Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski: ‘I went from prison to PhD’

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Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski tells the extraordinary story of how he transformed his life through education.

Stephen strives daily to educate students on the essence of prison; what it’s meant for against the reality of what really happens there. 

An expert in criminology, he fuses his own experience in prison into what he teaches as an associate lecturer at the Open University.

A PhD candidate today, he holds two masters and his first degree but his life wasn’t always golden.

“Growing up, life was tough. My father died in a car crash when I was a teenager and that hit me really hard. I didn’t see the world as a meritocracy. I had to grab what I could.”

“But being sent to prison for dealing drugs was a shock.”

Stephen was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Initially, he didn’t speak to anyone for the first three months but was assigned to work in the kitchens. Noticing, Stephen’s smart nature, the prison staff encouraged him to learn something new.

“As people got to know me, I was eventually assessed for my education potential and encouraged after that assessment to enroll at the Open University.”

Before Stephen went into prison, he had dropped out of school and thus had no formal qualification of any sort. This made him scared.

“The most difficult barrier was actually inside of me. I was scared of my future but I decided to try. My day job working in the kitchens meant that I had to study at night. So I had to study on the toilet while my cellmate snored. 

When I finished my first module, it gave me hope and it gave me something I could focus on. I thought, there was no going back now.”

“Other prisoners and guards kept asking me why I was wasting my time saying ‘studying wouldn’t matter with my criminal record’ but I felt I was changing. I discovered I loved learning and that was enough to keep me going.”

Stephen ended up serving only half of his sentence and by the time he was released he had completed his first degree, along with his two masters. 

After he was released, he got a job working with students in prisons. 

“I work with students in prisons not in spite of who I was but because of it.”

“It’s hard to describe how I felt the first time I went back to prison as a lecturer, and the governor came down and shook my hand but I love what I do. It feels deeply personal to me because I used to be a prisoner too.”

Stephen wants the world to know that people sent to prison can change once given the opportunity and access to an education.

“Everyone has the potential and the power to change. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it. I’m not different or special because anybody can do this.”

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