Project Goals

The goal of the Higher Education in Prison Research project, an initiative managed by Ithaka S+R and funded by the Mellon Foundation, is to accelerate the collection, dissemination, and utilization of research pertaining to postsecondary education programs for incarcerated learners. The project facilitates conversations among higher education in prison (HEP) stakeholders, supports shared rigorous research processes and practice standards across an interdependent network of relationships, and promotes the development of an HEP research infrastructure (RI) that coordinates research activities effectively and efficiently. These goals are of particular importance given the forthcoming reinstatement of Pell eligibility for incarcerated students. A research infrastructure will play an integral role in ensuring that policymakers and practitioners have access to standardized data and rigorous research, which in turn will guide policy and practitioners alike.

To meet these project goals, Ithaka S+R engaged with stakeholders at several connection points to gather insights around what conversations and resources may be the most beneficial for developing an HEP RI. These collaborative exchanges were designed to build consensus around key topics amongst HEP stakeholders. Following each conversation, we pulled out key themes to identify resources that would catalyze further collaboration around methodology, incentives, challenges, and priorities that exist within the field.

It is our goal that the resources shared on this platform be used to forge a set of shared norms and systems that support high-quality, student-centered HEP research. Below, we summarize key takeaways from the PAR working group we facilitated earlier this year.

Though the discussions were organized and supported by Ithaka S+R staff, the opinions expressed below solely reflect the views of the PAR working group participants.

About the PAR Working Group

This research brief outlines key insights from the conversations of a Participatory Action Research (PAR) working group regarding higher education in prison (HEP). Power and agency were important themes throughout these discussions. Since an essential goal of PAR is to disrupt hierarchical power distinctions between faculty and student researchers, this brief differentiates between these roles. We refer to researchers engaged as a part of the team because of their lived experience as “participating researchers” and those with previous experience with research or with an academic field as “PAR researchers.” The perspectives and comments discussed below are not meant to be definitive but rather to encourage future conversations about how to incorporate PAR into HEP research. We invite you to share your thoughts, reactions, and questions in the feedback box immediately following this brief.

An Introduction to PAR

Participatory action research (PAR) is “an epistemology that assumes knowledge is rooted in social relations and most powerful when produced collaboratively through action.”1 Historically, PAR has been practiced within social projects committed to studying the impact of social programs or issues on individuals and communities. In the HEP context, PAR offers an opportunity to greatly strengthen research and the co-constructed knowledge it produces by involving currently or formerly incarcerated individuals in shaping the future of a field that they understand and/or are impacted by the most. When deployed appropriately, PAR is both ethical and efficacious, disrupting traditional and exploitative power relationships that exist within research communities, while producing relevant and accurate research and knowledge.2 Moreover, it allows the most impacted to craft research that aligns with their realities and empowers these individuals to use their unique insights to catalyze change that is responsive to their lived experiences.

Below we include a couple of resources that offer more background about what PAR is and how to involve justice-impacted individuals. These resources were not specifically mentioned during the PAR working group sessions. If you would like to share some additional PAR resources with us, please feel free to add them in the feedback box at the bottom of this document.

Group Summary

Before assembling our PAR working group, we discussed the importance of having a diverse set of participants with varying PAR experiences and viewpoints. Our goal was to include people with a range of perspectives and representative experiences with PAR, state departments of corrections (DOC), HEP programs, justice organizations, and formerly incarcerated people. We also wanted the working group to be facilitated by a PAR expert who had specific knowledge and experience working with multiple DOCs across the country. After securing a facilitator who met these criteria, PAR working group participants were selected based on recommendations from HEP scholars and practitioners with whom we have been engaged throughout this project. Below, we list the names of the working group members and the invited facilitator.


