More than 500,000 incarcerated learners now have access to the digital library

At the end of 2023, JSTOR—a vast digital library of secondary and primary sources to support teaching and learning—reached a once unimaginable goal: providing JSTOR access in 1,000 prisons. Spread across four continents, the JSTOR Access in Prison initiative now supports the education and growth of more than 550,000 incarcerated people.

Incarcerated learners have been left behind for decades. Limited access to the internet and scarce funding and support for higher education in prisons made access to digital libraries like JSTOR all but impossible. In October 2021, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, JSTOR set an ambitious goal to change that. The aspiration? For every incarcerated college student in the United States to have access to JSTOR, along with the research skills to use it and other digital resources.

Prior to 2021, JSTOR developed an offline index of its digital library. At the time, less than twenty prisons had access to it. Since then, developers have created an online version that meets the unique needs of carceral settings, most recently delivering online access on tablets. These changes—and the leadership of Stacy Burnett, a graduate of the Bard Prison Initiative who was hired to lead the JSTOR Access in Prison initiative—have enabled 1,000 prisons and more than 500,000 people to gain access to the digital equivalent of a college library.

“Creating more equitable learning environments inside prisons is the best way to pay forward my own prison-based education,” said Burnett. “We have proven that through understanding, collaboration, and creativity, we can create workable solutions that deliver meaningful digital equity and information literacy for incarcerated people.”

Evidence supports the fact that JSTOR use among the incarcerated is strong and growing. The students in Ohio prisons have reviewed nearly 30,000 unique articles over the past year, with 10% in the last month. Access there will be expanded to the prison general libraries. The students at Tennessee Higher Education Initiative regularly access 2,400 unique articles in a month—the highest per capita use in the country for incarcerated learners. Those pursuing higher education use JSTOR for research and coursework. Others use JSTOR to pursue a passion for learning and to gain skills they will need once they re-enter society.

L. Elizabeth Shatswell, a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Puget Sound, spent nearly two decades pursuing her high school and college education behind bars. She was able to conduct research on JSTOR that helped her advocate for an elderly incarcerated woman who required humane patient care. That experience changed Shatswell’s life. She said, “Prior to JSTOR, I knew full well there were disparities in access to healthcare for both women and incarcerated populations, but I did not know the scope. JSTOR facilitated the development of my voice in understanding these gaps and as a result I founded a program called the HOPE Team that uses evidence-based research to make changes to healthcare policy and practice.”

Prison access to JSTOR is free thanks to subsidies from ITHAKA, the nonprofit home of JSTOR, and generous grants from Ascendium and Mellon Foundation. Giving incarcerated learners access to JSTOR is impactful, but it hasn’t been easy. There are challenges in navigating different cultures and decision-making processes, and finding creative solutions to issues in technology infrastructure and support, which vary widely from one site to the next.

“It was really difficult in the beginning,” said Burnett. “Fortunately, we’ve worked with enough prisons now that when we encounter a question or issue, we’ve seen it before and have a solution. We’re making it easier and easier for them to say ‘yes’.”

Burnett added, “After all, lowering barriers to access to knowledge and education is exactly what JSTOR and ITHAKA were founded to do.”

JSTOR hopes to reach the 400 American state and federal prisons without JSTOR and 1 million learners in 2024.

To learn more, visit JSTOR Access in Prison.

Media contact:
Heidi McGregor
VP, Communications


JSTOR is a part of ITHAKA, a nonprofit organization with a mission to improve access to knowledge and education for people around the world. As a nonprofit that believes in the power of knowledge to change the world for the better, JSTOR partners with libraries, museums, and publishers to reduce costs, extend access, and preserve scholarship for the future as affordably and sustainably as possible. At JSTOR, we strengthen the depth and quality of research by bringing together journals, books, images, and primary sources on a platform with unique tools for teaching and exploration. We do this because we believe in the power of knowledge to change the world for the better.