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JSTOR's Digital Archives Now Reach Over Half a Million Incarcerated Learners

More than half a million incarcerated people can now access scholarly materials and texts online via digital library JSTOR’s expansion of its availability in U.S. prisons.Stacy BurnettStacy Burnett

What was once a small effort available to approximately 20 carceral sites has now grown its reach to be available to more than 1,000, said Stacy Burnett, senior product manager for JSTOR’s parent company, ITHAKA. She is also the one leading the JSTOR Access in Prison Initiative.

The initiative – it started in 2007 per the request from the Bard College’s Prison Initiative (BPI) for an offline version of JSTOR – began with the creation of its first offline index, designed to work in a “minimal tech environment.”

Contained in a thumb drive that had to be manually installed and updated, the offline version held a catalogue of 500,000 JSTOR article titles and accompanying short descriptions that learners could peruse. If they found some interesting, they could then make requests to their administrator or librarian for the full text of articles.

“I also don't want to diminish the value of that index,” Burnett said. “This is the first exposure many incarcerated learners have to independent, self-directed research, which is foundational to an immersive, quality college education.”

But with the revival of a way for those in prison to better access higher education, per the Second Chance Pell pilot program in 2015, ITHAKA saw the potential to do more.

“ITHAKA realized that this little, tiny thumb drive may not be enough to support higher education at scale,” Burnett said. “So, they began looking at what JSTOR might be able to provide higher education programming in prison to provide a college experience for incarcerated students that was more commensurate with an educational experience for people on a traditional campus getting their education. Then, COVID happened, technology became more accessible to people inside.”

In 2022, Ithaka first implemented its first direct-access online version of JSTOR for incarcerated learners. Now, more than 550,000 incarcerated learners in over 1,000 sites have access to either the offline or the online versions, depending on the facility, said Burnett, herself a graduate of the Bard Prison Initiative.

The expansion was mostly supported through grant funding from the Mellon Foundation and the Ascendium Education Group, Burnett said.

Unlike its offline counterpart, the online version – available on terminals and tablets – boasts all the content that is available to any other college student outside of prison excluding social media functions and external hyperlinks in order to be deemed ‘secure’ for correctional use, Burnett said.

In some facilities, additional restrictions are present in the form of approval permissions held by administrators to allow or deny certain content, such as maps of local areas that could possibly be security risks, she said.

"Some states use it like full JSTOR. They approve everything,” Burnett said. “They just have a mechanism to go back and reject content that is potentially problematic to that facility. Of the states that adopted that method though, so far in over a year and a half, they haven't gone back to reject anything.

“The other states, the students request an individual article, and then an administrator or a person designated by the Department of Corrections will review that request. Once it's approved, it stays approved so the administrators never have to look at it again."

Heidi McGregor, vice president of communications at ITHAKA, noted that these permissions are similar to how much of everything else is “mediated” in and out of prisons.

“[It’s] not that different from what prisons consistently do with materials coming in and going out,” McGregor said. “We needed to make that option available. But the reality is that most of the content is fine [and] hasn't really come up as an issue.”

ITHAKA hadn’t expected this big of an expansion, Burnett said. It just so happened this way because some carceral facilities that are privately funded didn’t show up on Second Chance Pell metrics during ITHAKA’s estimates, leading to there being hundreds of thousands more learners than expected.

“We have exceeded what we thought we were going to achieve,” Burnett said. “We thought there were [about] 160,000 total, because that's what the statistics tell us are enrolled in Pell sites. But it doesn't accommodate all the other ways learning is happening inside prisons. So, we didn't realize the pool was that large.”

With the online version of JSTOR at their fingertips, incarcerated higher ed learners have access to journal articles, open-access content, and even primary sources and data sets for research purposes.

And even those not yet engaged in higher education, such as learners pursuing their GEDs or undergoing Adult Basic Education, are finding use in this archive, Burnett said, adding that it was unclear why because of the opacity of prison settings.

“We don't know if it’s because they're bored or they're being instructed in a certain way,” she said. “But we know that learners at all different levels of literacy and educational attainment are finding value in these archives when they're available to them.”

As it stands now, JSTOR – either in its offline or online form – is available in sites in all 50 U.S. states. And the hope for ITHAKA is to expand and to make its archive accessible in a number of other carceral settings too, including jails, re-entry centers, and more military corrections facilities, Burnett said.

“We'd also like to take a look at what other things we may be able to provide to service populations that makes it a little more unique from a traditional college student,” she noted. “Maybe it's about connecting them to a campus near where they're going to be released so they can continue their education.”












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