Volume 51   Number 3 Summer 2018

Criminal Justice Interest Group

Edited by Jessica Shaw, Boston College of Social Work

The Criminal Justice Interest Group Column features recent and ongoing work of our members. We encourage readers to reach out to the authors if they are interested in learning more or exploring potential opportunities for collaboration. We also invite readers to join one of our upcoming Learning Community Series presentations in which Criminal Justice Interest Group members share their work virtually to foster a learning community. More information, and recording of prior presentations, can be viewed at

Action Research Infrastructure: A Process for Creating and Implementing CBPAR Advisory Board Post-Prison Education Research

Written by Jordan Lankford ( and Christopher R. Beasley (, University of Washington Tacoma

The U.S. incarceration rate eclipses all other countries in the world (The Sentencing Project, 2016). This hyper-incarceration disproportionately affects ethnic minority citizens, who are incarcerated at 2-6 times the rate of White citizens. In addition to racial inequity, educational inequity is apparent–about 11% of people in prison have completed at least some postsecondary education compared to 59% of the population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2003; U.S. Census American Survey, 2015). However, 36% of people in prison have a diploma or GED, suggesting opportunities to address this educational disparity. Although prison postsecondary education is one solution, there are considerable barriers such as restrictions on Pell eligibility and public policy limitations on the use of state funding for prison higher education programing (Ubah, 2004). Even though these barriers do not exist for post-prison higher education, little research has examined this transition process. In fact, our research team has found fewer than 10 studies on this. Therefore, a firmer empirical foundation is needed for post-prison higher education research. This article discusses initial steps taken by the Post-Prison Education Research Lab (PERL) to develop a line of such inquiry using a participatory process.

Given the paucity of research on post-prison higher education, there is an opportunity for the scope of this inquiry to be driven by a broad array of stakeholders who are most central to these educational transitions. One inclusive empirical approach that can be used is community-based participatory action research (CBPAR). This approach is widely used within a variety of contexts, and its usage continues to increase (Wenger, Hawkins, & Seifer, 2012). Using techniques from other forms of research, such as community research, participatory research, and action research, CBPAR elevates and expands the capacities of each individual research method on its own. It is a way to work within a community to enact a plan of action with the goal of assisting a population of individuals. To develop a long- and short-term strategy for better understanding factors that may facilitate efforts to address this inequity, PERL has been developing a CBPAR Community Advisory Board (CAB).

One of the initial steps of conducting CBPAR is the formation of a CAB. The CAB serves as the middleman and messenger between the researchers and the community (Manda-Taylor, 2013). Community members voice their concerns to members of the CAB who then communicate these issues to the researcher and the rest of the board. Enrolling the assistance of a CAB allows researchers to identify and work with key stakeholders within a community. These stakeholders are important to the process, as they will provide necessary insight on issues within the community, assist researchers in formulating research questions, and help researchers identify the foci and approaches of their research.

Including stakeholders in these methodologies serves two main purposes. First, it allows everyone to feel valued and equal, and addresses the issue of reciprocity that frequently arises in CBPAR. (Maiter, Simich, Jacobson, & Wise, 2008). When we ensure the interests and insights of the CAB are top priority, stakeholders feel valued and feel like collaborators with the researchers rather than experiencing a power struggle between the two. Second, when stakeholders are involved in the entire research process, the external validity increases.

PERL first mapped the state, county, and local resources for post-prison higher education. We then identified key stakeholder groups and stakeholders associated with each of these resources. We subsequently developed relationships with each of the key stakeholders, with an emphasis on contributions to their work. We later identified stakeholder groups and stakeholders to include in the advisory board. Stakeholders included a formerly incarcerated Assistant Professor, two Reentry Navigators who assist recently incarcerated people with their transitions from prison to college, an education strategist, a community advocate connected with a broad array of social services, the Executive Director of a prison higher education program, a Policy Associate from the State Board of Community & Technical Colleges, the Director of Research for the Washington Student Achievement Council, and the CEO of a workforce development organization. PERL also developed a post-prison higher education advisory council of formerly incarcerated students and graduates to inform both this research and the development of a program to support students transitioning from prison to a local university.

