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Looking Beyond Recidivism: New Research on Well-Being in Prisons and Jails From the National Institute of Justice

Date Published
November 30, 2023

Angel E. Sanchez is an attorney committed to making education more accessible to people who are incarcerated. He also spent more than a decade in a Florida prison, the source of many experiences that fuel his advocacy for reform.

“I served over 12 years in a system where the highest level of education available to me was a GED,” he said. “The reality is that all my successes were not because of prison, but rather in spite of it — in spite of the lack of support, the lack of benefits, the lack of encouragement and hope that one ought to find there for one to turn their life around.”

At the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) 2023 National Research Conference, Sanchez led a discussion on corrections research that looked beyond preventing recidivism to explore evidence-based ways of improving individual experiences and institutional culture within prisons and jails. The conversation was a direct outgrowth of Sanchez’s belief that services focused on improving people’s lives after prison cannot come at the expense of efforts to expand their opportunities while inside.

The discussion brought together three researchers working to evaluate and implement corrections programs: Stephen Tripodi, associate professor at the Florida State University College of Social Work; Marina Duane, research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall; and Daniel O’Connell, senior scientist at the University of Delaware’s Center for Drug and Health Studies who, like Sanchez, was formerly incarcerated.[1]

Sanchez, a visiting fellow at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, linked the researchers’ work to a broader movement in corrections focused on well-being — and to his own experience of incarceration and the barriers he encountered on his path to earning a law degree after release from prison.

Redefining Success

Sanchez stressed that recidivism, traditionally the most important metric in evaluating the effectiveness of corrections programs, has limitations and cannot account for all the achievements that make a difference in the lives of individuals and communities. As an example, he described how two opposite possibilities for his own trajectory after prison — dying by suicide or going to law school — would look identical in recidivism measures.

Recidivism, when used as the sole measure of effectiveness, can mislead policymakers and the public and focuses policy on negative rather than positive outcomes. (Learn more about this concept in “Recidivism Reconsidered: Preserving the Community Justice Mission of Community Corrections” by Jeffrey A. Butts and Vincent Schiraldi, resulting from the NIJ and Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Session on Community Corrections.)

Tripodi, Duane, and O'Connell are all involved in reframing corrections research with human-focused outcomes related to well-being, rather than crime-focused outcomes related to reoffending.

Tripodi shared his team’s NIJ-funded research on a trauma-informed cognitive behavioral program called RISE, or Resilience in Stressful Experiences. Led by Carrie Pettus of Wellbeing & Equity Innovations and Tanya Renn from Florida State University, this randomized controlled trial looked at a group of 18- to 35-year-old men released from prison to Jacksonville and Tallahassee, Florida.[2]

The first phase of the study focused on RISE’s impact while the men were still incarcerated. After four in-prison sessions on psychoeducation and distress reduction, Tripodi and colleagues found that the men showed improvements in substance use disorder severity, impulsivity, and hostility, as well as better coping skills.

The next phase of the research looked at men who continued the RISE program after they reentered the community. Later parts of the program covered topics like emotional regulation, understanding triggers and how to respond to them, processing trauma, and maintaining a positive trajectory.

Tripodi found that eight months after leaving prison, men who had finished 15 RISE sessions had less severe substance use and were less likely to be homeless. They also had high rates of employment, with fewer than 20% unemployed at the eight-month follow-up.

Complementing Tripodi’s evaluation of a trauma-informed approach, Duane’s NIJ-funded research focused on giving people in jails access to mental health services. She, too, focused her evaluation on well-being rather than recidivism.

Duane looked specifically at using telehealth to increase the availability of individual counseling providers serving people in jails. “COVID was a blessing in disguise,” she said, because the pandemic increased the willingness of jail administrators to try telehealth services. Duane surveyed both currently and formerly incarcerated people with opiate addictions who had received remote counseling services in the jail at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in northwestern Massachusetts.[3] Interns who were working toward degrees in clinical social work provided the individual counseling.

Duane found that 90% of respondents reported a strong therapeutic bond (also known as a therapeutic alliance) with their counselor while they were in jail. In other words, they had established a healthy relationship with their counselor and shared beliefs regarding the goals and process of treatment. Distress brought on by the pandemic, combined with opiate addiction, posed a uniquely challenging array of stressors to overcome in therapy.

The high prevalence of strong therapeutic bonds in Duane’s study is notable because jails are not often associated with a therapeutic environment. Duane credited the “mindset from the leadership and from the staff” in the jails for the opportunity to provide mental health support virtually. She also noted that having a remote provider who was not physically connected to the jail environment was part of the program’s success. Individuals receiving therapy were more likely to forge a bond with their provider because they “didn’t see this therapist talking to the correctional workers all the time.”

