The Arkansas Department of Corrections has awarded the University of Arkansas at Little Rock a multi-year contract of more than $453,000 to study and assess prison culture and climate in Arkansas.
“This multi-year project, funded by existing DOC revenues, will be the first of its kind done on the State’s adult corrections system,” said Solomon Graves, cabinet secretary of Arkansas Department of Corrections. “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.”
UA Little Rock criminal justice professors Mary Parker, Robert Lytle, and Molly Smith will lead the four-year research project.
“This is a project that I’ve been wanting to work on for a long time,” said Parker, the principal investigator. “I have more than 20 years of experience on the Board of Corrections. This research project is the next step in continuing my service to the state of Arkansas.”
The study will be conducted from May 1, 2021, to April 30, 2025. The $453,805 award also provides funding for a graduate assistant, Cassidy Mitchell, who is a criminal justice doctoral student at UA Little Rock.
“Our faculty in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology continues to raise the bar in community-engaged research,” said Dr. Tusty ten Bensel, director of the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at UA Little Rock. “This project is a great example of how our faculty and students engage with agency partners to improve our understanding of how the criminal justice system works, specifically in corrections.”
Each individual correctional unit in the Arkansas Department of Corrections has a unique history, mission, and staffing as well as varied inmate, resident, and client makeup. Each unit in the state’s system will be studied individually before larger conclusions and recommendations are made for the Arkansas Department of Corrections as a whole.
The first phase will include studies on Cummins, Varner, East Arkansas, Tucker, and Tucker Max. Phase two will include Ouachita River, Wrightsville Complex, and Delta. Next, the third phase will include North Central, Grimes, McPherson, Pine Bluff units, and independent work release centers. The final phase of study will include Community Correction Centers and Probation and Parole Offices.
“This has the potential to be a game-changer for the Department of Corrections. For the past decade, we have worked toward increasing our utilization of data-informed decision making,” Graves said. “Along with our newly created Quality Improvement and Program Evaluation unit, this UA Little Rock partnership will give our Board and Leadership Team the type of actionable data we have only dreamed about.”
The research project seeks to understand all aspects of prison life in Arkansas. To accomplish this, the research team will survey offenders, prison staff, family members of offenders, and volunteers.
“We are one of the few large-scale projects that includes visitors and volunteers,” Parker said. “Families are a critical dynamic to incarceration and adding their perspective to the study gives us invaluable information on the impact of incarceration on friends and families of those incarcerated.Most people do not realize it but hundreds of volunteers work in prison providing religious programming, therapy groups, dog training, meditation, etc. for the inmate population. We will be surveying a sample of this population to gain their perspectives on what we can do better in our individual prison to improve multiple dynamics of the culture in prison.”
The research team will also conduct focus groups with medical, educational programming, unit support, management, and training staff as well as probation and parole officers and staff members.
“I am very excited about this project for several reasons,” Lytle said. “For example, I’m excited about the opportunity to learn more about and help inform practices related to correctional staffing. Corrections can be a challenging field to work in, but I believe it can be equally satisfying. Corrections staff have the ability to help people in need, protect the community, and provide a public service. My hope for this project is that, over the next several years, we will be able to support efforts to improve correctional work environments and inmate management.”
At the end of the study, UA Little Rock will provide a final report with conclusions and recommendations about each unit in the prison system, a review of the educational programming throughout the system, recommendations with corresponding best practices for DOC administration, and recommendations to improve the culture and climate throughout the system.
“As far back as early 2019, the now Division of Correction began discussing the need for an external review of various elements of our prison operations,” Graves said. “With the passage of Act 910 of 2019, the benefits of this project to the entire adult corrections system began being discussed. UA Little Rock immediately came to the forefront as a natural partner for this project. The Department of Corrections has utilized doctoral interns from the UA Little Rock Department of Criminal Justice for several years. Additionally, multiple faculty members have conducted research projects involving our populations over the years and Dr. Mary Parker-Reed, a former Criminal Justice Department chairwoman, was a longtime member of the Board of Corrections who regularly advocated for a project of this scope during her tenure.”
In the upper right photo, Dr. Mary Parker will lead the four-year research project along with fellow criminal justice professors Robert Lytle and Molly Smith.