How a maximum security prison offers a pathway to academic excellence and a PhD
Prisons seem an unlikely source of outstanding university students, but it is. What’s more, those who have done such study are much less likely to re-offend when they get out.
Published on the 21 Oct 2021 by Christian Tietz
The person taking notes during our meeting, we later learn, is averaging a high distinction in their studies for a bachelor degree. If this level of performance is maintained this student is heading for a university medal – an award recognising exceptional academic achievement. Clearly, this is a highly motivated student.
Our PhD candidate was happy he could concentrate on our conversation and didn’t need to worry about keeping notes. Besides studying for a PhD, the candidate is training five prison inmates in a specialised professional 3D design and manufacturing software package typically used in the design industry.
Sounds very busy and under pressure to perform. Yet, in his first months as a PhD student, his paper was accepted at an international sustainable design conference.
Where did we find such high-achieving students? Inside a maximum security prison in New South Wales! It seems it is possible to excel at university studies in jail.
Furthermore, the US and UK experience suggests inmates who undertake higher education re-offend at dramatically lower rates than others following their release from prison.
When prison inmates join the ranks of university graduates their rate of re-offending after release falls dramatically. Photo: UNSW, Author provided
What sort of prison is this?
The corrections officer accompanying us said:
“The inmates have been judged in a court by a judge, so we don’t need to do it again.”
His statement reflects the spirit of this institution. Its focus is on genuine rehabilitation through being respectful, building skills and encouraging further education. It also has a strict anti-violence policy.
The jail that enables these endeavours is not the sort we’re used to seeing in popular movies. Features of the Macquarie Correctional Centre include private bathrooms, and beds are in private cubicles in a dorm with a kitchenette. The inmate are afforded privacy and dignity.
These are features based on desistance theory of how criminal offenders stop their offending behaviour.
At Macquarie Correctional Centre, inmates have greater access to education and programs to rehabilitate them and reduce re-offending.
After passing through security and being escorted to our meeting, my colleague was a bit uneasy as we passed inmates in the long corridors. After all we were inside a maximum security prison. The inmates were there for offences that warranted maximum security incarceration.
However, the people we encountered were polite and greeted us in a friendly manner.
This environment was familiar to me because I’ve been to jail a few times myself – not as an inmate, but as a facilitator and participant in Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) workshops.
What are the challenges of studying ‘inside’?
When studying “inside”, there is no internet access. Emails are printed out or relayed. If information needs to be viewed online it is under supervision of an authorised officer. To quickly check a fact or find a reference from the online library is not possible.
All these study activities need to be planned and approved and timed. Procedures and processes need to be learned, understood, applied and adhered to. My colleague struggled at first to come to grips with this, and so did the university’s postgraduate school.
To even get enrolled into a PhD was no easy feat, despite a well-developed research proposal. The inmate had previously applied unsuccessfully to another university. Today, less than a handful of inmates have completed a PhD while incarcerated in NSW.
UNSW’s 2025 Strategy has a strong commitment to improving quality of life, sustainable development and to equity, diversity and inclusion. Therefore the Graduate Research School could approve this rare request.
There were many more problems to overcome. While it is possible to watch online tutorials without a full name being disclosed or face shown (to stop being identified as inmates for legal reasons), it is not possible to actively participate while maintaining complete confidentiality. Also how to access the ubiquitous online learning platform, submit online assignments and meet supervisors?
Working from home and online learning are now commonplace. Yet at first in this case it was not thought possible. However, support from the prison administration made it possible.
The student proposed, designed and made a special computer desk to enable participation in supervisory meetings. This solution was driven by the prison education officer. We can now see and talk to our student and vice versa.
It isn’t just the inmates who benefit
Besides these issues, what good will university study do?
UK data on re-offending highlight the difference university education can make. In the UK, 46% of all prisoners will re-offend within a year of release – this rises to 59% for short-sentence prisoners. Among prisoners who undertake university courses less than 5% of parolees re-offend.
Currently, prison food is centrally prepared and delivered over long distances. These “food miles” have significant economic, health and environmental impacts. Producing food on site also helps reduce opportunities to smuggle in contraband, increasing inmate safety.
Growing fresh produce “inside” would increase sustainability, improve nutrition and reduce economic and mental health impacts. The result could be a commercially viable food-production system, franchised to other NSW, Australian and international prison facilities. Education is one of Australia’s biggest industries, and this is an opportunity to expand it further.
Maximum security prisons have the potential to become centres of academic excellence. It would surely be a win for correctional facilities, inmate food quality, health and wellness, society and the environment.