What is the Prison Studies Project?

What is the Prison Studies Project?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The Prison Studies Project (PSP) is an initiative that created a nationwide directory of higher education prison programs in the United States. The index was completed in 2008 and is updated regularly. The project was completed in partnership with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice.

According to PSP’s website, “PSP aims to increase educational opportunities for people who are incarcerated in all 50 states by supporting those who run higher education programs in prison. When completed, it will serve as a preeminent domain for a national clearinghouse on postsecondary education in prison.”

Although some of the data is self-reported (instructors and institutions can add their programs to the database), the big picture is startling. The information is reported on an interactive map. The color-coding shows how many states have prison education programs, and if so, how many programs are in place.

As of 2018, the data shows:

  • 21 states have no prison education programs
  • 13 states have one prison education program
  • 14 states have between 2-5 prison education programs
  • 6-9 states have between 6-9 prison education programs
  • One state has 10+ prison education programs

The states with the most programs are New York, California, and Washington. States that do not have any programs include Montana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

PSP is seeking to bring awareness to the vast discrepancies among the states, while also providing college education in prisons and igniting policy change. Leading the charge are Kaia Stern and Bruce Western, who launched the PSP at Harvard University.

Stern, author of Voices from American Prisons: Faith, Education, and Healing, has worked with numerous services, churches, schools, and outreach programs in her quest to bring higher education to the incarcerated. She is a Faculty Fellow in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, and Visiting Faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Western, a Harvard University Professor of Sociology, Distinguished Visiting Research Professor at the University of Queensland, and Visiting Professor at Columbia University, holds a BA and Ph.D. (Sociology). His work is focused on economic inequality and the burgeoning American prison population. Some of his findings can be seen in his book, Punishment, and Inequality in America.

Stern and Western use the PSP platform to further work its Transformative Justice Program (TJP), which is operated in partnership with Harvard’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Office of Student Affairs, and the Diversity and Inclusion Program.

TJP hosts public forums, provides training sessions in and out of prison, shows films, and puts on a monthly student working lunch. During these sessions, topics are discussed about the social reasons behind America’s incarceration issues. TJP’s goal is to “repair harm in relationships and change systems that cause harm.”

What started as the idea of two Harvard students has turned into a powerful resource for teaching, research, and outreach. PSPs data helps us better understand the major gaps in higher education programs in prison across America, and the TJP uses that data to ignite life-changing conversations and action across the nation.