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Prison research initiative at Howard R. Young Correctional Center identifies priorities

Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
The Howard R. Young Correctional Center in Wilmington.

A prison initiative at Young Correctional Facility in Wilmington previewed the results of its first survey of the incarcerated population during a meeting of Delaware's Corrections Council last week.

Delaware’s Department of Correction joined the project, led by the DC-based Urban Institute, in 2019. It seeks to design, implement and evaluate strategies to improve prison living and working conditions based on feedback from incarcerated people and staff; the initiative also aims to help prison administrators make agency data more publicly available. According to the Institute, the DOC expressed willingness to implement the changes suggested by the researchers in good faith.

The initial results identified four key focus areas. Staff asked for additional wellness programs to help manage rising workloads and high attrition. Those in custody suggested DOC work with them to clarify and simplify the grievance process as well as add vocational education programs and exercise opportunities.

Urban Institute researcher David Pitts says the exercise issue is more pressing at Howard Young than the five other prisons nationwide participating in the initiative.

“It’s not built like what we think of as a prison, where you have outdoor space and multiple buildings so you can go outside from place to place and have a traditional prison yard," he said. Instead, those in custody get their recreation time in small, cement yards enclosed within the prison building.

UD criminal justice professor Dan O’Connell, the head of a team from UD recruited by the DOC to help survey staff and incarcerated people, told Delaware's Corrections Council last week that the prison’s physical layout - confined by train tracks and a neighborhood – also means that the DOC has to be creative when expanding programming for staff and people in custody.

“There’s a strong desire for vocational training among the inmate population – they want opportunities – and that’s hard to do at an institution like Howard Young," he said. "There are physical space constraints. "

DOC says the survey results line up with efforts it has undertaken independently of the initiative to refine the grievance process and add new vocational programs, among other projects. O'Connell noted that those efforts have to adapt to the department-wide shortage of corrections officers; an under-staffed shift can force administrators to cancel an educational program for a day, for instance.

The Urban Institute says once changes are tested at Howard Young, it will evaluate how easily they could be applied in Delaware’s three other prisons.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.