What impact does studying with the OU have on learners? Sometimes the results appear dramatic because of the change in the fortunes of the offenders. In January 1971 among the first students to start studying at the OU were 22 prisoners, the first of many to study at the OU. Many had difficulties that other students did not face. As one Tutor pointed out some years later, it is difficult for a Category A prisoner to set up a rain gauge outside when he has to be handcuffed to a prison officer every day to check the water level. Some had to deal with their own notoriety. After his final arrest in 1970 armed robber John McVicar was given a sentence of 26 years. He subsequently took an Open University degree in Sociology and was awarded a BSc first class. He was paroled in 1978 and was perhaps helped to leave behind criminal activity by his studies.
Lawrence McKeown studied with the OU while serving life imprisonment inside the Maze Prison at Long Kesh. He spent four and a half years on the Blanket and the No Wash Protest in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. In 1981 he fasted for seventy days. In 1991 McKeown contributed to Éirí na Gealaí: Reflections on the Culture of Resistance in Long Kesh. Sentenced in 1977 he was released in 1992.
Garnet Busby was an Ulster Volunteer Force prisoner who spent 18 years serving six life sentences for bombings. A car bomb he planted exploded without warning in 1976 killing two men and two boys. He went on to work with the Sandy Row Residents Committee. Both he and McKeown gaiend PhDs.
Rosie McCorley (first class honours from the OU) was sentence for the attempted murder of an army officer and possession of explosives. She was released early under the Good Friday Agreement and went on to offer Republicans advice on the Falls Road. McCorley said,
I do feel sorry [about the past] but I couldn’t say I felt guilty because that would suggest that what I did was wrong … I believed the armed struggle was the only way to bring about change.
The Times Higher noted:
The extraordinary role of Open University degrees in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland is acknowledged throughout the Republican sector as well as by the smaller Loyalist political parties whose support for the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and for the 1999 Northern Ireland Executive is vital. The importance of ex-prisoners can be judged by their numbers. In a population of 1.5 million, 1,500 have served prison sentences, many of them long. Of the long-term prisoners, about 5 per cent, 40 or 50 a year, studied with the Open University.
Former prisoner Jim Watts (also with an OU first) who later ran a computer training centre for Loyalist ex-prisoners on the Shankill Road, told the THES that ‘The OU made learning enjoyable’ .
Popular Unionist Party Assembly members, the late David Irvine and Billy Hutchison were both Long Kesh compound prisoners who completed OU degrees. They say their degrees gave them political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence.
John Hirst, who won his case after he took the government to the European Court of Human Rights over voting rights for prisoners, has spent a total of 35 years in prison, one of his convictions being for manslaughter. One of his trial judges, Mr Justice Purchis, described Hirst ‘an arrogant and dangerous person with a severe personality defect’. Hirst was later diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder that is often referred to as ‘high functioning autism’. While in prison Hirst studied with the Open University and now claims on his blog, ‘I was transformed from a law breaker into a law-maker. I am firmly committed to prisoners rights, and am a campaigner for penal reform.’ Podcast 64 is an interview with him here. To understand the impact of the OU we need to assess its impact on prisoners and prisons, perhaps especially if those prisoners go on to become become law makers and to broker peace arrangements.