Prison university project to ‘bring third-level to those furthest away from it’

‘Every person should be offered the chance of an education, the right to a chance for change’

A programme to support prisoners to go to university, and "bring third-level education to those furthest away from it" will be unveiled on Monday by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and her colleague, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris.

The Mountjoy and Maynooth University (MJMU) project aims to become a template across the prison service to “disrupt the inevitability” of a life in and out of the prison system for many offenders.

Dr Rose Ryan, director of the access programme in MU, said while the university was already involved in educational projects in the prison, the MJMU initiative was a "formal partnership". It would build on the work of the City of Dublin Education and Training Board, which provides education in the prison, to enable offenders continue in education.

“There is often a perception that people who are in prison are completely lost to society. In fact there are many who, when given the right opportunities and strong mentoring bridges into education, are wonderful students, who contribute a lot to the university and who can completely transform not only their own lives but also the lives of their families.” Current and former prisoners will be eligible, she said, “to support their reintegration into society”.

Among those who has transformed his life is ‘Jack’, from Dublin. Following prison he could not get even low-skilled work due to his “previous convictions”.

“I was left with precarious work that didn’t do me any good. I was very unhappy, started drinking, using drugs.” He got into recovery and from there began a course in Pathways, an education and guidance service for former prisoners.

“That gave me a bit of hope.” With support he got into the then Dublin Institute of Technology in Mountjoy Square and then to MU where he studied social policy, and has now completed a master’s degree.

“It was new world for me. I had severe ‘impostor syndrome’ but I decided to give myself a chance for a change . . . Every day I went to college was another step away from my criminal past.

“There are days I sit back and have to say, ‘Wow. You got there by getting up and participating and taking the risk.’”

He regrets “huge stigma” faced by young people from his background, for whom a life on the margins and even in the criminal justice system can feel inevitable, and that he needs to remain anonymous because of this.

“I am not ashamed of my past but society and media portrays someone from my background as not worth it, not worth the effort. Every person should be offered the chance of an education, the right to a chance for change.”