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Philosophy in prison: a London outreach project

The Philosophy in Prisons team, from left to right: Andy West, Mike Coxhead, Andrea Fassolas
Philosophy in prison team (l-r): Andy West, Mike Coxhead, Andrea Fassolas

Philosophy in prison

In 2016, the King’s Department of Philosophy piloted an 8-week philosophy course for prisoners at HMP Belmarsh. With the support of Professors Bill Brewer and MM McCabe, Mike Coxhead (PhD candidate and Visiting Research Fellow in the Department), Andy West (senior specialist at The Philosophy Foundation), and Andrea Fassolas (honorary therapist at the Guild of Psychotherapists) developed and delivered a course of discussion-based philosophy classes. Content included personal identity, freedom, time, scepticism, the ethics of belief, mental health, and topics in moral philosophy. Classes were delivered based around The Philosophy Foundation’s method of philosophical enquiry.

Aims of the project

The course aimed to offer participants:

  • a safe, non-adversarial environment in which to discuss, articulate, and critically reflect upon their opinions and experiences;
  • an introduction to philosophical thought and theories as a way of seeing the world;
  • an opportunity to re-engage with education in an environment aimed at exploration and self-development, without the spectre of examination.

Attendance was voluntary and averaged at 90% with a 0% dropout rate.

The pilot cohort

The course was designed to be accessible to participants with a broad range of educational backgrounds. Whilst 40% of the cohort had undertaken some form of higher education, 30% had either finished formal education at school or had no formal qualifications whatsoever. In addition, 40% were ESOL learners (English as a Second or Other Language). Consequently, content was delivered conversationally and literacy was not a requirement.

Feedback from participants

Members of the group expressed in feedback how much they enjoyed the course. For some, it was the highlight of their week, offering a stimulating educational environment in which to discuss challenging and complex ideas. One participant identified the course as a way into what he termed ‘highbrow’ education and ‘an upper-class subject’. Another had been inspired to start reading again.

Many reported that they valued being part of structured and open-ended group discussions, in which they could both listen and be listened to. Participants also reported a positive impact upon their mood and sense of self. For some it improved their social lives, creating a sense of belonging within the group and fostering new relationships outside the classroom. It helped others come to terms with their own situation, providing a new opportunity in which to think and reflect.

Next steps

In 2017, two further courses are being delivered: a re-run of the pilot course, and a new course designed specifically for ESOL learners. Funding has been provided by both the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the Evan Cornish Foundation. We are currently considering how to continue, evaluate, and expand the project, and are seeking further funding to this end.

For more information, contact Mike Coxhead (

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