Expanding JSTOR’s Support for Higher Education in Prison

Expanding JSTOR’s Support for Higher Education in Prison

When JSTOR Labs designs its experimental tools, we interview folks that we’re hoping might use the tool to understand their context, their goals, the tasks they perform and the things that stand in their way.  It’s a part of the process that we always look forward to -- we’ve met some amazing people that we can’t wait to find a way to help.  In our years of doing this work, however, we have never been more inspired and impressed than with the interviews we conducted with formerly incarcerated students on this most recent project to expand JSTOR’s support for higher education in prison.  The stories they told us were a testament to the transformative power of education and the importance of any effort to expand access to library resources to students in prison education programs.  In this post, I’d like to share a quick history of JSTOR’s support for these programs and describe our current project to expand that support.

It started with the Bard Prison Initiative.  Way back in 2007, they approached JSTOR to ask about ways they could extend Bard College’s JSTOR access to their incarcerated students.   The challenge was that those students, like nearly all of those in prison education programs, did not have access to the internet.  Lacking internet access and a robust digital or physical library meant that students weren’t able to gain the research skills that are such a critical part of higher education.  Our solution was to provide on a thumb drive an offline web browser and a searchable index of JSTOR content.  The solution did not include the actual full-text PDFs, both because of the space required and to support Departments of Corrections’ need for media review.  Using the index, a student can conduct research like they would on the outside, but when they find an article, they fill out a form, program staff return to campus, find the article on JSTOR there, print it, bring it back where DOC can review it if needed and finally the student would get the article.  One former student we spoke to said that the whole process takes from two weeks to three months, and yet it is *still* a vast improvement over not being able to conduct research at all.  Now, nearly twenty prison education programs have the JSTOR offline index, which is great, but we want JSTOR to be available to all incarcerated higher education students.

In 2018, we received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to build and test a new version of this solution which we’re hoping will help us reach more programs and more students.   For the past year, we have been designing a new version of the offline solution.  The essential design challenge on this project was that all prison education programs operate under extremely heavy constraints, but they were not all the same constraints.  To pick just one example, one program could not use thumb drives to bring materials into the facility, while another could only use thumb drives(!). So: we had to build a solution that could address a diversity of challenges. What we ended up building is shipped on a fully-installed server, like the one in the picture above.  It can be run in two modes: either it can be installed within a facility to be accessed directly by students over a local area network, or it can be used to configure thumb drives which can in turn be brought inside and placed on students’ laptops or into computer labs.  Other improvements over the previous incarnation:

  • Request and approval workflow: Department of Corrections requires varying degrees of media review for educational content -- we have built a simple workflow so that this review can be managed within the system.
  • Full-text content: The systems contains a search index like before, but now it also contains the full-text of journals and books that are open access on JSTOR, which means that students can access the content in minutes as opposed to the days it takes to return to campus, print an article and bring it back in.  We are currently working towards being able to securely include the full text of in-copyright material as well.
  • Automatic updates: When the system is connected to the internet, it will automatically update its software and content.

Our plan is to implement this new solution at a test cohort of five prison education programs, which were selected with the help of our advisory committee.  Unfortunately, we were shipping the devices out to the programs in March when the COVID-19 crisis hit, and each of the test cohort programs either shut down or had to switch to correspondence classes.  At this writing, some of the programs are hoping to have some form of instruction this winter or spring, and that is our best hope for testing this solution.  When that testing is complete, we’ll have a better understanding of what it will take to scale the program to reach more education programs and facilities.  If you work at a prison education program and are interested in following this progress, we’d love to hear from you.