This Is What It's Like to Get Your Degree in Prison
Studying in prison can feel like a long and lonely journey.
Photo of Arne Jensen by Marie Hyle
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Arne Jensen never imagined himself becoming an educated man. "I love being a criminal," he tells me brightly like he's talking about a newfound passion for gardening.
The 38-year-old Dane has spent a third of his adult life behind bars. He's served time in ten different institutions, for a wide array of charges, including assault, arson, burglary, and possession of marijuana with the intent to sell. He's currently serving a 12-year sentence, after being caught carrying six kilos of hash and having 150,000 Danish kroner [$23,290 USD] on him. In March 2017, he suddenly found himself surrounded by police during their "Operation Northern Lights" in Christiania in Copenhagen—which has since been dubbed the largest hash-bust in Danish history.
"But I have no future as a criminal anymore. If there's a break-in in the town where I live, I'm the first person the police come looking for," he explains. His first steps into getting educated came out of necessity. "I had to explore other options in life."
Three years ago, his prison mentor told him something nobody had ever told him before—that he could be a student if he wanted, and that getting an education was worth the effort. After that conversation, Jensen finally felt he could dream of a different kind of life beyond the barbed wire fence around Horserød Prison. He decided to finish secondary school.
"I want a boring life with a Volvo, a house in the suburbs, a dog, and everything else," he says.
The Danish Prison and Probation Service doesn't have any numbers on how many inmates in the country have begun or completed educational programs while incarcerated. But according to Tina Engelbrecht Issing, the head of a prisoner rehabilitation program under the Danish Prison and Probation Service, it's safe to estimate that between 10 percent and 20 percent of Danish prisoners are currently enrolled in an educational program.
In Denmark, the debate over whether or not prison inmates are entitled to an education has riled up politicians, researchers, and interest groups. The issue is part of the larger philosophical and ethical question of why we, as a society, punish people at all—do we lock offenders up purely as a punishment for criminal behavior and to protect the general public? Or because we believe that a prison sentence can offer an offender re-education and rehabilitation?
The question of whether getting an education in prison helps inmates not to return to a life of crime after their release has been studied thoroughly. A recent meta-study from May 2018, published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, examines a total of 57 studies conducted in the US on the issue over the past 37 years. The report concludes that the inmates who participate in educational programs were 28 percent less likely to relapse into a life of crime compared to their fellow inmates who have not participated in a program while serving a sentence.
Sociologist and criminologist Linda Kjær Minke spent more than 1,000 hours conducting ethnographic surveys in a Danish prison while working on her PhD. In addition to teaching law at the University of Southern Denmark, she started a project in a minimum-security prison in 2016, in which law students come to the prison to follow courses on punishment and crime prevention together with the inmates.
One of her students from inside the prison at the time was Thomas*, who's six and a half years into his nine-year sentence on drug-related charges. He's intent on living a normal life when he gets out, which is why he decided to take his A-levels [standardized tests exclusive to the UK] in prison, and, after discovering his interest in law, applied for a business law program. "Linda is a wonderful person," he tells me. "It's to her credit that I began studying law. She made it seem interesting and exciting. It means a lot, when someone is willing to listen to you and fight for you."
Throughout her career, says Kjær Minke, one thing has always struck her as odd. "Why do we as a society insist on imprisoning people with similar problems and challenges together, instead of exposing them to people who are very different from them?" she asks.
Kjær Minke's course sees 12 law students and 12 inmates enrolled on the same terms in the same classroom in the prison complex, and every student is awarded five credits upon completion. The law students add them to their total number of credits in the academic year, while inmates like Thomas can use them when they're applying for a degree program. "But it's not about the credits—the important thing is that the inmates experience being treated on equal terms with others, and have a chance at a fucking win for themselves," Kjær Minke explains.
The course did give Thomas the courage to apply to law school, but he dropped out again after less than a year. He had a hard time keeping up and felt doing this degree while incarcerated was an "uphill battle."
