SPUR 2020: Research Collaborative on Higher Education in Prison


The University of Utah Prison Education Project (UPEP) is a multidisciplinary effort assisting incarcerated students and non-incarcerated volunteers to live lives of impact, both in prison and post-incarceration, by fostering academic excellence, leadership, and civic engagement. UPEP began engaging the campus and local communities in 2016 and providing onsite, face-to-face college courses at the Utah State Prison in Draper in 2017. Committed to social transformation, UPEP advances educational equity through onsite higher education, empirical research, and advocacy.

The Research Collaborative on Higher Education in Prison launched in Summer 2017 as part of UPEP and published our first peer-reviewed manuscript in September, 2018. The Collaborative released our first policy brief in June, 2018, and presented at two national refereed conferences in 2017 and 2018: the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison and the Association for the Study of Higher Education. We will present at those same conferences this year.

The Research Collaborative is interested in two central issues regarding higher education in prison: quality (what is being provided?) and equity (who has access?). These two questions drive the work of the Collaborative and we currently have three externally funded research projects all aimed at expanding the provision of quality higher education for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Specifically, the project seeks to provide baseline research regarding postsecondary education in U.S. prison through outreach, internet documentation, and survey research and to qualitatively examine how college-in-prison stakeholders provide and support programming across six different sites.

Student Role

The student will join our research team as a full-time partner for the summer, primarily focusing on a sub-analysis of the qualitative research project. The student role may include any of the following: 1) Reading interview transcripts, identifying preliminary themes, and drafting interview memos; 2) Conducting comprehensive literature reviews; 3) Working with others to draft preliminary analysis of qualitative and/or quantitative data; 4) Reaching out to college-in-prison programs across the nation via email and phone to confirm and collect information; 5) Cleaning and organizing survey data to prepare for analysis; 5) Participating in ongoing data analyses and interpretation with the research team.

The qualitative project seeks to better understand how college-in-prison stakeholders understand and experience their work. Stakeholders include prison staff, university staff, and non-profit staff. Interview protocol are designed to illicit a range of experiences, including persistent challenges to providing quality higher education in prison. Understanding the challenges that program and prison personnel face in providing quality higher education can help inform more effective and equitable future efforts to ensure students are receiving consistent quality programming.

The student in this position will assist in the drafting, analyses, and writing of a policy brief outlining key findings from the qualitative study.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

The student will join a multidisciplinary research team dedicated to educational equity and justice. This means that the student will learn how to put values like fairness and equality into action through research and publication that influences practice. The student in this position can expect to be introduced to the basics of social science research with specific foci in qualitative design and ethics. Upon successful completion of the SPUR, the student can expect to: 1) Be knowledgeable of the growing academic and practice-based field of higher education in prison; 2) Understand how and be able to draft a comprehensive review of literature; 3) Apply basic theories of interpretation for qualitative analysis; 4) Know how to read, evaluation, and thematize qualitative interviews; 4) Demonstrate proficiency in bringing together multiple strands of information for interpretive analysis.

Additionally, the student can expect to engage with a dynamic team of volunteers and researchers who are committed to mentoring and supporting students. The benefits are many, and include exposing students to the process of facilitating large research projects and learning how to work with diverse amounts of information and data for interpretation. The student in this position will gain applied qualitative research experience as well as exposure to social science theory.

Finally, through this work, the student will have the opportunity to take part in expanding quality higher education for incarcerated people.

Erin Castro
Assistant Professor

Educational Leadership & Policy
College of Education

Gender Studies
School for Cultural & Social Transformation

I take a hands-on approach to mentoring, meeting with students weekly or bi-weekly for the duration of the research project. Additionally, the SPUR student may be required to attend larger UPEP meetings with volunteers and staff throughout the summer, who support one another in volunteering for the project. The student can expect to receive consistent writing support from me on drafts of projects and clear instructions with deadlines. I expect the student to work independently outside of our check-in's and to reach out to me with questions. We have office space for the student to complete their work. I also provide consistent and timely feedback on all aspects of data analysis. This means that I will ask the student to review a transcript, make comments, type those comments, and then meet with me to discuss what they have read. We will go through this process together and then discuss how to move into analysis through larger team meetings.