Once a CAB was formed, researchers ensured that members would be able to work together by having them participate in team building activities and events (Manda-Taylor, 2013). Board members frequently interact with one another, so it was important that those involved felt comfortable sharing ideas and being able to express agreeing and dissenting opinions on others’ ideas. To do so, team-building exercises, strategy-building, and skill-building were done for all parties to become comfortable in this exchange of information. Sharing knowledge with one another and developing skill sets alongside each other allowed the board to see one another as partners and feel more comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns with each other. The board members should feel like a team, and a hierarchy of power should not exist (Newman et al., 2011). Therefore, PERL hired a formerly incarcerated person to serve as the Project Director and provided this person with group facilitation training. This person was tasked with coordinating the project and serving as a neutral meeting facilitator.

After identifying and recruiting key stakeholders to join this Community Advisory Board (CAB), PERL developed a process for long-term strategic planning, initial research planning, and solicitation of funds. To date, this project is still in an initial relationship building and broad idea generation phase, with the CAB’s first meeting dedicated to relationship building and beginning a process of idea generation. PERL will then host a day-long strategic planning retreat to develop the vision, mission, and values for the lab as well as a long- and short-term strategy for post-prison higher education research. This will be followed by a day-long capacity building retreat centered on tools or addressing pressing questions that have emerged. After these two retreats, PERL will host a series of meetings over the course of 6 months to develop an initial research plan, revise the initial research plan, collaboratively develop a concept paper, generate and evaluate ideas for funding this research, review a funding proposal written by PERL.

One important characteristic of CBPAR is that it is iterative and builds upon former renditions of itself (Israel et al., 1998). This process is most often used within action research, and allows researchers to edit their process along the way. In this type of research, there are research cycles that consist of planning, action, observation, and reflection of the research. A cycle can happen within various amounts of time, from weeks, to months, to even years. When a cycle is complete, researchers will ask participants to reflect on the work they have collaborated on and will use the feedback to further inform future iterations of the project. From here, the next cycle begins, and researchers are better able to implement the most effective and informative measures as each cycle continues (Lewin, 1946).

Near the end of a research cycle, the CAB plays a vital part in the reflection of the process. This process helps both researchers and board members identify what could be improved in the next cycle (Waddingham et al., 2016). The process also helps inform future directions of the research and helps researchers reassess the methodologies they are using. Given that this post-prison higher education CAB is a new entity, the first cycle will end with proposal submission. The board will then reflect on and document the process as well as discuss next steps. However, we expect a similar reflective process once research is conducted, disseminated, and results integrated with existing programming.

CBPAR serves as a way to better represent a community and listen to the concerns and questions that community members have. This process can be time-consuming but provides results that provide the maximum impact to a community. In a world where statistical significance seems to be of utmost importance, it is important to look at methods that work for communities as well, as these methodologies directly include the community and their concerns. The Post-Prison Education Research Lab has taken a long-term approach to first developing collective community infrastructure, collaboratively generating goals and objectives aligned with applied work, and conducting use-based inquiry. 


Israel, B. A., Schulz, A. J., Parker, E. A., & Becker, A. B. (1998). Review of community-based research: Assessing partnership approaches to improve public health. Annual Review of Public Health, 19, 173-202. doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.19.1.173

Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2(4), 34-46. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1946.tb02295.x

Manda-Taylor, L. (2013). Establishing community advisory boards for clinical trial research in Malawi: Engendering ethical conduct in research. Malawi Medical Journal, 25(4), 96-100.

Maiter, S., Simich, L., Jacobson, N., & Wise, J. (2008). Reciprocity: An ethic for community-based participatory action research. Action Research, 6(3), 305-325. doi:10.1177/1476750307083720

Waddingham, S., Shaw, K., Dam, P. V., & Bettiol, Silvana. (2016). What motivates their food choice? Children are key informants. Appetite, 120, 514-522. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.09.029