Helping Those Behind Prison Walls

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Researchers from the Auburn University College of Education are collaborating with faculty from the University of Alabama to ensure the protection and post-prison success of inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. They are engaged in research as a result of an agreement between the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). The DOJ entered the agreement with the goal of guaranteeing inmates at Tutwiler are provided with constitutional conditions that protect them from sexual abuse and harassment, and that their future behavior risks are properly assessed.

“Our work is addressing two separate but related situations for the women at Tutwiler,” said Dr. Peggy Shippen, a professor in the college’s Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling (SERC). “One is to assess the provisions of training and implementation at Tutwiler of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, as it is widely known. PREA is a federal statute focused on sexual assault and victimization. The goal of PREA is to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse in detention and correctional facilities. A second area of focus is to assess the risk of different types of behavior by the inmates associated with future misconduct and recidivism.”

This second project involves a collaboration that has Auburn faculty providing expertise in data evaluation, mental health and disabilities, while faculty from Alabama bring expertise on the criminology and social science work components. The Auburn faculty members became involved through a competitive request for proposals process, and have worked with Dr. Wendy Williams, deputy commissioner of Women’s Services in the ADOC, to respond to the Women’s Risk Needs Assessment (WRNA) validation.

“Dr. Shippen and I had been doing volunteer work in the women’s prison and Dr. Williams asked us to collaborate with them on how to comply with some of the specific provisions in the DOJ settlement and make the institution better,” said Dr. Nick Derzis, a SERC professor who has long had a research interest in incarcerated populations and the world of work. “We began quarterly polling at Tutwiler in 2016 and two years later added women’s prisons in Montgomery and Birmingham. The questions related to sexual safety and harassment, institutional conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence and staff-on-inmate violence.”

Participation by the inmates is voluntary, and all inmates are allowed to participate. The participation rate was outstanding, with 50% of the 751 invited inmates taking part. The project is approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), and the responses to the 76 questions are entered in a secure, private setting on iPads. The ADOC collects and sends the anonymous raw data to the Auburn research team, who analyze it and produce quarterly and annual reports. The reports are then shared with the DOJ by the ADOC. Based on feedback from Dr. Williams and the Tutwiler court-appointed monitor, in the coming year the iPad polling will be supplemented with structured interviews. These will be conducted by Dr. Rebecca Curtis, a SERC professor who is an expert in qualitative interviewing. Drs. Angie Hall and Sharon Weaver also work in research support roles on these projects.

“So far our data have shown that staff-on-inmate violence has decreased, but conflict among inmates remains a problem,” Shippen said. “The PREA can be misused by inmates filing false reports against other inmates or staff. We also concluded that a full 90 percent of the inmates have no visitors, so they must build their own family structures with other inmates.”

Presently there are about 1,000 women in Tutwiler, with county jails holding future inmates.

A separate contract was awarded to the Auburn team to conduct and validate the Women’s Risk Needs Assessment (WRNA).

“This is part of the gender responsive approach now being used in women’s prisons,” Derzis said. “We will validate the use of three separate assessments: at intake, after at least six months and then just before their release. The goal here is to literally assess their risks. Are they likely to be involved in substance abuse? Violence? Trauma? It is also determined whether they might benefit from counseling or anger management. A goal is to reduce recidivism, and give the women stability when they are back in the free world. How we rehabilitate people speaks volumes about our culture and society.”

An important part of the work is not only to evaluate and validate the WRNA instrument but also to assure the fidelity of the instrument’s administration. For example, two raters may see the inmate’s risks in the same way, but a third person might interpret the risks differently.

“It is critical to ensure the ratings are done fairly and equitably,” Shippen said. “We’re just getting started with this, but our approach is to have a second party watch a video of the evaluation and then make their own WRNA assessment. It’s a process called inter-rater reliability.”

There are many reasons for this focus on reliability.

“The welfare of both our society and the individual being assessed is the goal of the WRNA,” Derzis said. “Proper risk assessment not only serves the citizens of our state but also helps the ADOC classify people correctly. Could this person serve in work release, or should she be sent to maximum security? Solid assessments can provide that insight and better predict who might be successful in the free world and who may need more levels of support.”

Shippen said part of the risk assessment is evaluating the inmates’ mental health. The Auburn researchers stated it is widely known that a large percentage of incarcerated individuals have mental health issues and substance abuse challenges.

“This work provides other opportunities as well,” she said. “Auburn is sending its doctoral-level mental health counselors into the prisons. Two of our graduates just completed their dissertations on women’s prison issues. So we are seeing the full circle of research to practice and seeing all kinds of good services available that were not there before.”

In the WRNA activities, Auburn’s researchers do not interact directly with the women but focus on the data collection instrument and how it is administered. The PREA portion of their work is much more face-to-face.
“When we give inmates feedback, they see that someone is actually listening, that someone actually cares,” Shippen said. “It’s a difficult situation in the women’s prison. Not many people want to do this, but someone must.”

Shippen concluded by explaining that successful research in this field takes time.

“Social science research is about relationships. People must trust you. They see that we are objective and that we are honest. That’s really all they want.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.