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Evaluation of Culture and Climate Effects in the Virginia Department of Corrections Cognitive Communities

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Competitive Discretionary
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2023, $860,438)

RTI International aims to expand the field’s understanding of how correctional culture and climate affect the well-being and safety of incarcerated people (IP) and staff and to identify effective strategies for improving both through a mixed-methods evaluation of the culture and climate fostered by prison-based, Cognitive Community (CC)–dedicated housing units that blend therapeutic community and cognitive behavioral therapy principles to create healthy prosocial cultures that foster personal growth and safe settings for staff and IP. These units, operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC), are among the nation’s most immersive cognitive approaches in prisons. The 42-month study will determine whether (1) CC units are associated with a safer, more prosocial, and more constructive culture and climate than are their host facilities and (2) the culture and climate of the CC units are associated with better well-being and safety outcomes for CC staff and IP than for their peers in the host facilities.

To achieve these objectives, six CC units from the VADOC system will be selected for intensive study featuring process, outcome, and cost-benefit analyses. The evaluation will draw on multiple data sources, including administrative data (operations and program), interviews with facility and CC staff, surveys of staff and IP, staff and IP focus groups, and program observations to answer critical questions about how CCs operate, what resources they require, and what costs and outcomes they produce. Analyses will yield practical insights and inform actionable recommendations for correctional practice and future research. To guide the research and to ensure that key issues are accurately measured and that findings inform practices conducive to the well-being and safety of staff and IP, a participatory action research approach will engage those who are most directly affected by and who contribute to correctional culture. An Expert Advisors panel of researchers will also guide the study’s work throughout the project.

Findings and implications will be disseminated via practitioner-focused and peer-reviewed articles, social media, conference presentations, and podcasts featuring the experiences of CC staff and IP. Findings will also inform the development of a practitioner toolkit to foster uptake of core CC practices. Prison culture and climate are crucial factors affecting the well-being and safety of those who live and work in prisons, but little is known about strategies that foster positive culture and climate and lead to improved well-being and safety outcomes. This study and its products will fill these critical gaps.  CA/NCF

Date Created: January 4, 2024