Inmates in a state correctional facility in Wilmington will soon be surveyed for a study officials say could lead to changes in the prison environment.
Delaware is one of five states involved in the nationwide study of prison climate led by the Urban Institute— a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington D.C.
Nancy La Vigne, vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute, says the goal is to use data to improve transparency and accountability in prisons, as well as make them more humane.
“A lot of attention has been paid to reducing incarceration, but very little to what happens behind bars— the conditions of confinement, the climate, the culture for both the people who live there and the people who work there,” she said. “Our goal is to bring research and evidence to bear on those questions.”
Dan O’Connell is a scientist at the University of Delaware's Center for Drug and Health Studies. He and another UD researcher are leading the study in Delaware, which will survey inmates and prison staff at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington.
O’Connell says inmates and prison staff will help with the research.
“Just instead of coming in and studying them, they are part of the research team,” he said. “A select group will join us in figuring out the design of the study, what types of issues we’ll be looking at. We’ll be collecting the data together, analyzing and interpreting the data together.”
O’Connell says the survey will likely ask both inmates and staff how they feel about their situations.
“Do they feel safe?” he asked. “What does safe mean to them? For the people that aren’t going home today, how do they get home? How do they want to get home? What are the issues with being away from home?”
Eric Harris is on the inmate advisory council for the study. He sees the survey as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to make change in Delaware.
“The long-range effect will be that people will do less time,” he said. “People will get more out of the experience while they’re here. And that the public will be aware of what goes on inside.”
Harris, who is serving his fourth year of a seven-year sentence, emphasizes the need for more— and more strategic— education and career skills programming in the prison. He adds inmates should be able to earn more “good time,” which can reduce sentence length, for constructive behavior.
“When you hang onto somebody in a prison, eventually you get diminishing returns,” he said. “People are leaving here more damaged than when they got here. And it’s not DOC’s fault. It’s the system.”
Joanna Champney, chief of planning, research and re-entry at Delaware’s Department of Correction, says she expects the study’s findings to lead to “small tweaks” inside the prison that could impact inmate quality of life.
“Not every change has to cost a fortune,” she said. “Some changes do cost a lot. Changes to the architecture or expansion of programming, those things come with a big-ticket price tag. But there are some small tweaks that we can make, often in the daily experiences people have.”
Champney mentions an inmate advisory council meeting last week in which inmates said they hadn’t seen a blade of grass in years.
“So when you think about morale, there are things we can do here that would be fairly inexpensive to change just the way people feel about being here day in and day out,” she said.
The first phase of the study is expected to take about a year.