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  • Writer's pictureGemma Lynch

What's it like supporting university students who have spent time in prison

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

The idea that Prison Services and HEI’s can come together to harness the transformative power of education to promote access to third level and support the reintegration of prisoners and former prisoners in society is gaining traction in Ireland.  Maynooth University is leading the way through the Maynooth University/Mountjoy Prison PartnershipI am a Student Advisor with Maynooth University Access Programme.  I work with Maynooth University students who have spent time in prison to put proactive support arrangements in place and I also work to encourage potential students with convictions to see third level as a realistic option for them.  I wanted to share some of my most meaningful experiences in providing transition and post-entry supports to students who entered the university whilst still in custody.

The university was already aware through the College Connect Community Needs Analysis with Prisoners and Former Prisoners at the Pathways Centre in Dublin that people with convictions considering university hope that the third level sector will be welcoming and allow them to develop a sense of belonging and identity as a student without fear of discrimination because of their past.  The research also showed that they need a go-to person to talk to when they have a worry or concern who can signpost them to access, transition and post-entry supports. 


Well, it turns out I have 12 years experience of doing exactly that for other students form backgrounds traditionally underrepresented at university.  What was new for me was understanding the prison service, the high level of educational skills and preparedness the students came in with and how to help the students to separate out the process for advocating for their support needs in a prison environment versus a university environment.  

What I’ve found out is that there is a need to build partnerships between the university, the academic departments, the prison services and the students. Supporting students who return to prison at the end of the day requires comprehensive, wraparound supports and each partner is critical. Regular meetings with the academic departments and my colleagues in the prison services helped us develop of shared understanding of some of the specific challenges for students who are prisoners and a roadmap for how we can provide a quality experience for students and strong educational outcomes.

One of the specific challenges was finding space to study, this challenge was particularly compounded for students this year with the COVID-19 lockdown and required the prison services and the university to creatively look at how the students could effectively study online from their rooms during the most severe lockdowns. What really helped was the trust that had been built through the partnership approach meant there was a willingness to be responsive to new support needs and to put in place whatever it took to support students to fully participate in course activity.

As an advisor, I knew that I had a lot to learn about the barriers to progression and the transition challenges for people with convictions. A huge help to me as I undertook this new advisory role was the peer support offered from the Pathways Centre, an educational outreach centre for prisoners and former prisoners. The mentoring provided to me by the Pathways team was so helpful in deepening my understanding of the support needs for university students who have experience of prison and how I could be effective in signposting those supports. Many of the supports were practical such as long-term laptop loans, financial assistance and providing a space for students to ask questions about the new learning environment.  

What has really impressed me throughout my time working with prisoners, former prisoners and people with convictions is the incredible commitment of the Irish Prison Services to education, their strong belief in how positive education is for the people that they work with and their willingness to work with the university to ensure that students were supported to realise their educational aspirations. 

One of the biggest challenges we identified was the need to develop an equitable and fair approach to entry and admissions process for applicants with criminal records in Ireland.  Encouraging people with convictions to consider third level as a realistic option for them is of course the first barrier HEI’s need to overcome and as it happens, the other part of my work with Maynooth University Access Programme. 

In 2019/20 we partnered with  Gaisce and Mountjoy Progression Unit on a unique outreach undertaking called The Story Exchange.  This project used the Gaisce Award framework, which means that participants from the Mountjoy progression unit and Maynooth University Access Programme volunteer student Ambassadors met in the Progression Unit every Friday afternoon for 13 weeks and received a Gaisce award for their contribution to the project.  The greatest takeaway for me from this project is how once you spend time with prisoners you realise that we are all only one mistake away from trading places. The young people that I worked with showed me how eager they are to engage in opportunities that would change their life’s direction and how vulnerable they are to discrimination from the wider community. There is massive untapped potential for prisoners and former prisoners to progress to third level education and throughout my career I have seen firsthand how a third level qualification can change your life. I’m excited to continue my work in this space. 

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