeping up my studies helped me ease into being a relatively free man."

Tom received a Longford Scholarship for his three- year biology degree at Derby University.  He graduated with a first in 2009.

Tom reports back:

I made the decision to go to university after arriving at an open prison with just under three years of a life sentence left to do.  Though I had previously done work through the Open University, I wanted to get some experience of an actual university, especially after never having the opportunity as a youngster. One of the first obstacles I came across was finding a university that would have me because of the nature of my conviction.  My preferred choice originally accepted me based on my grades, but then later rejected me after being told about my criminal conviction. What was most surprising about this rejection was how honest they were about it. You don’t ever expect it to be so up front. Luckily not all are universities are so quick to discriminate, and after an initial interview I was accepted elsewhere.

Just prior to getting a place, I had some unbelievably good fortune in that I was given two years off my tariff, which made me eligible for release within a few months of starting my course.   Though amazing news, it did mean that my future plans would have to be re-thought. Money was probably my first big concern. I had assumed I would be in prison while studying and so would have no living expenses to pay.  Having nothing to my name, I knew I was really going to struggle on release.  It was from other inmates who had also got a place at the university that I first heard about the Longford Trust. Several others were also already applying for funds.  

I sent in my form with little expectation, and so was absolutely gobsmacked when told they would like to sponsor me during my studies.  I can say without any doubt I would not have made it through university without their aid.  Many students do a part-time job, but I knew I would need to throw all my time at my studies to have any chance of succeeding.  And, in retrospect, I would have been lucky to have got even a part time job given the nature of my conviction and the level of discrimination you face. I have tried and it can be demoralising.

In starting my course I remember there being many things to contend with.  An obvious one was adjusting to finally seeing and being part of the outside world.  Another was keeping my personal details from other students.  This was both a provision of being allowed to attend university, and a personal choice. The result of this was that I ended up isolating myself to avoid lying to people. In most lessons I would choose to find a space of my own to sit.  When I was required to work in groups, I found it best to focus on work and remain vague about myself.  Despite being daunting, as a whole the experience was good.  You do get a feeling of broadening your horizons.

Looking back perhaps the most difficult issue to contend with was the restrictions set by the prison.  For anyone looking to start university while still in prison and awaiting release, I would say this is by far the biggest hurdle.  There are initially restrictions on the amount of days you are allowed out during the week.  Then there are restrictions on time you can leave in the morning and on the time you are required to return.  I forget the precise details, but there was some difficulty in getting out of the prison early enough to get to a morning lecture. There are also instances when something happens at the prison which results in all outworkers being prevented from leaving the premises.  

The lack of internet facilities within prisons is also a massive obstacle.  You find that most courses rely heavily on internet access.

Fortunately, I was released from prison after only a few months at the university, and with it study became far less stressful.  I did miss a lecture on the actual morning of my release, but other than that my transition went fine.  I was also lucky in that I was able to move back in with my parents, but I know for others who have had to go to a hostel that release can impede your study.     

On release there is the challenge to discipline yourself to spend long days studying whilst others are reminding you that after 10 years inside you should try and live a little.  I know of several others who started university prior to leaving prison only to quit on release.  It’s understandable as it is a big sacrifice, but I do believe that for me keeping up my studies helped me ease into being a relatively free man.  

Support throughout this period is extremely helpful. I was fortunate to have my partner and family by my side, as well as more external support from the Longford Trust which provided a mentor locally to whom I could go to for advice about readjusting back into the world.  As the trust at the time had nobody with experience in my particular subject, it was the trust’s director who ended up as my mentor.  

I had initially expected some sort of pressure from him and the trust to do well, but this was far from the case. Right from the start I saw him as a friend.  The only pressure that I did feel was that I placed on myself.  The Longford Trust had been so good to me that I wanted to do my best not to let them down.  It was the same in regard of my family and partner. I do believe that this can provide a positive driving force.

By the time I began my final year I had become very used to being free, though work was getting more and more time-consuming.  It certainly helps your study when you finally get your life in order, and during this final year I was able to achieve my best results.  It also becomes easier to interact with others on your course. When you finally have some life to experience, it can provide a point of conversation.

Having now finished my degree I do have a great feeling of achievement.  The relief I felt when putting down my pen after my last exam can only be described as awesome, especially as I had given up my Christmas to revise [unusually my academic year ran from January to December]. I am not sure if I could say that having a degree can guarantee employment.  I know that many of the jobs my degree would normally make me eligible for are simply unobtainable due to me having a criminal conviction.  Indeed, it seems quite amazing the amount of jobs that now require CRB checks.  On looking for a summer job the other year I found that even work agencies looking for general dogs bodies would turn you down.  Still I remain optimistic, and the Longford Trust is again providing support for me in my pursuit of work.  What I can say in terms of employment is that I am sure it doesn’t hurt to have a first class honours degree.

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