Unlocking potential and learning to desist
: Exploring the transformation of a young offenders centre into a secure College

  • Keira Flanagan

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Reoffending rates among young men in custody have consistently been a cause for concern (Brown and Millar, 2020). However, research has yet to identify a model used in a carceral environment that can address the complex needs exhibited by young men to facilitate the desistance process. In Northern Ireland, Hydebank Wood became the first Young Offenders Centre (YOC) to transform into a Secure College, a model that sought to place education at the heart of efforts to meet the needs of young men (aged between 18-21/24) in custody and enhance their ability to desist from crime (Ministry of Justice, 2014a). This is the first study to explore the transformation of a YOC into a Secure College. Using an exploratory qualitative, multi methods approach, consisting of 49 semi-structured interviews and a 25-day unstructured participant observation period, this study sought the perspectives of detained young men, staff and management to examine whether they believed a Secure College model can enhance the ability of young men to desist from crime. Although the Secure College model was found to have greater potential than the YOC model, it was also found to have similar weaknesses. Five key principles were identified as guiding the transformation, which sought to humanise the carceral space and promote the development of pro-social identities through engagement in educational and vocational programmes. The mechanisms through which engagement in these programmes were supposed to promote desistance are also identified and discussed. Based on the findings, the transformation appeared to be successful in providing a more humanised custodial space, increasing the provision of educational and vocational programmes, as well as developing greater links with the community. Yet, the manner in which the transformation was conducted increased mistrust, uncertainty and disengagement among some staff and young men. It is argued that while the Secure College’s new educational model had the potential to meet the needs of the young men and enhance their potential to desist from crime, there was a gap between its policy rhetoric and the reality of its operationalisation. For instance, not all young men had access to every programme, with those considered to be high risk restricted in what programmes they could access. Many young men deemed high risk stated that in reality their daily regime in the Secure College remained largely unchanged from their past experience of being detained in the YOC. Moreover, the findings stress how a Secure College model needs to be designed to take account of the disadvantaged positions that many young men experience if their capacity to engage in programmes and their potential to desist from crime is to be maximised. Additionally, the study enhances our understanding of the challenges that arise when undertaking penal reform. Drawing on these findings, suggestions are put forward to improve the ability of a Secure College to meet the needs of young men, enhance their potential to desistance and successfully undertake transformational change in a carceral space. It should be noted, however, that this data was collected during the early stages of the transformation, which can be a time fraught with additional challenges, unease, insecurity and demoralisation.
Date of AwardJul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorMichelle Butler (Supervisor), Mary-Louise Corr (Supervisor) & Siobhan McAlister (Supervisor)


  • Prison education
  • desistance
  • penal reform
  • secure college
  • emerging adulthood
  • identity development
  • organisational change
  • hooks for change
  • deprivation importation
  • agency
  • capital

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