Higher Education: Gary learnt a lot in prison: For one of the Open University's best students, studying offered a way out of jail. Fran Abrams met him

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Few 29-year-olds could match Gary Sebastian's record. He recently graduated from the Open University with some of the highest marks in the country and has worked alongside MPs and senior police officers on two powerful committees on crime. He has also launched a career in market research and has had a hand in publishing a book.

Unfortunately, Mr Sebastian also has another kind of record. He achieved all this while serving a life sentence in prison for murder. He has now left Ford prison in Sussex for a pre-release hostel and hopes to pursue an academic career.

Mr Sebastian left school at 16 with one O-level and ambitions to be a gamekeeper. Nine months later, while working as a butcher, he got into a fight at a party and killed another youth. He was sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1981.

For four years his prison life was punctuated by confrontations with the authorities and periods of depression, culminating in a suicide attempt in 1985. Soon after coming out of hospital he was offered the chance to study with the Open University and, he says, his life changed 'beyond all belief and recognition'.

Soon he was achieving exceptionally high marks. His economics results were the best in the country, and in criminology, where he admits he had something of an advantage, his assignments consistently scored higher than 90 per cent.

In 1988 Mr Sebastian decided to launch his career, although he had little chance of imminent release. He joined the Market Research Society and sent a mailshot to 80 companies asking for work. Among the 60 replies were many offers of employment on his release.

The following year he helped a parliamentary working group on Fear of Crime, conducting group discussions with other prisoners and recording the results. In 1992, along with eight others, he published a sourcebook on British social attitudes. He is now on the crime and social policy committee of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro), where he sits alongside a deputy chief constable, three MPs and two professors.

He has had offers of postgraduate places from Keele University, City University and Girton College, Cambridge, but says he needs to work for a few years to build up some savings.

'I am going to work in market and social research, because there you can have some form of impact on policy-makers. I feel I can put something back into society that way. I don't think I can compensate entirely for what I have done, but I don't think I should go into something selfish or commercial just to make money,' he says.

About 330 prisoners are studying with the Open University under a scheme that is more than 20 years old. Although they face disadvantages, such as not being able to attend summer schools, the system allows prisoners to be moved around the country with a minimum of disruption to their studies.

Chris Baker, a senior counsellor with the OU, says that academic success helps many former offenders to stay out of trouble. 'At the end of the day, the question will be: 'Do people reoffend? Does it alter the pattern of behaviour?' I could point to cases where I would say that it does.

'We have students here who would never have come near the OU otherwise. People are coming in with little schooling, without even basic literacy and numeracy skills, and over a period of time they are graduating with degrees,' he says.

Not surprisingly, most of the prisoners with the OU are serving long sentences. There are currently 10 at Kingston Prison in Portsmouth, which takes only lifers.

Among them is Ian McCallum, who ran a pub in Cambridgeshire before being convicted of killing his wife six years ago. He had a better education than many of his fellow prisoners, having taken A-levels at school. He started an OU course while in Wormwood Scrubs 'to fill time as much as anything'. He is now on his fourth unit and intends to complete six to gain a social science degree. He hopes to do a postgraduate course at Cambridge, and although he does not yet have a release date, he is already making plans through his probation officer to find accommodation and a place there.

Mr McCallum says that in some ways he is treated more generously than students on the outside. His course is paid for and if he wants a book, it will be bought or borrowed for him. 'I don't know that studying will make me better when I go out, but I do feel it's helped me as a form of discipline. In a way prison has given me the chance because I would never have had the time previously,' he says.

Mike Edgar, a fellow student at Kingston, is another of this year's graduates. He had enrolled with the OU before a gambling habit led him into a robbery. He hopes to do a Master's degree in prison and has already begun a study of migration in 11 Dorset parishes, using old census reports. Friends glean information for him from the Public Records Office at Kew, and he is in touch with some of the country's leading experts.

'Some people make models out of matchsticks - I do studying and Ian does studying. It's important to do something, rather than staring at the ceiling or watching television. Some who do that are vegetables by the time they have done a few years,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)