Researchers Try To Ease Prison Problems

by Judy Toll
September 8, 1983
Volume 5, Numbrt 1
While his colleagues traveled to France and Germany, Kevin Wright spent the summer in prison.

Wright, assistant professor of political science and research associate in the Center for Social Analysis, is gathering information to measure inmate adjustment and adaptation to prison life. The data is intended to help match personal needs with prison environments to alleviate some of the problems at the state’s overcrowded correctional facilities.

Wright and two graduate students, Jean Harris and Lou Albert, are working with the state Department of Correctional Services, which has received a $148,465 grant from the National Institute of Justice to improve correctional classification of inmates.

''A lot of inmates do well in some settings, but not well at all in other settings," Wright said. "For example, an inmate at a maximum security prison who has been doing well may request to be moved to a medium security facility as he nears the date of his release. He wants to go to the medium security prison for more freedom. He'll have more freedom, but he'll also have less privacy and he may have some problems in that sort of setting. He then ends up getting in trouble right away (and jeopardizing his

Graduate student Louis Albert, right, plays a tape recording of instructions recorded in Spanish to help two prisoners complete a survey.

"We hope to identify that kind of individual," Wright said, "and we hope to save correctional facilities, save money and save guards."

Wright and his colleagues also are studying and classifying the differences among prisons. The institutions are differentiated not only by security levels, but by living arrangements as well, Wright said.

Maximum security facilities have only single cells, whereas medium security prisons may have open dormitories or semi-enclosed dormitories and a few single cells.

"You can feel the difference from facility to facility within the same security level," Wright said. "Some of the facilities are more dehumanizing and others are very mellow."

Wright developed a survey and tested it at two prisons in June. Starting in July, Wright, Harris and Albert began visiting the first of 10 facilities-five maximum security and five medium security-to interview a total of 1,000 inmates.

The group travels to the prison site on Monday and meets with the superintendent (warden) to arrange details of their visit. The next three days are spent interviewing inmates, and on Thursday the group heads for home. This schedule will be repeated weekly through mid-September.

Their first visit was to Greenhaven, a maximum security institution surrounded by an unadorned, massive concrete wall set among placid, rolling hills.

"Some of the inmates are very c:osed... . you can see it in their faces," said Wright, who has done other research in prisons. "They come up and see what's happening and leave immediately. They're all very paranoid and that includes the guards. We spent a lot of time convincing them we're not spies, we're not the FBI, we're not from the parole board."

Usually, it was the more literate inmates who talked to them the longest, Wright said, adding that many of the prisoners spoke quite freely and openly in front of the guards.

The three-part surveys included written questionnaires for English-speaking, literate inmates, and taped, oral tests for non-literate and Spanish-speaking inmates.

Inmates were asked to rank their preferences in eight different areas, such as privacy, activity, safety. They were then questioned about those same things at their specific institution (Are they safe? Do they have enough privacy?). The third section was designed to measure their adjustment to prison life (Are they comfortable? Do they get enough sleep? Enough to eat?).

Although data has not yet been analyzed, Wright said his impression is that prisoners are "very negative" about some things.

"They're negative about most of the guards and the ways the guards treat them, but they do like some of the guards, he said.  "Many of them feel safe in prison and privacy is not an issue for them." Wright referred to inmates at Greenhaven, where prisoners have single cells, in contrast to the dormitory-like facilities at medium security prisons.

"They often criticized us because they said we were not getting the important things ... things that are important the them like TVs in their rooms," Wright said. "I've done surveys in other areas and no one ever likes your survey instrument, so inmates are no different in that respect."

Wright, who has visited prisons before, was prepared in some ways for institutional ambience-the series of double gates (barred doors that slam shut behind people before the next barred door is opened) that seal off corridors; the highly sensitive metal detectors for visitors; the thorough search of all papers brought into the prison; and the ban on wearing green pants-a color reserved for inmates.

"You really can't prepare anyone else for the experience," Wright said, pointing out that it was the first maximum security prison visit for Albert and Harris. The graduate studentsdescribed the facility as "impressive" and as a place that gave them "an eerie feeling."

Harris, the only woman in the group except for a female corrections officer who accompanied them, wondered how the prison's male population would react to her.

"I got a lot more respect than I expected," said Harris. "Prisoners stared and when I caught them looking, they were embarrassed. But I really didn't have anybody say anything to me I couldn't handle."

Wright said many of the literate inmates preferred to take the oral tests so they could "sit and talk to a woman who is not an authority figure." Quite a few correctional officers are women, he said.

Wright said most of the prisoners interviewed were helpful, even to the extent of writing to the researchers later to elaborate on details of prison life.

"Inmates have extremely fragile egos and anything they can do to build up their ego is good," Wright said. "Being helpful to us and talking to us gives them satisfaction."

The researchers said one of the most interesting aspects of their work was getting to know Inmates through conversations. "We met some real characters," Wright said.

"At various points we found out what some of the inmates are in for," Wright said. "We would develop some rapport with a person and gain some insight into his potential. He might be a verbal, articulate, bright individual. But when you find out what he is in prison for, you are taken aback by that information."

Albert described one "character" he met-a Jewish man who was described as being quite religious. Albert said there are few Jews in prison, and this man, like many other inmates, held onto his religion to maintain a sense of individuality in prison and to gain certain advantages (such as kosher food). This intelligent man, Albert said, strangled a man, killed his wife and allegedly is connected to the theft some $250 million not yet recovered police.

The prison experience was "about what I expected, but a lot better than I'd feared," said Albert, who worked a time as a deputy sheriff in Akron Ohio. "It's a whole different world and you have to be aware of where you are,  your attitude and what you say, lt's whole different way of life and on, hope I never have to participate in."

Wright said when the trio visited the prison for the first time, they had to explain their mission in detail to  the inmates. "But that's the last time we’ll have to do that," he said. "Word travels faster than the speed of light.... By the time we get to the next place, the inmates will know we're coming."

He explained that there is a highly structured inter-prison communications system. News travels quickly between co-defendants (at differed facilities) and family members. Wright said.

The researchers believe they we well-received by the inmates, and do not foresee any problems gathering I formation at the other institutions.

"I think they appreciated the fact that we were there asking their opinion-not many people do that-and then using their opinions to make policy," Wright said. "Even some of the most hard-nose, security-minded superintendents have been very excited about what we're going to do."

He said guards and administrator are supportive of the research because anything that helps to reduce problem at the institution helps them, too
"We're just trying to make inmates, little happier in their placement, Albert said. "if there is less friction It will be better for everyone."

Wright said the data will be analyze( and a report of the findings prepared within a year.

August 31, 1999
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