A criminal conviction has a significant impact on people’s lives. Temporal limits on legal punishments often outlive their intended timeframe through social stigmatisation and policy developed to isolate or remove people with convictions from elements of society. This is flagrantly manifested in the existence of barriers in accessing education for people with criminal convictions.
Education was illustrated as an important factor in achieving a new identity and building a path towards a better life
During my research into international approaches to students with convictions education was highlighted as an important factor in achieving a new identity and building a path towards a better life. It functions as an opportunity for an individual to re-imagine their place in society. However, people with convictions often conceal their criminal histories out of fear of stigmatisation within third level settings, effectively deselecting themselves from access to the necessary supports and services within higher education institutions (HEIs) that can help them successfully complete their education. Supports and services put in place by HEIs are fundamental in aiding in the successful transition of this group in education. The literature demonstrated that people with convictions are a vulnerable group, and this becomes heightened in higher education. Prisoners and other people with convictions are often drawn from groups shrouded in disadvantage and often fall into more than one target groups for widening participation in education. Research indicated that this group experienced feelings of: isolation, insecurity, being estranged from the community, and judgment in higher education settings. This demonstrates the vulnerable nature of people with a criminal conviction history, making it vital that HEIs play their part in developing inclusive policies, practices and supports to create an inclusive environment on campus.
Education was described as transformative in how people with experience of the justice system viewed themselves and allowed them to grow in a positive direction. The Irish Prison Service in Ireland plays an important role in educating prisoners and preparing them for release. However, society has fallen short of its obligations to reintegration in terms of access to education. A balance should be struck within HEI policies between considerations relating to campus safety and the opportunities available to this group to access higher education. This is particularly so given the reality that the international evidence does not support the view that their inclusion creates a danger on campus.
A report from the UK outlined that a major barrier for people with a criminal history in accessing education was risk assessment practices in the admissions stage of applying to third level. The admissions process was described as that of a ‘gatekeeper’ to successfully accessing education opportunities. This highlights the vital role of this stage and the importance of acknowledging that it is the criminal justice system, not the education system, that is responsible for determining the suitability of an individual to reintegrate within society. The literature supported the position that the admissions stage should not act as a juncture to revisit the criminal conviction itself, but rather should act as an opportunity to review the nature of supports and services a student may require through their time at third level.
Going forward, it is important for third level institutions to recognise and implement strategies to combat the multifaceted challenges this group experiences on their continuum through education. It is fundamental to remove barriers to education for this underrepresented target group and strike a balance between safety concerns and an individual’s desire to change. As noted, a survey of the international research suggests that there is no evidence that people with criminal histories make third level environments an unsafe place. An inclusive approach to this group will acknowledge the potential of people with convictions to make valuable contributions to society. Indeed, the removal of institutional barriers to education will copper-fasten society’s own commitments and responsibilities to desistance and reintegration.