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Shining light on prisons

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Delaware agency, UD researchers selected for national initiative

​Center for Drug and Health Studies researchers Christy Visher and Dan O’Connell are Delaware’s principal investigators in a research project that will seek evidence-based ways to improve prisons for inmates and correctional officers.

University of Delaware researchers, partnering with the state Department of Correction, will take part in a national initiative to better understand prison conditions and ultimately make those institutions more humane, safe and rehabilitative.

Delaware was one of five states selected by the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative, a five-year project operated by the Urban Institute with support from Arnold Ventures.

In its application to take part in the initiative, the state Department of Correction designated UD’s Center for Drug and Health Studies (CDHS) to conduct the research.

“We’ve been a strong research partner with the department for a long time,” working on issues such as assisting people when they leave prison, said Christy Visher, professor of sociology and criminal justice and director of the CDHS.

“But this new initiative goes beyond helping with the transition from incarceration. This really looks at transforming the correctional system.”

Beginning this month, researchers will start the process of surveying inmates and employees of the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington to learn about their experiences. The state identified that prison, which houses about 1,500 men, as the focus of the research project.

“We’re going to have incarcerated people and correctional officers engaged in every aspect of this research from the beginning, starting with meetings and focus groups to determine how we’ll do the survey and what kinds of questions we’ll be asking,” said Daniel O’Connell, senior scientist with the CDHS. “It’s not going to be the University just coming in and implementing what we think is best.”

Visher and O’Connell are co-principal investigators for the project, which provides each of the participating states with a $100,000 grant to conduct the initial research.

The goal is to get a clearer understanding of the prison’s culture and the issues that inmates and officers see as most important, including the problems and policies they identify as critical. At the end of 2020, when the first phase of the initiative wraps up, the process will be reviewed before the next steps are determined.

“The focus of the study could begin as a narrow one — how to access health care, how to improve substance abuse treatment, how to improve interactions between the incarcerated and the employees,” Visher said. “We’re just starting, and there’s a lot still to be determined.”

The CDHS research team will be in the prison and directly involved in the study, said O’Connell, who has taught a criminal justice class every semester for 12 years through the Inside/Out program, which brings UD students to a correctional institution to study with incarcerated men and women.

“We’re not going to delegate this research,” he said. “The opportunity to actually start delving into the culture of the institutions — to do the kind of research that can lead to real changes in that culture — is fascinating to me as a sociologist.”

Prison research initiative

The Urban Institute’s Prison Research and Innovation Initiative aims to develop an evidence-based approach to prison reform, beginning with research conducted through the state correctional agencies in Delaware, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri and Vermont.

Although more than 1.3 million people are incarcerated and 200,000 correctional officers work in U.S. prisons, they are among the least transparent and most understudied public institutions, the Urban Institute said in announcing the program in January.

“This five-year project will leverage research and evidence to shine a much-needed light on prison conditions and pilot strategies to promote the well-being of people who live and work behind bars,” the institute said.

In Delaware, the state Department of Correction “is ready for this” project and for serious efforts at prison reform, Visher said. 

She noted that the department’s application to take part in the initiative began by describing the 2017 uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

“The department’s leadership knows they need to continue making substantial changes, and they’re ready to do that,” Visher said.

Center for Drug and Health Studies

The center, housed in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, conducts collaborative research in areas including substance abuse, health risk behavior, health services and health policy.

Its work has addressed such criminal justice issues in Delaware as re-entry services for those leaving prison and efforts to reduce recidivism.

 “A lot of health issues intersect with criminal justice issues,” said Visher, who joined the UD faculty in 2008. She has more than 30 years of experience in policy research on crime and justice issues, particularly substance abuse and other health issues, criminal careers, communities and crime.

The CDHS is funded through sponsored research grants, focusing on Delaware and on national issues. Researchers include faculty, staff and graduate students.

Article by Ann Manser; photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Published Jan. 30, 2020

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