  • Rachel Swaner, Research Director, Center for Court Innovation
  • Yassar Arafat Payne, Associate Professor, Department of
    Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware
  • Michelle Daniel Jones , PhD student, American Studies Program, New York University
  • Selma Djokovic, Research Associate, Restoring Promise Initiative, Vera Institute of Justice
  • Rebecca Ginsburg, Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies and Director of the Education Justice Project University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Katie Owens-Murphy, Associate Professor of English & Alabama State Coordinator for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, University of North Alabama
  • Elizabeth Nelson, Assistant Professor, Medical Humanities & Health Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis
  • Jarrod Wall, Justice Policy Fellow of the Education Trust

PAR working group sessions were spread over four hours between two days (May 25 and 26, 2022). The first day focused on providing an overview of the project, defining PAR, and discussing the challenges and benefits of PAR and PAR in HEP. The second day focused on identifying the potential stakeholders/partners of PAR in HEP, how to successfully engage multiple constituencies, and discussing the next steps for conducting PAR in HEP.

Defining PAR

To open the working group, the facilitator asked participants to describe the ways in which PAR has been conceptualized and how it differs from other research methodologies. The group discussed how PAR is expressed in many different forms, including critical participatory action research (CPAR), Street PAR, and PAR-adjacent work. Although a formal definition of PAR was difficult to ascertain because of the field’s internal complexities, the group agreed that PAR work is centered on breaking down power structures, especially in the carceral context. The working group stressed that PAR should be focused on including the voices of those with lived experience and be community-based, action-focused, and use qualitative inquiry methods. Overall, the group agreed that PAR is pushing back on the traditional assumptions of knowledge creation by sharing power throughout the research process.

Benefits of PAR

After the group discussed varying degrees and definitions of PAR, they were asked to reflect on lessons learned and the benefits and challenges in regards to both PAR and PAR in HEP.

How PAR Benefits Research
The conversation around the benefits associated with PAR began with understanding how PAR can strengthen the research project itself. Participants explained that PAR disposes research to be accountable to the people under study. Elaborating on this idea, participants indicated that PAR research is more ethical because it includes people with lived experiences and uses a respectful social justice model. Furthermore, PAR allows researchers to write about, rather than over, someone’s experience. Participants from the group agreed that PAR would produce better results, as individuals with lived experiences perceive phenomena and use pertinent language differently and often more accurately within the context of the project. Pointing to work done by Michelle Fine, others similarly noted that PAR research has more impact validity—the power to be used as a tool for change. In other words, PAR produces more ethical and valid research by ensuring that all processes are informed by participating researchers, reflect intercultural competence, and are well-positioned to challenge harmful biases and assumptions.

How PAR Benefits Participating Researchers in HEP
The benefits provided by PAR for participating researchers take on a special meaning in the HEP context. Building on the theme of power redistribution, the working group detailed that PAR disrupts the power and privilege dynamics of prisons and traditional research hierarchies by empowering those who are systematically stripped of power. Others added that PAR research empowers the participating researchers to look beyond their incarceration. Moreover, PAR gives participating researchers a sense of belonging and community that improves the quality of life for incarcerated people. PAR allows participating researchers to develop critiques and different types of dialogues that will change how they view themselves, others on the research team, and society. Overall, the group agreed that PAR builds community and capacity in ways that significantly change the lives of participating researchers, especially those experiencing or who have experienced incarceration, through empowerment, belonging, and the development of meaningful skills that are transferable to future employment opportunities. In addition to being a methodology that has particular benefits in terms of the quality of the research, PAR research in the HEP space becomes part of the educational opportunities available for incarcerated learners.

Challenges of PAR and PAR in HEP

After outlining the benefits of PAR, the working group was asked to describe some of its associated challenges. Participants highlighted difficulties associated with how researchers and PAR associates engage with the Department of Corrections (DOCs) and Institutional Review Boards (IRBs).

Department of Corrections (DOCs)
The working group discussed how PAR strives to remove barriers and disrupt power structures, whereas DOCs seek to establish barriers and promote power structures. This dichotomy makes it increasingly difficult to conduct PAR in HEP. Relationships and agreements forged with DOC stakeholders play an integral role in implementing PAR in HEP, but changes in personnel can make these difficult to maintain. Moreover, DOCs can have limited understanding of PAR and its benefits, making it difficult for stakeholders to enable the processes and access necessary for PAR in HEP. The group discussed how limited technological resources and space also make it challenging to give participating researchers the tools they need to fully participate in the research process. Due to these constraints, complete transparency is vital when using PAR in HEP, as it protects trust and maintains accountability. Those seeking to utilize PAR in the carceral space must take extra care to respond to the intricacies and power differentials that exist in prisons. In addition, participants explained having some success building relationships with DOC stakeholders that supported PAR by setting expectations early and maintaining close ties with these stakeholders throughout the process.

