Michelle Nicholson was just 22 when she was handed a life sentence with a minimum of 14 years for murder.
She has always maintained her innocence and has now been out of prison for almost a decade.
‘It was that typical story. I came from a poor community, there were no opportunities and I didn’t bother with school,’ she told Metro.co.uk.
‘I was so young and naive. I never expected I’d ever go to prison and I couldn’t believe it when I did.’
After she was released Michelle, 47, set up her own charity that works with other vulnerable women both inside prison and those who are newly released and who can’t imagine a way to turn their lives around.
She says it was being able to learn behind bars that allowed her to make a success of her life when she was released. She wants to see the same opportunity be made available to other prisoners.
‘When I was in prison, I just saw so many women who needed help, more than punishment,’ she said.
‘I had heard about the social injustices they had faced and I decided I wanted to be a part of a system change.
‘I recognised what some of the women going into prison were facing – I knew that actually judging them and taking away humanity doesn’t work.
‘Actually what these people need is a little bit of help.’
Michelle said she had no interest in education and left school and a beauty course at college without any qualifications.
In prison, she decided she wanted that to change. She gained a GCSE in Psychology and then landed a place on a course with the Open University – eventually gaining a degree in Social Science.
‘Being in prison is such a harsh system that really de-humanises people – it takes away their hope and self-belief,’ Michelle said.
‘But if you give people something to work towards it gives them that hope for a future and enables them to learn about the world we are living in.
‘I was really keen to learn as much as I could.’
Recent research found that prisons that receive funding from the Prisoners’ Education Trust – which works in England and Wales – have a 25 percent lower chance of re-offending.
PET provides around 3,000 courses a year in levels and subjects not otherwise available in prison.
Rod Clark, Chief Executive, said: ‘People usually come into prison with a poor history of education – around half have left school with no qualifications whatsoever.
‘Education in prison equips people with the tools to build a life away from crime, support their families and contribute to their communities after release.
‘At PET we have funded 3,000 prisoners a year; people who have gone on to become engineers, entrepreneurs and academics, to name a few.
‘We met many former prisoners who have found skills, talents or attributes they never knew they had, and have come out of prison driven to give back to society and help deter other people from crime.’
Michelle set up Keychanges when she was released from prison, to help women who have served time get back into the community.
She now uses her own experience to give educational presentations to a range of audiences to help people better understand prisoners’ needs.
‘I think rehabilitation is so important,’ she said.
‘People who are released from prison have served their sentence – but they carry the stigma for life.
‘We need to be inclusive and give prisoners support otherwise they will just keep re-offending.
‘Studying really opened my mind and in a place where there is no mental stimulation, you have to find something.’