International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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Researching Inside: Exploring the Impact of Higher Education Learning Initiatives on Incarcerated Students in Regional Australia

Helen Farley & Joanne Doyle, Australian Digital Futures Institute, University of Southern Queensland, Australia


Conducting research with incarcerated students in prisons is challenging. Policy, politics, public opinion, the prejudices and motivations of custodial officers and researchers, the multiple layers of disadvantage of prisoners and harsh fiscal realities all contribute to the emergence of a volatile and largely invisible environment where power dynamics are often difficult to discern and trust is hard to gain. Prisoners are cautious about sharing information, fearful that it may be used against them, and researchers require special skills and exceptional empathy to conduct effective interviews and focus groups with both prisoners and custodial officers. Prison research often emphasizes the dichotomies of prisoner/officer, researcher/prisoner, freedom and incarceration. The dehumanizing effects of dichotomies, isolation and social justice are key elements of the think piece offered by Jan McArthur.

This paper reports on ‘close up’ research conducted in a correctional centre in Southern Queensland, Australia, between 2012 and 2016. The research sought to explore incarcerated student perspectives around the value, need for and experience of digital learning initiatives deployed at the correctional centre. The initiatives provided incarcerated students with internet-simulated access to higher education course materials, activities and assessment in order to deliver learning experiences equivalent to those of students with internet access. The research team investigated the real-world impact of the learning initiatives by collecting quantitative (enrolment numbers, retention rates, grades) and qualitative data (through focus groups, interviews and reflective diaries). Prisoner education, particularly post-secondary education, increases employment success upon release and contributes to lower rates of re-offending. As noted by Jan McArthur, social justice ‘illuminates the need to breach… distances and separations’. The introduction of digital technologies to correctional centres can help to address distance and separation issues, both real and artificial, and improve prisoner access to learning.

In conducting the research, issues around the epistemic justice of higher education, as discussed by Monica McLean in her think piece, were writ large. Lack of social capital, limited access to digital technologies, prejudice from correctional officers, educators and administrators, and even families, challenged students’ beliefs in their own ability or worthiness to participate in higher education and potentially transform themselves and their lives post-release. As universities become increasingly dependent on online course offerings, those who are already marginalized become more so. This paper shares prisoner, prison officer and researcher perspectives of higher education learning in correctional centres.


Higher Education, research impact, mobile learning, student learning

Link to Full Paper


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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