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Felons must 'Flourish': A study of human capabilities in UK and US prison education

What's this study about?

Prison education is touted as the most beneficial pathway to reduce recidivism by outfitting incarcerated people with the knowledge for enhancing employment skills and nurturing pro-social behaviours for reintegration into communities (Magee, 2021).  In the UK and US, education programmes may fall under different categories, depending on whether they attend to vocational and life-long learning, post-secondary edification, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or arts and design proficiencies (Jensen & Reed, 2006). However, major reviews of contemporary prison education programmes in both countries suggest that the opportunities do not translate into better outcomes after prisoners’ time is served. According to the UK Coates review (2016) 60% of released inmates do not have identifiable employment prospects or pathways beyond the education provided. In the US, many prisoners do not have the same opportunities for coursework and work experience while incarcerated and struggle to find competitive jobs on re-entry to the community (Tolbert, 2012). This paper seeks to build a more sophisticated understanding of the links between education availability, uptake, and outcomes for prisoners than is expressed in contemporary scholarship.


Significant research has been done on the high-level barriers to prisoner participation in educational programmes (Brosens, De Donder, Dury, & Verté, 2015). However, these barriers are generally reduced to either lack of psychological motivation of the prisoners (Austin, 2017), or overarching structural limitations like insufficient funding for learning resources. This reductive approach relieves the accountability of educators, politicians, and prison officials for programme outcomes, while ignoring the hegemonic impact of incarceration on prisoners that depletes their positions of autonomy for learning. The current study relies on the ‘capabilities approach’ (CA), originally proposed by Amartya Sen (1993) and extended by Martha Nussbaum (2011), to investigate this gap.


Under the CA, educational outcomes are interpreted as a set of ‘functionings’ which are the basic states and actions that an individual would rely on to maintain a good sense of being and livelihood. Functionings would include being healthy, being included in society and being employable. The provision of high-level educational services in itself is necessary, but not sufficient to positively affect prisoners’ functionings. More attention must be paid to prisoners’ ‘capabilities’, that is, their potential and intrinsic freedom to convert the resources provided into functionings. For example, prisons may by supplied with access to digital technologies, but prisoners’ digital literacy may lag the required skill levels to use the technology productively. Nussbaum (2011) has proposed a set of ten (10) core capabilities which are democratically endorsed as being supportive of general human welfare. Much scholarship is devoted to translating these capabilities into the general education space (Terzi, 2007). However, this does not naturally extend to prison education, as the philosophical underpinnings of ‘freedom’ are complicated by the antagonisms between their liability for crime and the moral imperative to support their societal reintegration. Therefore, given the known barriers to educational participation, and the expected outcomes, we aim to understand the spectrum of capabilities which are relevant to prisoners’ education alongside the locus of responsibilities to connect resources to effective outcomes.


The study takes a qualitative approach using the UK and US as models for prison education programmes. Relevant scholarship on prison education has been mined for potential barriers to prisoners’ participation in these programmes, and these have been used to generate an interview schedule and possible prompts for semi-structured interviews. Wardens, administrators, and educators from a purposive sample of two (2) prisons in each of the US and UK were selected as interview participants. A thematic analysis of the responses was contextualised using models of the expected educational outcomes (functionings) for each country. These are the Reentry Education Framework in the US (Tolbert & Foster, 2016) and the Theory of Change for Prison Education in the UK (Prisoner Learning Alliance, 2016). The output of this analysis is a proposal for capabilities specific to prisoners’ education, along with the accountability for these capabilities within the wider prison system. The findings suggest that as a minimum, Nussbaum’s capabilities for prisoners’ dignity, safety, reciprocity of respect, and civic affiliations should be upheld. A further contribution from this study is the recommendation to include prisoners’ ‘potential to flourish’ as a distinct capability. This is necessary to offset the trauma of incarceration, and reinstate prisoners’ self-determination and vision for life, beyond experiences of domination and hegemony (Lovett, 2010) within the carceral system.



Dr Liliana Donchik Belkin

Liliana Donchik Belkin is the recipient of a US-UK Fulbright Core Scholar Fellowship (2019-20) at University of Roehampton (School of Education). She is contributing to the ELM program at UoR and conducting research on UK education and youth justice systems policies and practices. She completed her PhD in Educational Administration and Leadership at New York University (2017). Liliana’s professional experience includes research and evaluation in schools and criminal justice systems, and as a central school leader and director of policy and implementation at the New York City Department of Education. Her research projects and publications have focused on policy and practice barriers to re-engagement in school for formerly incarcerated youth, transnational education policy analysis, and supporting teachers and school administrators to develop and implement instructional strategies and goals.


Miss Minnie Halinen


Minni Halinen currently holds two bachelor degrees, both in social services and education. In 2020, she graduated from the University of Roehampton (London), where she wrote her dissertation thesis on the role of boosting self-esteem in prison education. Her interest in this topic stems from placements in children’s prison in Tanzania and an adult male prison in London. Currently, she resides in Finland and works assisting people with disabilities. Minni is considering her options for undertaking a postgraduate Masters in the future. 

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