UMass Lowell profs launch landmark study of prison life

08/06/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By MICHAEL LAFLEUR

LOWELL -- Beyond an exploding inmate population, the perilous world inside U.S. prisons has changed little in the past several decades.

While the overall rates of suicides, inmate and staff assaults and riots have remained constant since the 1970s, the absolute volume of such incidents has increased markedly, experts say. Only the huge spike in the number of federal and state prisoners has kept the rates relatively steady.

Some criminologists argue that the root cause for the seeming intractability of these problems is a prison management culture that fails to focus on the reasons for disruptive behavior.

'What you have is a whole generation now of get-tough corrections commissioners who may or may not understand that there's a difference between (maintaining) order and control,' said James Byrne, a criminal-justice professor at UMass Lowell.

Now, the National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency, has launched an Institutional Culture Initiative in the first attempt to change managerial mindsets and approaches in prisons experiencing violence issues.

Byrne and fellow UMass Lowell criminal-justice professor Don Hummer have won part of a three-year grant to evaluate the endeavor, collaborating with professors at the University of Maryland.

'This is the first attempt to deal with the problem that people have been talking about for 30 years,' Byrne said.

He and Hummer already have received $75,000 and expect similar funding for each of the next two years to finish their analysis. Byrne anticipates visiting federal prisons in 20 states. All have asked to be included in the project, a pilot program for assessing and changing prison culture.

'In terms of the federal data, the response to the violence was uniform,' Byrne said. 'It looks to me that they're pretty much doing uniform sanctions across a wide spectrum of behaviors.'

He declined to name the prisons he is studying, though he said they're not in Massachusetts. National Institute of Corrections officials could not be reached for comment.

A key step, Byrne said, is moving from using discipline alone as a response to infractions to coupling punishment with examining why an inmate is disruptive drug abuse, fear of other inmates, grievances with staff or a dangerous disposition then taking steps to address those problems.

It also involves identifying and intervening in some relatively minor infractions that might otherwise be ignored.

'It's the 'broken windows' approach to prison violence,' Byrne said. 'If you don't deal with the small stuff, it's going to turn into big stuff.'

At one federal prison he visited in the southern United States, for example, Byrne said he discovered that prison officials last year logged 105 inmate grievances but acted on only one of them.

Though frivolous inmate grievances are legendary in prison life, such a minuscule response rate would seem to suggest that most inmates in that prison consider its formal grievance system a 'farce,' Hummer said.

In such a climate, 'there are likely to be informal responses,' such as attacking a corrections officer or retaliating against a fellow prisoner, he said. 'These are retributive people,' he added.

A formal grievance system that is seen as more responsive to prisoner complaints could help to reduce some of the violence in that particular institution, Hummer said.

Michael Lafleur's e-mail address is mlafleur@lowellsun.com .