I haven’t got a clue what I’d be doing now otherwise

Author: | 12 Mar 2024

Current scholar David Shipley was 38 and half way through a sentence for fraud. More and more, his thoughts were turning to life after release. His offence meant his previous career was closed to him forever. Here he explains how overcoming his fears and embracing education in prison opened the door to a new future.

The Covid lockdown made prison life even more dull than usual. I ran laps, lifted weights and tried to pass the time by writing. I knew I enjoyed writing, but I’d always thought formal study was a waste of time. Writing was just something you could do or couldn’t, but I had all the time in the world.

And so, I researched courses and carefully wrote out an application for a prestigious Creative Writing degree. People who graduated had a good chance of going on to decent, paid work as writers. I didn’t meet the academic requirements, but they assured me all applications would be considered, so I diligently filled in all the forms.

Two weeks later I received a standard rejection letter, telling me that I didn’t meet the academic requirements of the course’. I felt terrible. I’d set my heart on this degree. It was going to give me a new future. And now it wasn’t. I was dejected and defeated, wondering why everything was against me.

It’s not only about having the right qualifications

My mum helped. She told me, ‘it’s their loss. Just apply somewhere else’. She was right. I decided not to give up and found a degree offered entirely online by the University of Hull. In most of the prison system, online study is not allowed, but I was in an Open prison at the time and, with Covid lockdown happening, there was more flexibility than usual about allowing some internet access for education.

Hull made it clear that they were more interested in each person’s life story and reasons for studying rather than qualifications or experience. They asked for an application letter and examples of my writing. I sent them an explanation of my crime, told them I was a prisoner, and how important writing was to me. Within days I got an acceptance.

 The course started in a week. Suddenly the reality hit me. I hadn’t written an essay in 20 years. Would I be able to keep up? Would they treat me differently for being a criminal? Would they all be kids? I considered withdrawing from the course before it started, but I didn’t, and from day one they could not have been more welcoming.

Staff and fellow students were curious. I was the only prisoner on the course (alongside a retired prison officer from New Zealand) but we were a pretty varied group. Ages ranged from early 20s to mid-70s, and students ‘attended’ from every part of the world.

I almost forgot I was in prison

I loved that course. Each day I’d leave my house block to ‘go to university’, and spend the day learning, reading and writing. I’d almost forget I was in prison. On the course we got brilliant feedback, and I came to realise that writing is as technical and teachable as mechanics, carpentry or computer programming. I learnt how to write fast and to a publishable standard and found myself getting better marks than I expected. As the course went on, they went up.

It wasn’t all easy, though. Even in an open prison, there’s a lot of nonsense. Fewer internet connections than prisoners studying online at that Covid moment in time meant time to work was strictly rationed. I often felt at a disadvantage compared to the other students who could pop online whenever they needed to check a source, order a new book, or just chat with the other students. One thing I did have, though, was time. In the evenings I read course texts, made notes, and thought about the next assignment.

 Studying gets harder post release

 After release, in some ways it got harder. I had an assignment due two weeks after I left prison. I just couldn’t face it. My life felt unstable, unmoored. When I emailed the university to explain, they couldn’t have been more supportive. They didn’t ask for documents or proof. They just said ‘have another month’.

Even with the distractions of a new life outside, social media and friends to catch up with, I finished my degree, securing a merit. Then began the slow grind of pitching for writing work. I now knew I could write. I just had to persuade other people. Inside Time was the first place to publish me. Then I began to pick up more commissions: at the Spectator; with CapX; and even some American publications. Being able to write fast, and to deadlines, helped a lot.

Where I have got to so far

 To my surprise, I realised that I wanted to keep studying. So in September of 2023, I started a PhD at the University of Southampton. I am researching the impact on children of having a parent in prison. Combining my writing career (@ShipleyWrites) and the PhD means I’m pretty busy, but I get to do interesting, enjoyable work most days. I feel so grateful.

 I haven’t got a clue what I’d be doing now if I hadn’t started that Creative Writing degree in prison. And it would have been so easy to give up when I got that rejection letter, or to succumb to my fears just before starting at Hull. I’m so happy I didn’t.

My degree has given me a career after prison, a sense of purpose, and a path for the second half of my life. We’re all capable of more than we realise. A degree could really change your future, as my experience shows. Why not give it a try?

The Longford Trust offers around 30 new scholarships each year for the duration of a degree course. To find out more, go to our website or contact Clare Lewis, our scholarship manager.