Response to the Nature article: Moving from prison to PhD

There are fewer than ten empirical studies on the transition from prison to university so the article “Moving from Prison to PhD” is a step in the right direction to highlight this neglected and important topic. Globally, millions of individuals are arrested and charged with drug offences every year. Most of them will be scarred for life by their sentence. Even if they can avoid a prison sentence, in many ways a drug conviction still constitutes a life sentence, a dark shadow following you wherever you go.

This issue will remain as long as the criminalisation and stigmatisation of drug users continues. The harms of drugs are many, as well documented by Nutt et al’s (2010) seminal Drug Harms Lancet paper. Many of the physical, psychological and social harms to the user and to society are the result of current drug policies. We can add the harms caused by drug convictions to this list.

A drug sentence can destroy lives. Do we really want to destroy the lives of individuals (and often their families) because they have taken illegal substances? Do we really need to destroy addicts’ lives even further, giving them even less chance to get out of the desolate place they end up finding themselves? The last thing that a person addicted to drugs needs is having their problems exacerbated by a criminal conviction.  A drug conviction means being tainted for life, in an ‘official’ way- because this is one criminal conviction that is not going to go away.

Whether occasional, recreational or high dependency user, once you’ve got a serious drug conviction (generally resulting in a prison sentence), you’re damaged goods. You may be able to stop taking drugs but you can never escape your drug conviction. It is not ‘only’ applying for a university degree that will prove challenging once you have a drug conviction (and you’re limited in what areas you can apply for in the first instance)- try applying for a job! A drug conviction is still viewed as a very grave conviction which needs to be disclosed for many professions. Whilst individual employers might be understanding, the stigma attached to drugs (and by extension, to the user) means that most employers will prefer not to offer the job to a person with a drug conviction.

Want to work with children and/or other vulnerable groups? Admitting to a drug conviction won’t get you far. Yet especially for the latter group, lived experience with the issues young people are often confronted with can be particularly valuable. As Chris Beasley found out, he had a unique skill set to help others. Likewise, incorporating diverse perspectives into academic research can add significant value.

Want to volunteer in your child’s school? You’ll have to go through the CRB check, where you’ll be reminded of your conviction in black and white. Not many headmasters are confident enough to accept a ‘convicted’ parent. Want to travel to the US? If you are unable to tick the ‘correct’ box on your immigration sheet you will receive a negative response- a drug conviction prevents you from entering the country.

The criminalisation of drug use is a disgrace. Time to ban the box ticking when related to drug offences. It is absurd that drug convictions tend to fall under the ‘serious’ criminal conviction category implying the need to protect others from a person who has taken drugs.  It is lucky that Chris, Stanley and Noel were not only able to sort their lives out and get clean but also that they were given the chance of higher education, to study for a PhD and become successful and fully contributing members of society. It is a tragedy that drug convictions still prohibit so many people from developing in this way.