Partnership provides eye-opening look at prisoner recidivism

By Sandra Snyder

In a perfect world, incarceration would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Those who’ve made mistakes that resulted in a prison term would not only learn from those mistakes but learn from what others are willing to teach them upon release and never see the inside of a cell again.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, of course, and what others are ready to teach is not always what prisoners are ready to learn.

“You can tell a prisoner to do A, B and C, but if they don’t buy into it, it’s not going to mean anything,” said Dr. Loreen Wolfer, a University of Scranton professor of sociology and criminal justice.

That’s why Dr. Wolfer and students in two of her classes, Research Methods for the Social Sciences and Statistics for the Social Sciences, have teamed up on a multi-year project with the Employment Opportunity & Training Center of Northeastern Pennsylvania to study recidivism intervention at the Lackawanna County Prison.

High rates of recidivism, or relapse into criminal behavior, have long been part of a complex problem not only for the criminal-justice system but for those trying to make a meaningful difference.

The way Dr. Wolfer sees it, one way to try to combat the problem is to offer programs that prisoners themselves say they want and therefore might actually use.

That’s the basic idea behind the partnership with EOTC, which, in its first year, is in the needs-assessment stage.

Dr. Wolfer and her students have committed themselves to finding out which types of programs prisoners request and actually might take advantage of once they find themselves back in the outside world.

That starts with plain-and-simple asking, which is exactly what the University team is doing in the first year of this project, which can last as long as five years.

Preliminary findings, Dr. Wolfer said, are that prisoners’ top concerns as they near release are using drugs and alcohol, reconnecting with family and children and avoiding problematic friends.

“But the No. 1 issue,” she said, “is actually finding a job that pays a living wage.”

“One of the key classes they want that they are not getting right now is computer skills, which would be directly relevant to finding a job,” Dr.  Wolfer explained. “About two-thirds of the sample want to attend computer classes in prison.”

That sample, Dr. Wolfer said, “is pretty big,” with 256 current prisoners having been preliminarily surveyed by the University-EOTC team.

“Another big issue is help with drugs and alcohol,” Dr. Wolfer said.

Knowing what prisoners want and need, she said, from help with child care to help with relationships, is crucial to knowing what to offer and should be a huge help to EOTC, which seeks to provide meaningful programs that can cut down on recidivism.

Relevant, targeted programming is a key goal of EOTC’s Jane Augustine, head of research, Dr. Wolfer said.

EOTC simply cannot spend all of its money, time and resources offering programs the prisoners themselves have not identified as a need, she said.

“Whether the prisoner agrees is going to influence utilization” of any programming, she explained.

EOTC will use the University’s information to seek additional funding for its programs and to form relevant partnerships.

“Having the opportunity to work with Dr. Wolfer and her students has been a fantastic opportunity,” Augustine said, noting the challenge of taking on a needs-based survey.

That survey was well-received within the prison, she said.

“I am happy to report no one refused,” Augustine added.

The University-EOTC relationship is not just about information gathering, however, but about collecting hard data to see if the provided programming actually worked and cut down on re-entry.

“Once we find out the needs and they start putting programs in place,” Dr. Wolfer said, “we have a confidential tracking number in place.”

That means the project leaders can actually track who has taken advantage of classes and whether they return to prison down the road.

Removing barriers to program attendance, then, is a crucial goal of the partnership, as is immersing students in real-world research.

Dr. Wolfer’s students are undertaking this project as a means of service learning, she said, and as a final-exam paper.

“This is how my students learn to gather research and to assess statistics,” she said. “They know the surveys they wrote and the information they gathered will be used by EOTC,” which is a motivational factor as the students seek to hone their skills for the job market.

“We have what we call a sociology advisory board,” Dr. Wolfer explained. The purpose is “to make sure we are giving our students skills in the classroom that will directly translate into job-market skills.”

Dr. Wolfer said University professors meet with a board of representatives from local agencies every two or three years to ensure that curricula line up with market needs.

“One of the big things people are saying is we need research skills,” Dr. Wolfer said, explaining that both criminal justice and sociology majors need to take a research and a quantitative course.

“We strongly suggest statistics,” she said.

Every year, the research-methods class partners with a government or local agency to do research work. In previous years, the University, which has focused on prisoner statistics for several years, worked with the federal Department of Probation.

The students begin their major project in fall, which is when they actually conduct the research, and like to finish in spring, which is when they analyze data, Dr. Wolfer said.

Students cannot have direct contact with the prisoners, she noted. Rather, they “instrumentalize” for EOTC, meaning they create the survey, EOTC administers it, and the University analyzes it.

One of the key benefits to students is learning what is called the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, or SPSS, Dr. Wolfer said.

“If you go into the social-service fields, they want to see that you have proficiency,” she said. “We tell students to put on their resume that they had to work with SPSS.”

Dr. Wolfer also noted that the University takes extreme care with its students as well as the prisoners and works in tandem with the University’s Institutional Review Board, which oversees ethics at the University.

“IRB approval is needed for everything I do,” she said. “I have to tell them about the participants. It’s very complicated because this is a protected population. They are following very strict rules.”

Dr. Wolfer sees the potential for a long-term relationship with EOTC, but for now is committed to at least the next three to five years.

In years two and three, she said, the University team will assess the types of programs EOTC is offering most and who is attending those programs. In years three through five, the team will look at recidivism and relate it to the fears expressed in year one, as well as program attendance or non-attendance that same year.

The multi-year partnership fits well into the overall EOTC strategy.

“Our goal coming into this project was to learn something significant about the population we serve,” Augustine said. “No matter how big the finding or small, anything we can do to enhance/change/modify our programming to better meet the needs of the population we serve is beneficial.”

“This project will ultimately benefit all involved,” she continued. “We anxiously await the outcome. This experience helps all of us to build better communities.”