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DU-Led Research Project at Colorado Prison to Drive Innovative Changes to the Prison Environment

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University of Denver

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Sterling Correctional Facility

The University of Denver, the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), and the Urban Institute are releasing initial findings from the first phase of a collaborative research initiative, funded by Arnold Ventures, known as the Prison Research and Innovation Network (PRIN). Colorado is one of five states participating in the five-year action research project to improve the wellbeing of people who live and work inside of U.S. prisons.

Since 2021, DU researchers Shannon Sliva and Jeffrey Lin have been working onsite at Colorado’s largest state prison, Sterling Correctional Facility (SCF), to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the prison environment as experienced by incarcerated people and correctional staff. Over the past year, researchers have worked closely with CDOC administration, incarcerated people, and corrections line staff to develop, pilot, and implement research tools that will accurately capture their experiences, and to analyze the findings of their extensive data collection. “Our partnership with CDOC has been extraordinary,” says Lin. “While many states are talking about reform, the leadership onsite at SCF and at CDOC headquarters has really been willing to ask the hard questions and to be transparent about the findings. This openness to using research to improve policies and practices takes a great deal of courage.”

The results of the research process point to key areas for project partners to take action upon, particularly those related to critical correctional staffing levels and inadequate programming opportunities for incarcerated people. Also of importance is the safety of people who live and work behind bars, with both incarcerated people and corrections staff reporting high levels of trauma exposure. The findings point to promising opportunities for improving prison practices, and a strong desire among both incarcerated people and corrections staff to make positive changes within the institution. Learn more about the survey findings.

The survey findings confirm and highlight many needs that the Colorado Department of Corrections is already aware of and is eager to address in creative ways through the national PRIN initiative. “We want to create real, lasting change in our department, and we can’t do that if we aren’t willing to be honest about the current culture and our collective challenges,” said Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams. “Having accurate and candid data is critical to our efforts to normalize and humanize prison conditions for both staff and inmates. We have already begun to implement numerous initiatives to improve prison conditions including creating inmate/staff councils, peer mentoring programs, higher wage work opportunities for inmates, increased access to secondary educational programming and bringing art, media, theater and writing programs behind the walls. The data gathered through this partnership will help us to develop a strategic path forward and ensure that our decisions are guided by the best data available.”  

Research findings are drawn from a mixed methods assessment including surveys, in-depth interviews, and administrative departmental data. Surveys were administered in October 2021 with approximately 47% of correctional staff and 25% incarcerated people at SCF completing the surveys. More than 120 hours of in-depth interviews were conducted between March and August 2021. DU researchers Shannon Sliva and Jeffrey Lin co-lead the project, which uses community based participatory action research, a method that prioritizes the inclusion of those who are confined in the prison and who work there.

The research team and onsite advisory boards of staff and incarcerated people are now forming strategy teams at SCF to dive deeper into the survey results and develop innovative responses. They are also working with advisors from several state agencies, the State Legislature and various advocacy groups. “The key to this project is participation,” says Sliva. “This research involves as many people as possible - especially those who are directly impacted - to try and solve old problems in new ways.” Some policies and practices will be able to start immediately, and others may take more time to plan. The project continues through 2024. During that time, the three parties expect to try a variety of new ideas and assess their effectiveness. Together, they hope to unlock new solutions to the serious challenges in prisons across the country.

To learn more about the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative and the Network of 5 states, please click here.