Strategies for Accelerating a Higher Education in Prison Research Infrastructure

In this last section of the working paper, we provide some initial suggestions for accelerating an HEP research infrastructure (RI). We invite our readers to react to these suggestions to help inform the next phases of this project. Given that the evolution of an HEP RI must be led by the fields’ various stakeholders, we are especially interested in hearing your feedback on the following questions:

  • What strategies for measuring and improving HEP quality do you think need to be implemented?
  • What actionable steps can we take for advancing research around HEP?
  • Are the strategies suggested below the right ones and how might they be tailored to address HEP’s unique needs?

We invite our readers to use the “share your thoughts” feature to reflect on these questions, and to respond to the prompts embedded in the next sections.

Unite a Coalition of Funders Around a Shared Goal

Establishing an HEP RI will require a significant capital investment. Such an endeavor will need resources to implement researcher training and collaboration; to establish academic journals and conferences; to design professional development opportunities; to set ethical practice standards and data sharing agreements; and of course, to fund the individual research studies that will advance evidence-based approaches to high-quality, equitable HEP programming. Though such a project carries a high price tag, it need not—and arguably should not—be a cost borne by one funding entity. Rather, a strategy for securing buy-in from multiple financial sponsors might be utilized: from state and federal governments to private philanthropy to higher education institutions. There have already been preliminary conversations among private philanthropies regarding investment and communication strategies in support of HEP more broadly; these collaborations can be expanded upon to support the development of an RI. By creating a coalition of funders that pool resources around a common goal—i.e. establishing a robust, ethical, and sustainable HEP RI—incentive structures themselves become relationships that build and support agreements made by researchers in the field.

When applied to the development of an HEP RI, such funding circles would ideally be guided by a governing board of expert and qualified HEP stakeholders to ensure that field practitioners are driving their own RI. Business improvement districts (BIDs) provide a model for this kind of multi-sector sponsorship. BIDs pool private and public funds to improve a specific geographic area around a common goal, such as reducing pollution, mitigating congestion, or improving streetscapes. They are also typically managed as nonprofit entities funded by both the private and public sectors. Much like BIDs collectively work to improve specific physical infrastructures, a consortium of private and public funders could also unite various stakeholders from across the HEP divide—such as DOCs, DoEs, HEPs, and HEIs—by funding the cross-functional creation of a research infrastructure.

Create a Coordinating Body to Formally Implement an HEP RI

A similar approach to spurring the development of an HEP RI is to establish a discipline-specific coordinating body to formally design and manage the implementation of an HEP RI. This would involve articulating who should be driving the formation of the coordinating body, what that body needs to do to push this agenda (i.e. its mission), where that coordinating body “lives,” and when (or if) that coordinating body’s mission is deemed completed. The field of social work took this approach. In 1991, a report from the Task Force on Social Work Research, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, found that the efforts of the social work field were insufficiently informed by research into effective practices. The Task Force report served as an incentive for several social work education organizations to band together to create the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR), with the goal of strengthening and demonstrating the profession’s research capacity and knowledge development. IASWR specifically aimed to build research capacity and connections within the field, and to engage in advocacy and increase visibility of social work research with federal agencies, scientific societies, and legislators. The success of the RI established through IASWR is evident in the considerable growth of the social research enterprise in the two decades that followed, including a significant increase in the number of well-funded researchers and research studies, mature social work organizations, social work resources and supports, and evidence-based practices in the field. Having achieved its goal of setting up a sustainable and well-functioning social work RI, the institute closed in 2009.1

Establish Mandatory Data Reporting and Research Approval Guidelines

Requiring mandatory data collection for state and/or federal funds earmarked for HEP programs can help build a standardized national dataset on programs and students. Such regulations might also involve creating standards for HEP program evaluation. A potential stipulation to this end has been made all the more relevant with the recent Pell ban lift. As funds for students are tentatively slated to be available in 2023, the field can work to collectively select data reporting requirements that must be recorded and shared for all HEP programs that enroll Pell grant recipients. An existing venue to begin moving in this direction is the National Center for Education Statistics’ core postsecondary data collection program, the (previously mentioned) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Required by all institutions participating in federal financial assistance programs, IPEDS gathers institution-level information including student demographics and outcomes.2 Requiring higher education institutions to report specifically on incarcerated students they serve within this national data collection program would allow researchers to track individual institutional counts and their student outcomes, such as institutional rates on enrollment, retention, and completion. Such a requirement would also solidify these students as a distinct subgroup that is part of the larger national postsecondary population, rather than a population that is separate from it. IPEDS’ recent efforts for identifying student veterans as a distinct student subgroup might serve as a model for such policies and actions.3

We strive to amplify student voices and distribute our research within the prison setting: Do you know of any HEP research efforts by justice-impacted individuals? Are you aware of any college-in-prison courses, prison newspapers, or other carceral entities to which we should send a copy of this working paper or other HEP research tools we’ve developed during its preparation?
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Prioritize Justice-Impacted Individuals’ Involvement in HEP Research

No matter the combination of strategies the field undertakes to kickstart the development of a robust, ethical, and sustainable HEP RI, the involvement of justice-impacted individuals must be prioritized—not only students with an HEP enrollment history, but also those with the relevant interest, willingness, and perspectives. Of course, students are crucial to shaping and contributing to the field’s RI since they are HEP’s greatest stakeholders, and as discussed in the previous section of this working paper participatory action research (PAR) designs that place students at the forefront of the research enterprise can address implicit power imbalances, provide students with valuable training and skills, and drive ethical practices that empower rather than exploit student participants.4 Student-driven and PAR-informed initiatives provide invaluable firsthand insight about the direction and impact of HEP. These types of studies also emphasize the role of students as researchers rather than research subjects, an important distinction detailed in the 2019 Journal of Prisoners on Prisons article “Reimagining Prison Research from the Inside-Out.” Here, the authors argue that “bringing education to correctional facilities can help aid in the development of mutually beneficial research partnerships.” In their study on re-entry preparedness, the authors found that their status as “inside researchers” resulted in interviews that produced “storylines and perspectives that would not have been shared with traditional researchers.”5

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Are these the right strategies for accelerating an HEP RI? What other actions and approaches should we consider as our work in this area progresses?
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  1. See Joan Levy Zlotnik and Barbara E. Solt, “Developing Research Infrastructure: The Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research,” (2008), p. 201-207 and the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research (JSSWR).
  2. National Center for Education Statistics, “Statutory Requirements for Reporting IPEDS Data,” (2019).
  3. Aida Aliyeva and Christopher Cody, The History and Origins of Survey Items for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, (2018).
  4. PAR frameworks center on “research whose purpose is to enable action”; champion the sharing of power “between the researcher and researched… blurring the line between them until the researched become the researchers”; and strive to include the people “being researched” throughout the process. Fran Baum, Colin MacDougall, and Danielle Smith, “Glossary: Participatory Action Research,” (2006), p. 854-857.
  5. Justin Thrasher, Erik Maloney, Shaun Mills, Johnny House, Timm Wroe, and Varrone White, “Reimagining Prison Research from the Inside-Out,” (2019), p. 12-14, 19.