Promoting Informed Citizenship through Prison-based Education


  • Abena Subira Mackall Harvard University



Higher Education in Prison, Prisons, Higher Education, Correctional Education, Prison Education, Civic Engagement


There are two dominant frames that emerge in the political discourse regarding whether or not public funds should be invested in educating incarcerated adults in the United States. The first discusses prison-based education in terms of its instrumental utility as a crime control technique within cost-effective analyses. In the second, education in prisons is described as being either good or bad for moral reasons. In this essay, I argue for a third frame in which the merit of prison education programs is determined based on whether or not such programs advance democratic values. I hold that this is particularly important, because the current era of mass incarceration has brought about several threats to the civic well-being of American society, and thus to the legitimacy and stability of the democracy. I then use practitioner and student accounts of prison-based educational programs to illustrate that classrooms can function as unique spaces within prisons to promote informed citizenship. I conclude with two modest recommendations to further expand the civic capacities of incarcerated men and women, within the existing structure of US prisons.

Author Biography

Abena Subira Mackall, Harvard University

Doctoral Student, Harvard Graduate School of Education






Radical Departures: Ruminations on the Purposes of Higher Education in Prison