Sanchez agreed, saying that both during and after incarceration, “I related counseling with jail. That was my connection. That was a ‘jail process,’ where you go to counseling as part of your jail time or prison time.” In contrast, Duane’s research showed that telehealth counseling in jails is not only technologically feasible, but it also increases the likelihood that people will continue seeking counseling services once they have reentered the community. This could be because those services do not have a negative association with the jail.

Changing Prison Culture

Reflecting on the corrections research presented at the 2023 NIJ Conference, O’Connell outlined a shift of focus that he sees happening in the field. “We spent the last 20 years on reentry, and organizations like NIJ have been looking at improving reentry services. Now I think we’re shifting more toward culture, specifically in-prison culture.”

O’Connell’s NIJ-funded research focused on ways to change behavior in prison, such as misconduct and acting out.[4] Explaining why he decided to look at how people behave while they are incarcerated rather than looking at their behavior during and after reentry, O’Connell made the point succinctly: “A lot of people are in prison for a long time.”

Although everyone’s reentry period is short, their time in prison may be much longer, giving the program more time to take root and make an impact. “The idea,” he said, is that “we could use the program to change some of the culture in the institution.”

As part of his study’s eligibility criteria, O’Connell looked at individuals with at least two years left on their sentence. Some people in the study had a decade or more remaining.

Sanchez endorsed O’Connell’s choice to look at ways of helping those who may be far from their release dates. According to Sanchez, “We cannot be neglecting the people who have long-term sentences and who establish the culture inside.” He advocated for broadening the educational opportunities available to all people in prison, regardless of their sentence length or release date. He linked some of the educational barriers he faced to his 30-year sentence length, noting that career-oriented opportunities like computer classes were reserved for those closer to their release date.[5]

O’Connell’s randomized controlled trial at the Delaware Department of Corrections tested the impact of a high-dosage cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention: 55 sessions of 90 minutes each. The sessions took place twice a week for six months and focused on changes in language, thinking, and behavior.

Despite research challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connell found that the CBT program significantly decreased participants’ aggression and sense of personal irresponsibility, both of which can be measures of criminal thinking.

In discussing these outcomes, O’Connell was also quick to explain that any intervention aimed at changing prison culture must confront a fundamental imbalance. Even an intensive program like the one he studied may occupy only three hours in a person’s week. That leaves 165 hours a week on the unit when the prevailing prison culture is likely to go unchallenged.

Both O’Connell and Tripodi pointed to inside-out programs as an effective way of tilting the balance in favor of improving prison cultures. In an inside-out program, students from an outside university and students who are incarcerated take classes together inside the prison.[6]

O’Connell emphasized the transformative effect that an inside-out class has on everyone involved. “Any activity that normalizes the prison environment changes the culture — even if for an hour. Because when I’m in a room on a Monday night with my outside students and my inside students, it’s a classroom, not a cell block, and we’re doing education, not prison.”

He continued, “I have my outside students constantly telling me how enlightening it was for them to be part of that experience. And I’ve had inside students who found out that they could sit in a college classroom, participate, be successful, and do the assignments — so a very empowering thing for them to be able to participate in this.”

O’Connell also pointed to the promise of treatment units within prisons, “where the treatment takes place on the unit and the staff is all trained on the model.” Living in a treatment unit increases each person’s “dosage” of the program, and it can also begin to change the predominant language and interactions inside the prison.

Looking Ahead

An overarching theme of NIJ’s 2023 National Research Conference was the importance of including people with lived experience in all aspects of research, from study design to data collection to dissemination. Tripodi, who has been doing research with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people for more than 15 years, affirmed that “people with lived experiences add meaning to the research.”

O’Connell took the point further, arguing that corrections research on institutional culture cannot move forward without the participation of people who are incarcerated. “You’ve got to empower the people that are there,” he said. “The long timers are respected voices in these institutions. In many ways, I think we could elicit their assistance — but to do that, you’ve got to be legit.”

He added, “We’re going to have to work with people who have, frankly, street cred.” Developing and implementing effective ways to improve cultures inside prisons will require the insights and authority of people who are already credible leaders within those institutions, he noted. 

During the conference, NIJ also announced a new pair of solicitations released jointly with the Bureau of Justice Assistance to fund “research examining how the culture and climate of a corrections agency can be transformed.”[7] These investments — up to $7 million — will support the search for ways to improve the well-being of people who are incarcerated as well as corrections staff.

In the coming years, NIJ is committed to bringing the knowledge gained from this research to the entire field of corrections, reaffirming that the mission of U.S. prisons and jails is not just punishment but also rehabilitation.

Date Published: November 30, 2023