The news that ex-offenders wanting to study at university will no longer have to declare their criminal convictions is welcome, though long overdue. Announcing the move Ben Jordan, from the university admissions service, Ucas, said he hoped the change in policy reaffirmed that “higher education is open to everyone”.
It’s better late than never. But our high seats of learning should not expect an avalanche of applications from those with criminal convictions. By and large, offenders tend to come from more fractured backgrounds than those who walk the straight and narrow, and this is reflected in the educational statistics from our jails. Around one in three prisoners in England and Wales in 2015-16 were identified as having a learning disability or difficulty, and sadly it has long been established that around half of all prisoners have a reading age below that of an average child of 10.
But those offenders who learn, some later than others, that education can be a path leading away from crime and punishment tend to embrace it. Many times in prison, I have seen teachers, new to their surroundings, being overwhelmed by the keenness and positivity of their inmate students. And of the several dozen former prisoners I know personally who went on to study at university , only one has reoffended. As Nina Champion, from the Prisoners’ Education Trust, said: “People with convictions who are applying to university are showing a huge commitment to turning their lives around and society should support them.”If education is a way out of offending, surely work is another route. On my last prison sentence, in an open jail, I had a job in the community, working long hours and enjoying every minute of it. Why wouldn’t I? The work was in a hotel, and I cycled there through beautiful countryside. All while being paid wages and serving my time. But a good number of my fellow travellers in the jail were not, I thought, as fortunate as me. They were employed in a nearby meat processing and packaging factory. With temperatures ranging from cold to freezing, and the pay in keeping with the climate, you might have thought they would be glad to see the back of their workplace when their time was up. Not so: I had it on good authority back then that a significant number of men relocated to the area of the prison after their release in order to carry on working in the plant as free men.
And now, 20 years later, and earning my crust as a hack writing mainly about prisons and the criminal justice system, I come across many ex-prisoners who have found a niche in the workplace and reward their employers, who have taken them on irrespective of their previous “form”, with hard work and honesty.
Employers such as James Timpson, chief executive of the multinational chain of shoe repair shops, actively seek to employ people with criminal convictions. Timpson has told me heartwarming success stories that have resulted from this approach. Would that more bosses would follow suit.
But many former prisoners will have to continue to declare their convictions, even if they are very old, when applying for jobs. Some convictions remain with the offender for life, never to be “spent”. A couple of my offences fall into that category. If I were to apply for a new job tomorrow, I would have to declare my criminal past. It’s not a problem for me now, as I write about my criminal and penal history in the course of my work, and it sits easily with me. But if I were applying for a “normal job”, coming clean would almost certainly be to my disadvantage among the majority of employers. My last conviction was in 1995, but my 23 crime-free years since, after almost half a century of offending, would not cut me a bit of slack.
For some jobs, some criminal convictions will always be relevant, for example convictions relevant for safeguarding for those working with children and vulnerable people. But for far too many ex- (I repeat, ex-) offenders, the punishment continues, long after they thought the prison gates had closed behind them.
• Eric Allison is the Guardian’s prisons correspondent.