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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.
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
“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.”
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
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
“The department’s leadership knows they need to continue making substantial changes, and they’re ready to do that,” Visher said.
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
“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
Article by Ann Manser; photo by Kathy F. Atkinson
Published Jan. 30, 2020
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