Waterbury, VT — The University of Vermont (UVM), Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC), and the Urban Institute today released the second round of findings from the Prison Research and Innovation Network (PRIN) initiative in Vermont, one of five states participating in the voluntary five-year effort (with support from Arnold Ventures) to gather data and spur innovation to make prisons safer, more humane, 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 and ensure safe and humane environments for all.
In pursuit of these goals, the project enlisted the input of staff and incarcerated individuals at Southern State Correctional Facility (SSCF) in Springfield, Vermont. This is the second of three planned survey rounds at SSCF. The first was conducted in June 2021 and the third round is planned for 2024. Throughout this process, the study partners will review these data as they develop recommendations for facility and system-wide improvements.
The full results of the 2022 PRIN survey study (go.uvm.edu/justiceresearch) show continued challenges facing staff and incarcerated individuals at SSCF. Majorities of both groups pointed to understaffing, low morale, poor mental health, and lack of activities for incarcerated individuals that promote their well-being and build meaningful skills at the time the surveys were conducted in June of 2022.
Overall, the results showed a downward trend from the previous year, with respondents indicating declines in relations between staff and incarcerated individuals, disagreement about the primary purpose of prisons, the impact of medication assisted treatment (MAT), and concerns over COVID-19 precautions. Notably, both groups reported increased suicidal ideation over the past year, with 30% of staff and 37% of incarcerated individuals disclosing serious consideration of self-harm within the last 12 months.
This self-reported suicidal ideation prompted DOC to immediately create a Suicide Prevention Advisory Panel comprised of mental health practitioners and staff representing field offices, facilities, and the Central Office. DOC also invested in staff wellness and created the Stability and Sustainability Plan to address ongoing facility staffing shortages, scheduling, recruitment and retention, professional development, and the overall staff experience at DOC.
The Stability and Sustainability Plan is already showing signs of early success. Since the plan was enacted in late summer, the Department’s security staff vacancy rate dropped from more than 30% to 25%. Recruiting is higher than any time in recent memory, with the last Academy having graduated one of the largest Correctional Academy classes (51 graduates) on record, and the current Academy class is now training 27 more recruits set to graduate next month. DOC also launched its first twice-yearly all staff survey immediately following the PRIN 2022 surveys to hear directly from staff on questions related to satisfaction, leadership, communications, work-life balance, and other areas of crucial importance.
The PRIN survey also revealed several areas of positive change. Incarcerated individuals’ perception of the use of segregation and availability of recreational time improved over last year, although both remain areas for growth. The survey also showed a majority of staff reported equitable treatment regardless of race and ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability.
Last year’s 2021 PRIN survey results provided critical, data-centered information for DOC leadership as it crafted its Recovery and Revitalization and Stability and Sustainability Plans. With PRIN data in hand, DOC leaders were better prepared to craft solutions targeted at specific pain points in the state’s corrections system. This data-driven approach to problem solving has already shown positive results on multiple fronts, including recruitment and retention of staff following major schedule changes in the fall of 2022. The PRIN team is hopeful that 2022’s survey results provide similar evidence to inform future DOC decision-making.
While PRIN continues to make progress, additional work and study remain. As one incarcerated individual noted, “The survey is a start to treating incarcerated as members of society, a chance for everyone to listen to each other, an improvement to the process of change, and a giving of respect, moving beyond the stigma society places on the incarcerated.”
The UVM team used community-based participatory research, a method that prioritizes the inclusion of those who work and live in prisons, to develop two prison surveys – one for correctional staff and one for incarcerated individuals. Phase II surveys were administered at SSCF, the PRIN pilot facility, with over 65% of correctional staff and 72% of incarcerated persons submitting responses.
The survey took place in June 2022, a period during which staffing at SSCF reached crisis levels. Such low staffing may have significantly impacted this year’s responses.
“PRIN continues to be an essential tool in creating transparency in our correctional system and guiding evidence-based improvements,” said Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml. “Vermont is a national leader in voluntarily welcoming researchers into its facilities and gathering important data on the deep-rooted issues facing staff and those in our care and custody. While these results are sobering, the data clearly tell us we need to make major investments in this system and continue to study our progress. I deeply appreciate the dedication of our colleagues at UVM and the Urban Institute. This research is helping Vermont build a safer, healthier, and more humane system for the benefit of all on our team and in our care.”
Researchers Kathy Fox and Abigail Crocker, co-founders of UVM’s Justice Research Initiative, led the university’s participation in the PRIN study. Crocker said, “These two years of data demonstrate incarceration as a public health issue, both for staff and for incarcerated individuals. This is consistent with what we are seeing around the country, and COVID-19 has really magnified this.” Fox added, “The fact that we saw mostly negative changes demonstrates how difficult it is to improve the prison environment, but also why change is so necessary.”
“Corrections in Vermont, as rings true throughout America, faces a tremendously difficult period right now. PRIN is working to help Vermont navigate challenges by highlighting where the most pressing issues lie, providing a means of measuring progress at SSCF, and sharing new avenues for the people most affected by the prison environment to bring forward ideas for improvement. Though this data shows more work must be done, it’s heartening to see the dedication all Vermont partners bring in using this data as a tool to create more positive change for correctional staff and incarcerated individuals,” said Jesse Jannetta, senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute.
To learn more about the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative and the Network of five states, visit urban.org/transform-prison.