A research infrastructure (RI) is an ecosystem of social, technical, human, and material resources created by a specific community to enable and support rigorous and sustained research. While the individual elements within this ecosystem vary greatly across different communities, thinking of an RI in terms of a dynamic, interconnected, and interdependent network of relationships, agreements, and incentives provides a framework for understanding how it operates. We are working to build an RI focused on higher education in prison (HEP).
Individuals and organizations rely on formal and informal connections to coordinate with one another—knowingly or not—in developing and sharing information, intentions, resources, guidelines, practices, and standards.
The domain of public health research consists of a chain of connections from members of the public to doctors, government agencies, researchers, and policy makers. Even though most members of these groups have no direct interaction with each other, they collectively contribute to understanding and improving health outcomes for large populations of people through coordinated research, public policy, and practice.
The relationship between program coordinators, instructors, and DOC personnel enables HEP programs to operate for the benefit of students. All three of these stakeholder groups use and contribute to the work of HEP researchers even though direct connections between them may be scarce. In this way, researchers, practitioners, and students are involved in a web of relationships that creates and consumes research.
The creation or expansion of an organization devoted to collecting, managing, and sharing data on HEP student outcomes stands to bridge gaps in existing HEP relationships by enhancing collaboration among stakeholders. Such collaboration would also help coordinate the widespread implementation of evidence-based practices determined to maximize student outcomes.
Accepted standards and modes of research and practice govern the creation, dissemination, and consumption of research products, thereby establishing and regulating the ways in which the research community conducts its work.
One of the foundational principles of contemporary research involving people is the idea of informed consent. In large part due to federal regulations and deep discussions about ethics, almost all research involving people begins with providing participants with standard and detailed information about what the research process entails, how participation is optional, and what risks (if any) participants may incur.
A key ethical agreement among researchers is that some populations of participants require additional procedures and protections from being coerced into research participation. Incarcerated individuals, including students in HEP programs, are one such group that the research community has agreed should be given extra consideration due to the lack of autonomy and freedom they experience in so many other aspects of their lives.
Privileging participatory action research (PAR) presents an opportunity for the field of HEP to broaden the methodologies and metrics it uses to examine program outcomes and steer research toward student-centered outcomes. By directly including incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated students in the research process, PAR intentionally blurs the lines between the researchers and the researched to affect real and lasting change.
Structures provide rewards and consequences for the community’s relationships and agreements, and guide the movement of material and social resources throughout the research infrastructure to sustain itself.
In the US public education system, data collection on student achievement is often tied to incentives at the federal, state, and/or local level. Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for instance, schools classified as “Title I” receive extra funding. In exchange, they must also demonstrate evidence of a variety of improvements, including in learning outcomes.
Government appropriations account for a powerful HEP incentive. State and federal funding supports the establishment and maintenance of college-in-prison programs while also establishing crucial pathways for data collection and evaluation. Public funding efforts that mandate reporting and research for the betterment of HEP, like California Senate Bill 1391, represent ways that financial incentives can bolster the work of existing relationships and agreements essential to an HEP RI.
Strengthening the connection between public funding and research, particularly at the federal level, offers HEP the ability to critically engage in discussions on the quality of programming. The restoration of Pell Grants presents an opportunity to establish standards of practice for collecting and reporting on data that can enhance student outcomes while also incentivizing the proliferation of new and existing college-in-prison programs.