Behind Bars: Research Aims to Improve Operations

Posted: April 6, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Prisoner's hands on jail cell
With more than 8 million adults incarcerated or under some form of supervision in the United States, prisons and supervising agencies are under more pressure than ever before to improve operations. Mason Professor Faye Taxman is working with correctional agencies to translate research into practice.

By Devon Madison

If you think bureaucracies can’t change, try telling that to Faye Taxman. She has scientific evidence to prove that they can. A professor in the Administration of Justice Department at Mason, Taxman has focused a significant portion of her work on collaborating with correctional agencies to translate research into practice.

Faye Taxman
Faye Taxman
Creative Services photo

With more than 8 million adults incarcerated or under some form of supervision in the United States, prisons and supervising agencies are under more pressure than ever before to improve operations.

Part of Taxman’s task has been to inform corrections decision makers about the latest evidence-based practices or behavioral techniques that empirical research has shown produces statistically significant results.

“That’s the value of science,” says Taxman, who also is principal investigator of three National Institute on Drug Abuse studies, as well as other studies of state correctional systems. “That we are able to more objectively give a picture, and then it’s up to the players to think about what they can do with it.”

But, she adds, the real value is that scientists and practitioners can work together to make these changes.

Applying Research to the Organization

A study conducted in 2005 by Taxman and her colleagues resulted in a number of important findings, including the need for correctional systems to promote organizational learning environments.

Organizational learning environments provide a structure for new practices that ideally would allow organizations to try new ideas, provide adequate supervisory training, keep staff up to date on the latest research in corrections and instruct staff on how to apply research results to their organization.

These steps would represent a shift away from a more traditional and authoritarian approach.

Some institutions have already taken action based on Taxman’s research findings.

The Maryland Division of Parole and Probation was one of the first agencies to implement a model that redefined how officers and offenders interact. Their Proactive Community Supervision (PCS) model aims to create a dynamic where supervising officers play an active role in facilitating offender change while allowing offenders to take active ownership of their quest to become prosocial.

The results of implementing the PCS model have been promising.

Analysis of the four Maryland sites that participated in the study revealed that the employment of new behavior management strategies reduced the likelihood of rearrest by 42 percent and technical violations were reduced by 20 percent.

Taxman and her colleagues also have worked with evidence-based practices in the Virginia Department of Corrections to create a learning environment for correctional staff that allows them to work differently with offenders.

Correctional officers were taught behavioral management techniques, such as motivational interviewing, social learning techniques and use of incentive systems to create a social learning environment where offenders are encouraged to become productive citizens.

While this approach may be unconventional in a correctional setting, the research results show positive outcomes. Offenders exposed to the Virginia model had 16 percent fewer infractions over time in prison, providing a safer and more secure environment.

Channeling Scarce Funding to the Right Place

In other studies, Taxman looked at how the use of standardized assessments could help channel scarce funding into the right avenues.

In one such study, she reviewed practices in a state where it was routine for judges to order half the offenders assigned to probation to seek drug treatment services. The judges’ decisions were based on offender self-reports or conditions of a plea bargain.

The research conducted by Taxman and her colleagues revealed that only about one-third of the offenders ordered to seek drug treatment services actually needed them. Had the judges had access to a standardized assessment tool that would allow them to correctly identify offenders with serious drug problems, they would have recognized that two-thirds of the offenders assigned to the treatment program did not need treatment.

This simple change in practice would have allowed them to use limited treatment resources more appropriately and effectively.

Some might question the need to enhance correctional systems at all, given that offenders have caused harm to society; however, corrections facilities are a big expense in this country. Most states spend more on their correctional systems than they do on primary education. Taxman believes if money is going to be spent, it might as well be spent wisely.

“From a public policy perspective, we’re investing a lot in the correctional system without knowing it,” she says.

“And a lot of people don’t realize that their tax dollars are being paid to fuel this. There are other ways of dealing with people who are antisocial…but the way that we’ve been doing it is not the most effective, and it is certainly not the most cost effective.”

Taxman remains hopeful, though.

“I’m optimistic that organizations can change. I think most people who work in these organizations want what’s best, and we can help organizations be more effective and serve the greater good.”

This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2009.

Write to at