How does prison research change when incarcerated people lead the research effort?

When people who are incarcerated are empowered to ask and answer their own research questions, a different set of questions arise out of the lived experiences of being in prison. 

As researchers, we are trained to bring objectivity and systematic methods of inquiry to our work. However, we are often outsiders to the communities we study, and so do not always have insight into the questions that are a priority to people within that community, or how best to answer those questions in an accessible way. That’s why we’re engaging with and training diverse leaders, justice-impacted families, and formerly incarcerated individuals so they can help formulate the research questions that emerge from their unique perspectives and experience, and so they can utilize rigorous research methods to answer the questions that matter most to them and those in their communities.

As part of this work, we recently partnered with Mt. Tamalpais College (formerly the Prison University Project) to launch a research methods class for students at San Quentin State Prison who are interested in conducting an original research project on issues facing individuals currently incarcerated in San Quentin.  At the beginning of the course, MTC students defined a research topic of interest, which addressed a question or problem within the prison. The class then began work on their hands-on research project.

“Our students have historically been the subjects of studies, and rarely the researchers. This course shifts the narrative for our students from being the “studied” to the “scholars”, bringing their unique backgrounds and viewpoints into critical evaluation of the world around them.”

-Jody Lewen, President, Mount Tamalpais College


In this semester-long course, students learned how to articulate a theory of change, formulate an empirical research question, design and carry out a data collection strategy and summarize their results. By the end of the semester, students had conducted interviews, carried out surveys, and prepared final reports and presentations to share their findings. 

“This course has given me the feeling of being a researcher by going through this clinic, by working with all experienced researchers, by seeing how I too have valuable experience to draw upon for the benefit of others + society.”

-Research Clinic Student, Mount Tamalpais College


Course Material

San Quentin Community-Based Research Clinic | Syllabus

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