As an educational researcher who works with incarcerated youth living and learning in a juvenile detention center, I am excited at the idea of how a Higher Education in Prison Research Infrastructure (HEP RI) might open up the ways we theorize and study learning in carceral contexts. Within the prison education literature, “learning” is primarily, and sometimes solely, measured by the number of degrees conferred and decreased recidivism rates, data that has been instrumental to the expansion of prison education programming, including HEP. However, now more than ever we need more situated and expansive conceptualizations of learning that consider its benefits more holistically (Nasir & Hand, 2006; Rogoff, 2003). Developing an HEP RI promises to help researchers finally move to a place of studying learning in context to better understand the tools, artifacts, and processes that mediate learning within carceral spaces (Cole, 1998; Esmonde & Booker, 2017). These questions, I argue, are just as or more important to the study of education in prison, particularly as more prisons look to expand HEP programming with the reinstatement of Federal Pell Grants for incarcerated college students. Within my own work, I find that the aforementioned measures do not sufficiently capture the nuance, complexity, and depth of what it means to learn in the carceral context, nor does it help us improve the learning conditions and educational outcomes of students. An HEP RI can facilitate this charge to co-create more humane, student-centered, and evidence-based emancipatory learning environments using high-quality research as the vehicle.

Further, as an educational ethnographer and learning scientist who studies teaching, learning, and adolescent identity development within carceral contexts, I find the push to create an HEP RI consequential to the lives of all incarcerated students. This includes adolescents and emerging adults who may not yet be eligible for post-secondary coursework. Currently, most of the HEP discourse has primarily focused on the educational experiences and needs of adults–rightfully so, given that the vast majority of those confined are adults. But this creates a gaping need to better understand the learning and schooling experiences of incarcerated youth. Unlike their adult counterparts, incarcerated youth have “statutory rights to education services of comparable quality to those found in public schools” (Leone & Wruble, 2015). Although what that looks and feels like is often inconsistent, inadequate, and merits further analysis (Leone & Wruble, 2015; Vaught, 2017). In some states, juvenile facilities also offer limited post-secondary programming to youth. Within the HEP literature, however, those partnerships, programs, and student experiences have gone largely unexamined. Though there may be fewer HEP programs at the juvenile level, an HEP RI could help highlight the benefits of including young people in HEP research. In the course of my own research, I had the opportunity to conduct focus groups and interviews with some of the college program graduates at a juvenile detention center. It is there that I learned the importance and impact of “trying on” a college student identity for these youth. Knowing they had participated in and successfully completed college coursework changed their orientation to the possibility of being able to attend college post-release. As one student explained, “I was amped up, I was happy, and I was excited to be able to have that little bit of college experience that I could get, since I didn’t even finish high school yet.”

Establishing an HEP RI could help bring visibility to these experiences as well as to the importance of expanding quality post-secondary programming into correctional facilities that are often deemed temporary and outside the purview of higher education in prison. Knowing that one of the primary predictors of adult incarceration is early contact with the juvenile legal system (Jaggers et al., 2016), more research should focus on interrupting and dismantling these patterns by providing access to evidence-based programming, such as post-secondary education, even if only to give youth a taste of what it might mean to be a college student in the free world.

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HEP is a Public Good

HEP is a Public Good

Eugene M. Tobin
Four and a half years ago, I walked into a maximum-security prison for the first time and observed a group of incarcerated students discussing the impact of college-level course work on their lives and those of their families. Having served as a college president and as a program officer at a national foundation, I had heard my fair share of eloquent and persuasive students speak about the value of their educational experiences. But the level of the incarcerated students’ personal engagement and self-awareness, the analytic rigor and intellectual precision of their arguments, and their appreciation of the educational experience and its promise was transcendent. As the nation prepares for the restoration of Pell Grants to incarcerated learners, Ithaka S+R’s working discussion paper raises a fundamental question: How prepared are we—as academic leaders, education providers, correctional officials, researchers, funders, elected representatives, and citizens—to deliver on that promise and turn this long-awaited opportunity into a seamless, scalable, and sustainable structure that makes higher education in prison (HEP) an integral part of a more just society? The question impels us to differentiate the near universal support for HEP’s aspirational, life-changing commitment to restore equality, human dignity, and fairness to the lives of incarcerated people from the equally urgent but seemingly prosaic need to build a systematic research infrastructure that will sustain the maturation of this evolving field. From its earliest beginnings, American higher education’s unplanned, decentralized, autonomous system has equated a college education as a private good that passes on social privilege and advantage. Such a model is incompatible with the values, structural needs, and evidence-based decision-making needed to sustain an equitable and rigorous educational experience for the nation’s incarcerated students. By astutely unpacking the necessary conditions for an HEP coordinated research infrastructure and linking its existence to a sustainable HEP future, Ithaka S+R’s paper reminds us that systematically collected data about finances, enrollment, graduation rates, student demographics and outcomes are indispensable metrics. They represent the collective, longitudinal, student-centric experiences of a field that has always viewed higher education as serving a public good. HEP needs national communities of practice that link curriculum, program development, institutional research, and evaluation.