Most prison inmates enrolled in educational programs remotely and independently. They're allowed to use facilities at the prison, which means students can sit in a computer room, and occasionally have the help of a teacher.
"The problem is that people will start horsing around, and ruin everything for others who are studying. There's no one there to monitor the classroom. And when other people are talking shit, I'll start talking shit too. In the end you fall behind on your coursework and you lose your motivation," Thomas explains.
During his law degree, Thomas failed six of his eight exams. The bar was high and he could only consult his professor once a week. If he didn't understand his professor's written answers or had additional questions, he had to wait another week for a response. "No one likes to feel stupid, and it's easier to just quit. But it's a shame. With the right kind of guidance we'd be able to finish our assignments," he adds.
Although a law degree didn't work out for Thomas, he'll start studying engineering at the Technical University of Denmark after the summer break. His advice to the Danish Prison and Probation Service is to make it easier for inmates to access their teachers and mentors—and to have them be physically present at the prisons, too.
"It would mean a lot for the atmosphere—it wouldn't feel like a prison because we'd be encouraged to act civilly. The more people from the outside you have here, the more "normal" the prison will seem. It just makes for better students."
Det Lærende Fængsel (DLF, translates to "Learning in Prison") is a Danish organization working to improve inmates' rights and access to educational programs. DLF observes that the current debate around the prison system is out of balance—with calls for tougher sentencing of criminals conflicting with the prison system's obligation to rehabilitate prisoners.
The organization's founding CEO Kate Vinther tells me that the focus on tougher sentencing directly impacts inmates' lives. "Security is prioritized above the right to education and treatment of mental illness. We have almost entirely eliminated everything that can provide inmates with a sense of purpose in life." Vinther founded DLF after serving her own prison sentence. In her opinion, the system currently isn't equipped to service prisoners who want to study. "We need people in the system who can support the inmates, academically and socially. And we need to change the physical framework, too, so it allows students to concentrate on the curriculum," she says.
If it were up to Thomas, he'd do all of his coursework at prison in the same way as the class he took with Kjær Minke—side by side with students who aren't imprisoned. "It would make an enormous difference. Without it, you don't receive the feedback you need to stay motivated and finish your coursework," he says. "I'm a smart guy, but there have been a lot of bumps in the road. And there are people here who have to deal with much bigger issues than I do. You have to wonder how that makes them feel."
Thomas is optimistic about the future, though. Recently, he called a list of companies, asking whether his past record in itself would be an issue to be hired if he applied after his release. Many of the responses were encouraging, he says.
As far as Jensen's concerned, his educational program far exceeded his expectations. When I try to ask him whether he’s had any issues studying behind bars, he answers before I can finish, "Problems? Hell no. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me."
He tells me the only other thing he's experienced success with in life, was crime. "It's not like it didn't feel great to earn money illegally. But it's only now that I realize that I'm not an inherently bad person and I'm not stupid. I had a mother fucking A in English, man," he exclaims, throwing his hands in the air.
After the summer break, he'll start studying for his A-levels, which would grant him access to college-level educational programs. When I ask him whether he plans on finishing his next study goals, he answers that that's an unfair question. "I don't know the answer to that one. I'm terrified of falling back into a life of crime if I don't."
Jensen dreams of becoming a landscape gardener because he loves the scent of rhododendron, he says. He likes the idea of pruning roses and watching them bloom. In fact, his education means so much to him, that he hasn't requested an early release. He doesn't want to "fuck it up," as he says. He could be on the outside, but chose to serve his full sentence in order to complete his A-levels before reentering society.
"Part of the reason that I'm talking to you about this, is to stay motivated," he confesses. "I want the whole world to know I'm doing this, so I have something to keep me on my toes out there, on the other side."
*Thomas used a pseudonym. He wishes to remain anonymous for the sake of his family and future employment opportunities.
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