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Interviewing Inmates for Change

Senior Molly Jeffries (center) shares her experiences interviewing inmates at Vermont correctional facilities with classmates Allie Diefendorf (R) and Eliza Novickn in Professor Kathy Fox's Criminal Justice Seminar. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Senior Molly Jeffries became aware of the correlation between income and education and incarceration rates in her upper-level criminal justice course. It wasn’t until she sat across from an inmate at a Vermont correctional facility while conducting a survey for the Department of Corrections that she saw the reality of being on the wrong side of that equation.

“As sociology students our focus is on the fine line between the two,” says Jeffries. “This project showed us just how fine that line really is and that it could easily be me on the other side. This experience really humanized all of the people we interviewed and made me realize how lucky we are.”

Jeffries’ transformative experience was exactly what sociology professors Alice Fothergill and Kathy Fox were hoping for when they accepted a request from Jill Evans, women and family services coordinator at the Vermont Department of Corrections, to create a survey to learn more about the families and children of prisoners in Vermont and how they are impacted by the incarceration of their loved one.

Evans wanted Vermont-specific data to influence policy and practice within the Department of Corrections to make it more family friendly. “Research shows that when inmates are more connected to family during incarceration and re-entry, recidivism rates are lower," Evans says. "We have plenty of information on inmates, but not much on their families and how their children are impacted." But, she says, evidence is growing that maintaining contact with incarcerated parents means better outcomes for children. "I don’t have the capacity to interview hundreds of inmates, so this collaboration has been very beneficial for me and for the students."

A department-wide effort

Fothergill started the process in her Service Learning Internship seminar, which typically has students work 10-15 hours per week at a local non-profit agency or organization. Professor Nick Danigelis, an expert in survey construction, helped design the survey.

“I can’t think of anything like this where everyone in the department worked together on a project with students and a community partner,” said Fothergill. “It’s an important step because the department feels like it has the skills to be engaged in important policy and program evaluation. That’s what we’re here for as sociologists – to actually affect policy and outcomes, not just study problems.”

Fox continued the evaluation this fall in her Criminal Justice Seminar resulting in the interviewing of 379 inmates (25 percent of the Vermont’s total in-state prison population) at Vermont’s seven correctional facilities. Results from the 90-plus question survey were recently tabulated by students in Professor Jennifer Strickler’s Fundamentals of Social Research course for analysis by Fox’s 18 students.

“As a teacher, seeing students taking ownership and doing service to the state has made this one of the most rewarding experiences in my 20 years of teaching,” Fox says. “My students love the idea that the results of their work might inform policy that could help these individuals. I think we’ll make a difference.”

Research reality

Many of the students expressed anxiety about interviewing inmates and asking them personal questions. Some students volunteered at area prisons in advance of conducting the surveys and led activities like dance classes, open gyms, and “teen night” where teenage children could visit their incarcerated mothers. Senior Patrick Kennedy found himself running an open gym by himself with 60 inmates one evening. “It was a little intimidating at first,” said Kennedy. "But once I got to know them a little better it was fine. It was good to be able to interact with them in that setting.”

The survey started with basic questions about length of incarceration, release dates and living situations prior to incarceration, and then moved into questions about family members. Inmates were asked a series of open-ended questions about who they consider to be important family members, if they visited them in jail, and if they faced any obstacles in getting to the prison such as a lack of resources or transportation. The fact that many of the inmates were the same age as the students interviewing them really hit home for some in the class.

“It really impacted me when one of the people I was interviewing wrote down that they were the same age as me,” said senior Alexander Loomis, who has lined up an internship with Pathways Vermont, a transitional house for inmates re-entering society. “Staring that person in the eye and thinking about all of the factors outside of their control that led to them being in there and me being on the outside was pretty impactful. It changed the way I think about the criminal justice system and the people who are in it.”

Students also asked inmates a series of questions about visitation policies, which Evans says can create distance between parents and children like the “no-contact” rule which means that incarcerated parents can only have physical contact – a brief embrace – with children under the age of 13 . One student said an inmate didn’t want to see her kids because it was too hard not to hold them. Another said it was dehumanizing to have family members see them in such a degrading situation. Custody issues also played a role, making it difficult for inmates to see their children with other caretakers.

Students said they were eager to analyze the data and come up with policy recommendations that they will present to the Vermont Department of Corrections executive team and the Agency of Human Services director of integrated family services. “It would be incredibly rewarding," says Jeffries, who plans to work in criminal justice, "if our research helped create policies that have a positive effect on the lives of the people we interviewed.”

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