Go to jail - then get a degree
A project to help prisoners into higher education is turning lives around
Joe Baden's mobile phone rings as he's leaving a café a couple of streets from Goldsmiths College in south-east London. "What were you doing? Smuggling? Was it Class A?" he asks. As his voice lowers, the conversation that follows gives an intriguing insight into the role he plays in helping a unique group of students to make their way into higher education.
"Have you got a release date yet?" he asks the voice at the other end of the line. "Send me a portfolio of your work, please."
The sympathetic note in Baden's voice mixes with mild annoyance when the conversation comes to an end. "He was on his mobile," he explains of the prisoner inside Wandsworth jail who has just tracked him down. "It's not allowed. He might get into trouble."
The fact that Baden increasingly gets unexpected calls like this is good news for Open Book, the organisation he runs at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London. Its aim is to encourage ex-prisoners to see higher education as a realistic option when they come out of jail and, over time, to help them to realise those ambitions.
The phone call is proof that the word is slowly getting around on the inside that the organisation exists. However, the difficulties ex-offenders encounter on the road towards acquiring a degree can be immense, as can the task of persuading some people in positions of authority that a criminal conviction should not be a barrier to a higher education place.
But if anyone can overcome these twin obstacles, it is Baden, chiefly because he's been there himself. By his own admission, his life was falling apart in the early 1990s. Drugs and alcohol were taking over, and his criminal record, already featuring convictions for theft and affray, was threatening to get longer and more serious. He had seen the inside of prison for a short period and he feared that he might end up back inside for longer. Unless, that is, he could change.
The catalyst for what would prove a transformation was a half-hearted participation in an education project, undertaken, he remembers, "to keep my probation officer happy".
This experience, however, stirred distant memories of how he'd enjoyed writing during the rare occasions he'd attended school during his turbulent teenage years. Why not, he thought, use education as a vehicle out of a life of addiction and criminality? But he still had to overcome a deep-seated inner resistance to taking learning seriously. "I thought education was not for me," he recalls. "I thought it was for people from another world. Middle class people."
He now helps the ex-prisoners he deals with to get over this obstacle. Eventually, Baden signed up to do a history degree at Goldsmiths and graduated in 1998, after three years that cemented his personal recovery. His subsequent job as a tutor for the probation service brought home to him how many ex-prisoners had the potential to enter higher education, but also how few channels there were for them to achieve that.
"Some of us can actually read and write," he observes, with a flash of wry smile, and an accent that's lost none of its diamond geezer, Millwall edge.
So, he got involved in pilot projects at Goldsmiths to try to encourage more ex-cons to follow in his footsteps. Gradually there was enough momentum to launch Open Book, which has now been running from an office at the college for nearly three years.
Thanks to Open Book's encouragement and support, there are currently 27 ex-prisoners or drug addicts on degree courses at Goldsmiths and 18 others spread around other universities. One is about to start a Masters degree, and only one has dropped out of education altogether.
The immeasurable value of Open Book's work was dramatically displayed at a recent fundraising reception at Goldsmiths, when former prisoners took the microphone to tell how their lives had been turned around by education.
Using emotional and graphic language, one after another, they described the desperate nature of their former lives of drug addiction and crime, and contrasted that with their current situations, where education has provided self-confidence, hope and direction in the context of lives that are not only crime-free, but making positive contributions to society.
Typical of the stories was that told by 24-year-old Asif (name changed), who is about to transfer to the second year of a degree course in drama, having already done two years on a Goldsmiths "access to higher education" course.
"I was surrounded by drugs, crime and prostitution, and in prison at the age of 20," he told the gathering. On his release, he said, he met Baden, who tried to persuade him to think about education. At first he wasn't really interested, but Baden persisted, and eventually he agreed to start the course that was to change his life.
"I've never reoffended," he concluded, "and I've discovered a belief in myself."
"But it's not only God who's been looking after me. It's been Joe Baden as well."
Others gave similar accounts of lives that had been turned round, all highlighting Baden's role as a guardian-angel figure.
All emphasised the difficulties of making the transition from a criminal life to education, and praised Open Book's role in nursing them through this phase and providing continued support on the journey.
One of the difficulties is dealing with an academic world that can be intimidating to someone who has missed out on much of his or her formal education. Open Book helps with understanding academic language and learning essay-writing techniques, building confidence generally, as well as helping out with practical things such as form-filling, CV-writing and navigating the labyrinth of student finance.
With significant support from the student union and other volunteers, the organisation runs taster courses, drop-in sessions and tailored one-to-one help when individual students need support.
The university authorities at Goldsmiths, who provide the lion's share of funding for Open Book, see the project as central to their overall commitment to widening participation in higher education.
"Open Book's results fully justify our commitment to the scheme," explains Pro Warden Dr Philip Broadhead. "At an individual level it gives people an opportunity to reorientate their lives, yet at the same time there are obvious benefits to society."
This message is echoed by Steve Taylor, director of the lobby group Forum on Prisoner Education, who is himself an ex-prisoner. "Open Book is an absolute model for what all colleges and universities should be doing in their widening participation programmes," he says.
His admiration for Joe Baden's personal role is also immense. "If it wasn't for Joe, not much would happen. He is 90 per cent of Open Book."
Taylor believes that Open Book is unique, in that it offers a formal advice and support structure to help ex-prisoners into higher education. He thinks the Department for Education and Skills should move to establish a network of similar bodies across the country.
The reoffending statistics suggest it would be money well spent. Against the background of a prison population that has risen steadily over the past decade, re-offending rates remain high. Nearly three quarters of young offenders, for example, are reconvicted within two years of leaving prison.
This, allied to the cost of incarceration, reckoned to be around £35,000 per inmate a year, provides powerful ammunition for those calling for a massive expansion of investment in education for those with a criminal past.
It is a case that is enthusiastically supported by the prisoner campaign group, the Howard League for Penal Reform. "Supporting ex-prisoners into higher education increases their employment opportunities, improves their self-esteem and reduces the risk that their children will struggle at school," says spokeswoman Finola Farrant.
But the economic argument appears even stronger than the sociological one. Given the enormous achievements recorded by Open Book, on an annual budget of not much more than the cost of keeping one person in prison for a year, it would seem unarguable that money invested in this cause would create much bigger savings.
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