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Extensive Study To Assess Climate Inside Arkansas State Prisons

Cummins Unit Prison
Michael Hibblen

A four-year study by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will look at the climate and culture inside state prisons.

A $453,000 contract has been awarded to the school by the Department of Corrections to conduct the study, which will include visiting each prison in the state to talk with inmates, staff and visitors. Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves said it will be a first-of-its-kind study for the state.

“It will not only review operational issues within the Divisions of Correction and Community Correction, along with the Correctional School District, it will study issues related to staff recruitment, retention, and the efficacy of offender programs,” Graves said in a statement.

Dr. Mary Parker-Reed, former chairwoman of UA Little Rock’s School of Justice and Criminology, is one of those who will be leading the project. She spoke with KUAR News about the project from the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern after a meeting at the prison.

It sounds like a very wide-ranging topic with a lot of issues to look at. First, tell me the goal here.

There is a nationwide problem with staff retention in correctional facilities, and there's also an ongoing problem with disciplinary inmate programming options, and those all lead into cultural issues of correctional facilities themselves. So, we were asked to do this study to look at why people stay in employment with the ADC, why people leave, what factors are most important to them in their jobs, how we can improve the culture for the staff and the culture for the inmate populations.

The better match we can make between the staff and the unit, the higher the level of commitment we can make between the unit and the inmates who are housed there and the more stable environment we have for people to work and live in.

You'll be talking with people at each of the different prisons around the state. How are these facilities different? Why the need to meet with people at each one?

Well, every one of them develops unique and different cultural characteristics. So, imposing some kind of standards top down doesn't work when you have prison units that are as spread out as ours are. And we need to understand the culture of each individual unit so we can determine what works best for them in the recruitment and retention of employees, what works best for them in terms of programming for the inmate population.

This unit in particular here in Malvern is a new unit. It's one of our newest units. It has had a very stable employee population until recently and something has changed here and we need to understand what the dynamics of that were.

When you look at southeast Arkansas, you've got some really big units down there and they've employed a lot of the individuals in that area of the state and they're in some ways running out of employee bases for them to bring in to work in the prison units down there.

So, we need to understand what's happening and what's unique about each unit before we can understand what's happening with the whole system.

And you'll also be talking with inmates?

Yes. You can't do this kind of research without looking at what inmates’ perceptions are, how they're being served.

Every relationship in prison is an interaction. It's usually an interaction between two people. One of them is usually staff and the other one is usually an inmate. And we need to understand what happens in those interactions. We need to understand how the staff member feels about those interactions and how the inmate feels about those interactions.

That's an important step in defining what will work for one unit and what may not work for another unit in stability, keeping those facilities well-staffed, well-programmed, well-managed.

Anything else worth adding about this study?

Well, we're doing a couple of unique things. One is we will do a randomized survey of family and friends of inmates and we'll be taking that random sample from visitation lists. We are aware that COVID has changed visitation for corrections, but we still want to hear from the people who have been visiting their loved ones or friends for years and what their perceptions are of how our correctional facilities are doing.

And we'll also be interviewing volunteers. Most people don't realize it, but there are hundreds of people who volunteer in prisons across the state every day, and we want to know what those people think. The ADC is not fully open yet for volunteers, but we can still gather quite a bit of information there that will help us understand how and why volunteers continue to do their work inside correctional institutions.

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