SPUR 2021: 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. 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, as well as to qualitatively examine how college-in-prison stakeholders provide and support programming using a purposeful sample of multiple institutions of higher education in the U.S.

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.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

The undergraduate researcher will be introduced to the dynamics of higher education in prison, including local engagement and national programs. Key theoretical issues will be discussed, including ethics in research and the politics of higher education in prison. Students can expect to learn how to read qualitative data, conduct preliminary coding, group analysis, and drafting of interpretive results.

One of the benefits of this position is to work with a team of people who are committed to equity, racial justice, and social change. We approach higher education in prison through an abolitionist lens; one that seeks to lessen human suffering and violence through the specific responsibilities and opportunities of higher education.

Remote Contingency Plan

Last summer we worked remotely with our wonderful undergraduate researcher. We continued to hold our weekly meetings via Zoom and will do so until we are all safely able to meet in person. We will support our undergraduate researcher with additional Zoom check-ins and regular weekly communication and feedback through the course of the summer. We will ask that the undergraduate intern do a presentation on their final project with our team, in addition to any SPUR requirements.

Erin Castro
Associate Professor

Educational Leadership & Policy
College of Education

The student in this position will benefit from a hands-on approach to mentoring by both Dr. Castro and Dr. Royer, the postdoctoral fellow working with the Collaborative. We will meet with students 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 us 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 the team with questions. We also provide consistent and timely feedback on all aspects of data analysis. This means that we will ask the student to review a transcript, make comments, type those comments, and then meet with us 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.