Internal Review Boards (IRBs)
Similar to DOCs, the group pointed out how foundational components of IRBs can make their functions incompatible with PAR in HEP. IRBs become exceedingly challenging when it comes to PAR because certain conceptualizations of risk often position IRBs as obstacles to using PAR in carceral spaces. IRBs traditionally maintain a hard line between participant and researcher, something that PAR intentionally blurs. Due to their bias towards minimizing risk, most IRBs often don’t see or appropriately value the agency and benefits experienced by participating researchers, which can make IRBs a major obstacle for PAR work in HEP. As such, IRBs and the bodies that govern them (Department of Health and Human Services and the Office for Human Research Protections) may benefit from educational opportunities around HEP and the barriers that exist for HEP researchers looking to leverage PAR in their work. In addition, the working group suggested that human participant training needs be modified for participating researchers in prison, given that many incarcerated people don’t have access to a computer or the internet and experience different hurdles in conducting research. As such, the working group also suggested that it would be beneficial to engage in future conversations with IRBs about reformulating some of their trainings, requirements, and documents to better allow for PAR work in prison.

Potential Next Steps

Throughout the working group sessions, participants outlined potential next steps to support overcoming challenges and maximizing benefits for PAR and PAR in HEP. The main topics discussed focused on building capacity for IRBs and DOCs to support PAR in HEP. Participants discussed the option of creating a toolkit or fact sheet that can be shared with IRBs, DOCs, and PAR researchers about the benefits and challenges of PAR and how to approach them. The group also discussed the possibility of publishing a special topics article on PAR for HEP to develop consensus and educate stakeholders on the benefits of this type of research.

The potential next steps are as follows:

  • IRBs—and the bodies that govern them—may benefit from educational opportunities around HEP and the barriers that exist for HEP researchers looking to leverage PAR in their work. Participants noted that the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) training courses for ethical research take place online and are not accessible for many incarcerated participant researchers. It would be useful to hold community conversations with PAR researchers who have had success with the IRB process in order to learn from and support each other.
  • DOCs need framing around PAR in HEP in terms of the benefits and challenges. Again, community conversations with PAR researchers who have had success with their work in DOCs would allow PAR researchers to benefit from such intellectual and practical experience. This would include sharing agreements/MOUs and approaches to working with DOC administrators.
  • The HEP field would benefit from a shared understanding of what is and is not PAR, which will minimize confusion caused by the complexity of this methodology and maximize accountability within the field. Since PAR is extremely hard to implement in HEP, given the agentic and material restrictions that exist in the carceral space, PAR-adjacent or subjacent work is sometimes the only option in prison. Nevertheless, consensus has the potential to make the methodology and its various approaches more accessible. Participants suggest publishing a special topics article in the Journal of Higher Education in Prison on PAR to build consensus and educate HEP stakeholders on the challenges and benefits of this type of research.

This document is not meant to be all encompassing but to drive future conversations about where PAR stands with different constituent groups (DOCs, students, researchers, IRBS, etc.). The overall goal for potential next steps will include a stakeholders group convening to discuss their differing needs and priorities for harnessing PAR in HEP.

Please share your thoughts, reactions, and questions pertaining to this research brief in the feedback box below.
  • Hidden
  • By submitting, you agree to our terms and conditions.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
  1. M. Fine, M. E. Torre, K. Boudin, I. Bowen, J. Clark, D. Hylton, M. Martinez, Missy, R. A. Roberts, P. Smart, and D. Upegui, “Participatory Action Research: From Within and Beyond Prison Bars.” in Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design, eds P. M. Camic, J. E. Rhodes, & L. Yardley, (American Psychological Association, 2003), 173–198,
  2. For instance, much of HEP research uses recidivism as a success metric, which does not capture the many ways in which HEP programming can benefit individuals and communities. Better understanding success from the perspective of and with input from those incarcerated would significantly improve the quality of research undertaken on this issue and expand our understanding of what success can be in this context.