Formulas for success - Rhys' university story

"Education should be mandatory in prisons. I sat down regularly with men who couldn’t read and write, I would read letters from their children, and write letters back because they couldn’t spell."

Rhys, 27, gave an opening address at the Prisoner Learning Alliance conference in Cardiff last year. He is a former prisoner who is now in his second year at Cardiff Metropolitan University, studying for a BSc in Biomedical Science.

At school I was a really good child and well behaved at first. But when I was older, my parents decided to send me to a new school closer to home. As a new guy with no close friends, I immediately fell in with the wrong crowd, smoking cannabis because that was the cool thing to do. I went from being a really good student to having really poor attendance and left school without very much at all. 

After school I did a BTEC in vehicle service and maintenance, and then a one-year apprenticeship at a garage. But the whole the time I was there I felt I had ruined my opportunities of getting a good job because of messing around in school. After the apprenticeship ended I had a couple of crap jobs for crap money until I went to prison when I was 19. I got a nine-year sentence and spent four-and-a-half years inside.

When I first got to prison I given work as a cleaner but I wanted to get off the unit outside working hours. So I went to the education department, but to get onto interesting courses you had to be a certain level. I fancied a few things so I built up my qualifications, starting with Entry One Maths and English. It took a long time, but it got done.

After I had done nearly every course on offer, and was working as a teaching assistant, I went up to the education department to find out what else I could do. Nobody in the prison had done a distance-learning course before but three of us boys started it. I studied a Level Three Introduction to the Environment course. It would have cost me a lot of money if I wasn’t in prison, and I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had funding from Prisoners’ Education Trust. Although it was low-credit level and it was spread over a year, it was essential to progress up the levels to the Foundation Degree.

"You’d sit on your bed with your legs crossed and you’d get bad knees, and your eyesight would go because there’s not enough light, and you’d have to have glasses – but it’s worth it."

In prison it was my first opportunity to learn about something I enjoyed. I was always interested in science. It was my favourite subject in school, but because of behaviour the school were convinced I was just there to mess around and act the fool. The second course was an Access Open University course, also supported by Prisoners’ Education Trust. It included astronomy, geography, geology, physics, biology, chemistry – everything! From there I specialised in chemistry and analytical methods. You had to push yourself, because you knew that when everyone went back to their cells at night, they’d be just relaxing and watching TV. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to use that time productively and work on my studies, which was hard because there are no desks or chairs. So you’d sit on your bed with your legs crossed and you’d get bad knees, and your eyesight would go because there’s not enough light, and you’d have to have glasses – but it’s worth it.

Some people would come to the cell door when I was studying and they’d go: “What you doing bro?” and I’d say: “I’m trying to revise.” And they’d say: “What you doing that for? I haven’t picked up a book since school.” I’d ask them: “What do you do for a job then?” and they’d say: “I sell drugs.” So I’d tell them they’d be in and out of prison all their life so maybe they should pick up a book and learn something.

After I’d finished one course, my mother came in with my probation officer and a member of the teaching team. I asked someone from the education department to explain what I had been doing in the prison and how important it was. My mother became quite emotional and said it was like having back her son who used to enjoy learning before we moved school. My family were proud of me then and are more proud of me now.

Education should be mandatory in prisons. I sat down regularly with men who couldn’t read and write, I would read letters from their children, and write letters back because they couldn’t spell. The alternative is giving a man a mop and asking him to clean the floor so he gets to go to the gym twice a day. But he should be given just as much money if he goes to learn to read and write, and given the same privileges as a cook or cleaner.

When I was released I was adamant I wanted to continue studying. Before going to university, I had to go to college for a year to gain some lab skills. I feel that if I went to university straight from prison I might have struggled. The year in college gave me a year to acclimatise, relax and reflect. I got work in the service industry, building on the qualifications I had gained in prison, and I’m now a manager of a restaurant and have a part-time job in a hospital lab. People used to say to me: “Why do you want to study that? You’ll never get a job in a hospital or a restaurant with a criminal record.” But I haven’t even finished my degree and I’m on license, but I’m working, and I’m doing ok.

The education journey I’ve been on has made a big difference. In prison, if I hadn’t spent all that time studying and had been jack-the-lad on the wing, then I probably would have come out and gone back to how things were. Education has given me the opportunity to say I can’t do that because studying is going to help me. Education has helped me focus. Doing an assignment is hard, but it’s worth doing. Sitting there on your bed watching TV is easy, but there’s no point to it. If you are thinking about doing education is prison my advice is to do it.