Momentum is beginning to shift toward addressing the effects of mass incarceration, and Arizona State University has several initiatives to address the growing concern over the fate of people in prison, how it affects their families and what happens when they rejoin society.
The programs in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions work inside the prisons and in the community and involve undergraduates, grad students and the public:
• Members of the public can gain insight from a simulation workshop on April 9 in which they’ll experience what it’s like to navigate life after being released from prison.
• Researchers and practitioners will gather for the four-day National Children of Incarcerated Parents Conference held by the Center for Child Well-Being next month to discuss best practices and hear from experts.
Nationwide, about 2.2 million people were incarcerated as of December 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, while about an additional 4.5 million people were under supervision, either probation or parole. That means that about 1 in 38 adults, or 2.6 percent of people age 18 or older in the United States, were under some form of correctional supervision at year-end 2016. Despite declining crime rates and sentencing changes, which led to a decrease in the number of imprisoned people over the previous decade, the United States still has the highest rate of incarceration in the world — at 655 inmates per 100,000 people, according to the World Prison Brief.
When people leave incarceration, they often fall into what is called “the second prison” of poverty and homelessness. Formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of more than 27 percent — higher than the unemployment rate during the Great Depression, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
But several bipartisan efforts are underway to address the effects of mass incarceration. In December, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, a bill to repeal some of the harsh sentencing measures passed decades ago. In Arizona, a poll by a bipartisan lobbying group found that 80 percent of those surveyed felt it was important to reduce the number of people in prison, although several bills on the issue died in the Legislature.
About 95 percent of incarcerated people eventually will leave prison, so focusing on their outcomes is critical, according to Kevin Wright, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
"Our ASU students are changing the mindset of people who have had years of experience with criminal justice that is negative and now they see a more promising future.”
— Kevin Wright, ASU associate professor
Wright is the director of the Center for Correctional Solutions, a year-old unit devoted to research, education and community outreach. The center houses the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which has been offered since 2016 but will be at Perryville for the first time next fall. That’s important because work with men in prison is not necessarily translatable to women in prison, Wright said.
“We can’t say all the results we come up with will tidily work with women. There’s good reasons to think that’s not the case,” he said.
“Women who are incarcerated often have different histories — often there’s more abuse, victimization, addiction and financial dependence, and children play a role.”
The Inside-Out class will include 10 undergraduate ASU students, who will take a van once a week to Perryville to meet with 10 women who are incarcerated there. Together, they’ll study motivational justice. There are no prerequisites, but the undergraduates will be interviewed before being accepted. The past few classes have included students from a variety of majors, which has enriched the experience, Wright said.
"In the last class we had students from business, finance and global studies. The perspectives they brought are what we need to come up with innovative solutions,” he said.
Prospective students at Perryville must have a high school equivalency diploma and no misconduct points.
“One of the things everyone loves is that we don’t read criminology and justice — we read organization systems and social psychology, what makes a good team and what inspires people,” he said. “We take all that general knowledge developed elsewhere and apply it to criminal justice and our approach to rehabilitating people.”
Last year, an ASU master’s degree student analyzed the results of surveys taken by the participants before and after the classes. As expected, the undergraduates become more understanding of why people end up in prison. But the view of the “inside” people changed as well after they met ASU students who plan careers in law enforcement, Wright said.
“They no longer think, ‘I hate police.’ They think, ‘Megan will be a police officer.’ Our ASU students are changing the mindset of people who have had years of experience with criminal justice that is negative, and now they see a more promising future.”
The Center for Correctional Solutions has other initiatives as well, including the Arizona Transformation Project, a think tank based at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence that includes alumni from the first Inside-Out class held there. Research projects are evaluating whether the state’s Second Chance Centers are helping to reduce recidivism and how restrictive housing affects the mental health of inmates and correctional officers.
Currently, a doctoral student is creating an employment program for the women at Perryville, Wright said.
“She is doing interviews because we don’t want to take something off the shelf and assume it will work with the women,” he said.
“We’re asking, ‘What’s the best programming you’ve ever had?’ and ‘What’s your dream job?’ to develop something that will make an impact.”
When a person goes to prison, the effects reverberate among the family. In 2014, people in the Phoenix community came to the Center for Child Well-Being and asked for help in addressing the needs of children whose parents are incarcerated. So the center held a daylong conference, which was informative but didn’t lead to any momentum, according to Judy Krysik, an associate professor in the School of Social Work and director of the center.
So last year, the center held its first national conference.
“We had people with lived experience — people who were children of incarcerated parents and maybe still had parents who were incarcerated. We had parents who had been incarcerated. Researchers. Advocates. People from the faith-based community. Government agencies such as probation, child welfare, corrections,” she said.
“That was a little bit tense because people don’t always agree or see things the same way. And it was a healthy tension, where people were able to voice their dissatisfaction with certain aspects of research or policy or practice.”
For example, research in this field often focuses on poor educational outcomes or generational incarceration.
“That’s disturbing for children who are trying to do well and feel they are doing well,” she said. “There needs to be a better balance there.”
Families face so much stigma when a parent is incarcerated that sometimes they’ll lie to the children about why the parent isn’t there.
“Sometimes they’ll tell the child that the parent has a job at the prison,” Krysik said. “And a lot of times the child knows they’re not being told the truth, and that creates an even bigger sense of shame around the issue.”
The second conference, on April 14-17, will bring together experts to share best practices, including training for teachers who have children of incarcerated parents in their classrooms.
And the participants also will focus on research.
“There’s pockets of research in different places with children of different ages,” she said. “There’s a little research on visiting programs and there’s a little research on re-entry programs, but there’s nothing that lays out a framework or tells us where our gaps in research are,” she said. “And that’s what we’re trying to put together this year, really mapping that out and making sense of it.”
The conference also will be a mini film festival, featuring four documentaries: “Run for His Life,” by photographer Pete Monsanto, whose father is serving a life sentence; “Foster,” about foster families, which will be on HBO later this year; “Tres Maison Dasan,” about three boys whose fathers are in prison, and “The Sentence,” about a mother serving a 15-year term, which also will feature a discussion by the director, Rudy Valdez.
The public will get a unique opportunity to delve into this issue at a “re-entry simulation” workshop on April 9 in which they can experience the first month of post-release life. Each participant assumes the identity of an ex-offender and receives a packet of materials explaining criminal background, living situation, job situation and weekly tasks that must be accomplished to avoid being sent back to prison. Then the participants try to navigate their new lives. A guided discussion will follow.
“We hope to influence the practices and the policies and to reduce some of the barriers for people re-integrating into society,” Krysik said.
“There’s is growing recognition that it’s such a loss of human capital and creates so much havoc with so many families.”
Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now