Amy Lerman, Professor

Closed (1) The Promise and Practice of Prison Education

Closed. This professor is continuing with Fall 2018 apprentices on this project; no new apprentices needed for Spring 2019.

It has been well-documented that incarceration can produce a wide range of collateral consequences for individuals and their families. For instance, spending time in prison has a significant negative effect on later job security, even after controlling for alcohol use, criminal activity, and prior criminal history, and some studies suggest that a period of incarceration reduces annual earnings by as much as 30 to 40 percent. The families of incarcerated individuals also experience collateral costs, in the form of restricted rights, diminished resources, and social marginalization. These broader harms are made more acute by the hyper-concentration of imprisonment in poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods. In these communities, mass incarceration has a destabilizing effect, fostering distrust of political institutions and reducing civic participation.

In contrast to the damage done by imprisonment, higher education provides a path to generational advancement. According to a recent estimate, the economic returns to a college degree exceed 15 percent and, over a lifetime, average earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree are roughly $570,000 higher than for those with only a high school education. We hypothesize that participation in prison-based higher education can significantly alter a broad set of outcomes related to economic mobility, civic engagement, educational attainment, criminal justice involvement, and family stability. Yet, despite the emerging consensus that higher education advances economic mobility among marginalized populations, the availability of college programs within American prisons has decreased dramatically in recent decades, even as incarceration rates reached historically unprecedented levels.

In this study, we aim to document the effects of incarcerated students’ participation in a degree-granting, on-site college program at San Quentin State Prison. Using both original, longitudinal surveys and administrative data, the project will allow us to assess whether higher education has the potential to alter not only the experiences these individuals have while incarcerated, but also their life trajectories following release. To do this, we match over-time student surveys with criminological data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and with student records. As a point of comparison, we also gather administrative data on three distinct control groups – those at San Quentin who are on the waitlist for enrollment in college, but have not yet matriculated; those incarcerated at other prisons who have requested transfer to enroll in higher education; and a statistically matched sample of individuals at San Quentin who are eligible to enroll in educational programs but have not done so.

Our goal is to increase current understanding of how higher education might intervene in the cycle of social and economic marginality in its most extreme form. This is of both theoretical and policy importance; by rigorously documenting the effects of prison higher education, we hope that this study will help policymakers take a data-driven approach to policy reform. In addition, our results can serve as a baseline for conducting localized cost-benefit analyses to assess the expected returns on investment from prison higher education, and to determine how prison higher education programs might be employed in other institutions, states, or localities.

- Literature reviews on higher education and the effects of incarceration for scholarly papers
- Drafting and contributing to white papers and policy reports on the effects of higher education programs in prison
- Planning the next wave of surveys to be fielded in San Quentin next fall

Learning Outcomes
- Master critique and comprehension of currently scholarly literature
- Improve research writing skills
- Gain a deeper understanding of the quantitative and qualitative research process
- Learn the basics of survey methodology with hard-to-reach populations

Day-to-day supervisor for this project: Meredith Sadin, Staff Researcher

Qualifications: This project is open to any undergraduate students with preference given to those with familiarity with issues of policing and incarceration.

Weekly Hours: 6-8 hrs

Closed (2) How Do U.S. Presidents Talk About Government?

Applications for Spring 2019 are now closed for this project.

Public trust in government has dramatically declined in the United States since the 1960s. Some scholars have speculated that one cause may involve political communication: federal politicians might have begun speaking more negatively about government in their public addresses, leading the public to increasingly see government as untrustworthy.

This exploratory study aims to shed light on whether the language used by political elites has, indeed, become more negative over time. It also examines whether that language has shifted in other ways that might impact trust—for example, by increasingly contrasting government with the private sector. We focus for now on a relatively narrow body of content: State of the Union addresses made by U.S. presidents. (Future research will explore a broader body of political communications.)

Using a new content analysis coding scheme, this project examines State of the Union addresses on a sentence-by-sentence basis, capturing key information about how government is defined, described, evaluated, and framed. We will code dozens of speeches, resulting in a robust data set capturing how U.S. presidents have shifted the way they talk about government over the past half-century.

Ultimately, our goal is to link this new data set with existing data on public attitudes toward government, drawing connections between how presidents talk about government and how people perceive it. By drawing these connections, we hope our study will help political leaders better anticipate how their language about government affects public trust—and, more broadly, citizen engagement in the political system.

- Assigning codes to past State of the Union addresses using a detailed content analysis coding scheme
- Documenting "edge cases" that do not easily fit into coding categories
- When appropriate, helping refine the coding scheme with the lead researcher
- If time allows, conducting basic quantitative analyses of speech content

Learning Outcomes
- Develop a working understanding of content analysis and proper manual coding techniques
- Improve research communication skills
- Gain a deeper understanding of the quantitative and qualitative research process

Day-to-day supervisor for this project: Charlotte Hill

Weekly Hours: 6-8 hrs