Ennead Lab and Ithaka S+R receive grant from Ascendium Education Group to understand educational space needs in prisons

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Understanding Educational Space Needs in Prisons: New Project Announcement

By Kurtis Tanaka, Program Manager for Justice Initiatives at Ithaka S+R, and Amy Mielke, Director of Ennead Lab

Across higher education, classrooms and study commons have been reimagined to foster student engagement and learning. But for higher education in prison programs, it can prove challenging to find spaces optimized for education, much less space designed to support their educational needs. Access--or the lack of access--to classrooms, libraries, and scientific and computer labs, can play determining roles in the quality of higher education programming. With many competing demands for space, Departments of Corrections (DOC) may be inclined to look for remote and asynchronous options rather than prioritizing quality and the best possible educational experience, whether that be in-person, remote, or hybrid.

Now, thanks to grant funding from Ascendium Education Group, Ithaka S+R and Ennead Lab are launching a two-year research and design project to both understand how space acts as a limiting factor on the quality and scalability of higher education in prison and propose solutions to mitigate these challenges. The project will bring together Ithaka S+R’s research expertise with Ennead’s design ingenuity and experience in creating higher education learning environments. Through the project we seek to provide stakeholders with the evidence and inspiration to reconceive existing spaces in support of learning. Essential to this work is our belief that solutions do not result in building bigger prisons but in finding ways to use existing space more creatively, flexibly, and collaboratively to the benefit of incarcerated students.

In recent years, higher education in prison programs have proliferated, spurred in large part through Second Chance Pell. With the anticipated full restoration of Pell funding in 2023, we expect this added revenue stream will lead to even further expansion. Against this backdrop, there is an urgent need to ensure that higher education programs are high quality and student-centered. The space allocated to such programs is an important component. Both Ithaka S+R and Ennead Lab are excited to collaborate on this project over the next 24 months as we seek to produce research, policy recommendations, and design solutions to address the issues of spatial constraints on educational programming in prisons.

Step One
In the project’s first phase, Ithaka S+R will review the existing literature on prison space, and together with Ennead, supplement this research through interviews with instructors, program administrators, currently and/or formerly incarcerated students, and DOC staff. Through these interviews we will explore the limitations of existing spaces and models and policies that determine how space is allocated. As we conduct this research, we will stay attuned to states and facilities that are pursuing innovative uses of space and technology to support education in prisons, as well as their equitable implementation across facility types.

In trying to understand the impact of space on program quality, we are also interested in exploring more deeply the importance of these spaces for incarcerated students and how these spaces can help them mitigate the effects of institutionalization.

Step Two
The second phase of research will involve case studies and site visits conducted by Ithaka S+R and Ennead to explore the issues identified above in greater depth, situating the individual facilities in their wider context, and analyzing how state policies create or alleviate space constraints. Ennead’s experience and ongoing work with higher education space design will inform design strategies that support an optimal educational experience in these environments. Simultaneous with the case studies, Ennead and Ithaka S+R will develop a “mini-think tank” to consider the needs of the wide range of stakeholders involved in decision making around space utilization in prisons at the macro and micro levels. The think tank will build on the case studies to produce a research-based public report and a design portfolio of innovative solutions to space constraints related to educational programming in prisons.


If you or your program have experienced challenges related to space, have implemented novel solutions to ease this constraint, or wish to learn more about the project, we would be delighted to speak with you. Please contact kurtis.tanaka@ithaka.org.