Research Agenda Transforming Prisons through Research
An Agenda for Sweeping Reform
Cassandra Ramdath, Bethany Young
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Despite their scale and impact, prisons are among the least transparent and most understudied public institutions in the United States. After decades of neglect, US prisons have recently been the subject of calls for further oversight and renewed efforts to document and put forth more humane, innovative models of confinement.

Research and data should be at the center of efforts to better understand and improve prison environments, promote transparency of poor conditions, implement and evaluate innovative reforms, and hold systems accountable for making transformative change. But as US prisons are uniquely closed systems, they too often lack the data or research capacity required for much-needed evidence-based improvement.

This research agenda calls for better metrics on prison climates and conditions to identify areas of improvement, support oversight efforts, hold prison leadership accountable, prompt changes to policies and practices, and provide baselines from which to measure the impacts of those changes. These metrics should be collected routinely, integrated into prison operations and management, and publicly disseminated so lasting improvements to our carceral environments can be made and sustained.

Key Takeaways

This agenda is a guide for the field on how research and evidence can and should be leveraged to promote transparency and accountability in carceral systems and transform prisons into safer, more humane environments. It sets forth guiding principles and presents concrete strategies for advancing transformative change in US prisons, reducing racial inequities, improving metrics of well-being, advancing transparency and accountability, and more broadly promoting human dignity in carceral settings.

This agenda has three overarching goals:

  • Identify opportunities to build research that evaluates and ultimately facilitates bold, innovative prison reform.
  • Provide guidance on metrics that promote meaningful change in prison conditions and climates.
  • Highlight research gaps that could be filled to support an array of impactful reforms.

Moreover, the agenda prioritizes the following topical areas:

  • Racial equity in prison research. There is a direct line from the history of slavery in America to present-day mass incarceration, and the resulting racial disparities require transformative research and policy to be grounded in principles of racial equity. Researchers must be able to more accurately capture and measure racial biases and design and conduct research that can elevate and disrupt systemic biases.
  • Prison and health. Research should be done to understand the health of people living and working in prisons and the nature and quality of the care they receive. It should advance policies and practices that foster positive health outcomes and fulfill government’s constitutional obligation to provide adequate health care to all people.
  • Diverse populations. Not only were prisons designed for cisgender men, the overwhelming bulk of empirical carceral research focuses squarely on the experiences of cisgender men. Research should explore incarceration through the lenses of the identities of all prison populations, including cisgender women, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, and immigrants.
  • Recidivism and desistance. The vast majority of studies on the postrelease outcomes of people who are incarcerated are singularly focused on recidivism. The lack of available data on relevant variables during incarceration challenges a desistence lens. Generating information on when, how, and why people who are incarcerated desist as a result of experiences during incarceration can shed light on how prison conditions ought to be changed.
  • Prison culture and design. To understand prison cultures, researchers must better understand prisons’ organizational cultures and physical environments. These key features shape relationships between prison management and staff, between staff and people who are incarcerated, and between people who are incarcerated. esearch should examine how prison designs can be conducive to rehabilitation instead of punishment and focus on promoting healthier environments and rehabilitation.
  • Officer health and wellness. Research should be conducted on the nature of and challenges associated with prison officers’ health and wellness. Researchers should seek to understand how to improve the working environment for prison staff by collecting and analyzing data on the factors that lead to burnout, attrition, cynicism, and the disrespect and maltreatment of people who are incarcerated.
  • Data in transformative research. Prisons should enable the routine collection and public dissemination of data on critical metrics of the prison experience. Prisons that are willing to do so are more likely to make transformative changes to their policies and practices. Furthermore, federal and state governments and philanthropic entities should acknowledge and leverage their influence by supporting data-building capacities and evaluation that drive equitable and transformative change.

Lastly, the following theory of change guides this research agenda: if prison administrators open their doors to researchers; support participatory research partnerships in their facilities and become willing partners in the systematic and rigorous documentation of prison life; partner on innovations born of an empirical understanding of prison climate, culture, and context; and implement rigorously evaluated changes, then prisons can be transformed into safer, more humane, rehabilitative, and more equitable environments for the people who are confined and work in them.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Prisons Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice Mass incarceration
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
Research Methods Qualitative data analysis Research methods and data analytics Participatory research
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