Waterbury, VT — The University of Vermont (UVM), Vermont Department of Corrections, and the Urban Institute are releasing initial findings from the first phase of the Prison Research and Innovation Network (PRIN) in Vermont, one of five states participating in the five-year effort (with support from Arnold Ventures) to build evidence and spur innovation to make prisons more humane, safe, and rehabilitative.
Goals of the Network include:
- Understanding prison environments and the safety and well-being of those who live and work there.
- Helping prisons collect data to promote transparency and accountability.
- Supporting evidence-based changes to improve prisons, such as ensuring safe and humane environments for all.
In pursuit of these goals, the project enlisted the input of people confined and working in Southern State Correctional Facility (SSCF) in the research study design and the initial review of findings and will continue to do so toward the development of recommendations for improvements.
Among the results, researchers at UVM found that there is still much work to be done on top of the efforts already underway, including around the issues of correctional staffing and programming opportunities for incarcerated people. Of particular importance is the concerning mental health status and exposures to trauma experienced by both incarcerated persons and correctional staff. The survey results show high rates of self-reported depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts. To read more about the survey findings, visit http://doc.vermont.gov/document/vermont-prison-climate-survey-2021.
UVM researchers, as part of Phase 2 of the PRIN project, are now collecting feedback and further insights on the survey results from the correctional staff and incarcerated persons in SSCF. This information will be particularly helpful as the Department of Corrections considers what can be done to address these challenges.
The UVM team used community based participatory research, a method that prioritizes the inclusion of those who work and are confined in prisons, to develop two prison surveys – one for correctional staff and one for incarcerated people. The surveys are a unique opportunity to gain an understanding of what it is like to be incarcerated, or work, in a Vermont prison from the perspective of those who know the system best. Surveys were administered in Southern State Correctional Facility, the PRIN pilot facility, in June 2021 with over 70% of correctional staff and incarcerated persons completing the surveys.
“I am extremely proud of Vermont DOC’s participation in the Prison Research Innovation Network initiative,” said Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml. “Vermont is a national leader in so many public policy areas, and I am committed to ensuring that corrections is at the top of that list. It starts with an across-the-board pledge to transparency as a central tenet in all that we do, and it will be ensured by a commitment to evidence-based approaches to make our facilities more humane, safe, and rehabilitation focused. I deeply appreciate the hard work done by our colleagues at UVM and the Urban Institute and I look forward to our continued collaboration on this important work.”
Kathy Fox and Abigail Crocker, co-founders of UVM’s Justice Research Initiative, are the researchers working with the Department of Corrections on this effort. Crocker says, “As researchers who are committed to supporting the land-grant mission of the university and applying research toward positive social change, we are grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important project.” Fox added, “The survey results begin to show a clearer picture of what it’s like to work or be confined in prison in Vermont and highlight the significant challenges associated with incarceration. We are hopeful that the participatory nature of this project, prioritizing the voices of correctional staff and incarcerated persons, will help to drive real, meaningful change.”
“Getting to the point where we can share this rich data on the perspectives, needs and challenges facing corrections staff and incarcerated people at SSCF took tremendous openness and commitment from DOC leadership, the leadership at SSCF and the UVM research team. To carry that out in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic makes the commitment all the more impressive. We look forward to continuing to support Vermont in its efforts to build on this research and data to make meaningful changes that improve prison culture, operations, and design and create more humane and rehabilitative correction environments,” said Jesse Jannetta, senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute.
The survey findings confirmed and highlighted the mental health issues faced by staff and incarcerated individuals. Vermont DOC has been actively building its capacity to support staff in several ways: developing the Peer Support Team; contracting with a licensed clinician who is available to staff; creating a Family Support Network. In 2021, the Legislature passed Act 37, An act related to establishing the Emergency Service Provide Wellness Commission. The department advocated that probation and parole officers and correctional officers be included in the definition of “emergency responder” so they can benefit from the work of the Commission.
In addition, Commissioner Deml recently established a Suicide Prevention Task Force, which is coordinating with the Departments of Health and Mental Health on available resources. The aim of this effort is to create a shared understanding of the suicide problem set within the Vermont DOC, to include the issue as it relates to Department staff and the incarcerated population; to prepare recommendations the Department may take to educate, mitigate, and prevent suicides and suicide contemplation; and to oversee initial implementation of recommendations within the system.
The PRIN Steering Committee is now forming innovation councils at SSCF to dive into the survey results and develop innovations. Some innovations will be able to start immediately, and others may take more time to plan. The project continues through March 2024. During that time, the three parties expect to try a variety of new ideas and assesses their effectiveness. The project will also move into the “participatory research” aspect, which allows the staff and incarcerated population to drive the changes with support from Vermont DOC and the PRIN Steering Committee.
To learn more about the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative and the Network of 5 states, visit urban.org/transform-prison.