Evaluation of SPP Programming

Despite the many challenges of evaluating our programs, we are beginning to make some headway.We have expanding and refined tracking program participation, and Washington DOC staff have shared the data they keep on those participants; from these data we learn about the demographics, risk level, and rough indicators of behavior such as rates of infractions and grievances. We have evaluated the lecture series program with student surveys since 2009, and in the last few years have added surveys for most of our conservation programs. We have worked with the organization Roots of Success to refine and improve teacher and student surveys for the environmental course, and share results. In 2014 and ’15, we have forged promising new partnerships with academic partners to directly investigate behavioral and psycho-social impacts on SPP technicians; we are excited for the chance to really dig in to the effects of  our programs!

Researchers from the University of Denver's Institute for Human-Animal connection want to study the social impacts of working with SPP's conservation programs. They toured the butterfly program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women and were so impressed by the butterfly technicians, the rearing facility, and the program's many partners and benefits. Photo by Jody Becker-Green.

Researchers from the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal connection want to study the social impacts of working with SPP’s conservation programs. They toured the butterfly program at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women and were so impressed by the butterfly technicians, the rearing facility, and the program’s many partners and benefits. Photo by Jody Becker-Green.

Conservation Technician Data Request

In April and May, 2015, we worked on a data request with DOC research staff to describe inmate-technicians in our conservation programs (conservation nurseries, and endangered species rearing and care programs). We found that technicians in the four conservation programs are less racially/ethnically diverse than DOC’s averages for incarcerated adults statewide. They are much more likely to have a Low risk assessment than the statewide norm, but more than half of the technicians are designated High Violent or High Non-Violent.

Considering recidivism, we had complete data (start and end dates) for 27 technicians in three of the four programs, all who have released in the last 3 years. None have returned to prison on a new felony. It is far too early to refer to this as a rate of recidivism; a sample of 30 is the low threshold of gaining confidence in results. Thus, for conservation technicians, we have at least three more years to wait before we will have early results on recidivism.

From the Infraction/Grievance data and larger sample size (n=62), we saw a decrease during and post program. However, only General (low level) Infractions decreased: from 4.22 pre to 2.11 and 2.00 during/post. All technicians had very low counts of Serious and Violent Infractions prior to the program so it was not possible to draw conclusions about reducing those infraction types (i.e. violence in prison). Considering Grievance data, the reduction may indicate increased well-being or satisfaction with the in-prison environment. However, since we support and encourage use of Grievances whenever they serve as a pro-social means of communicating concerns, this is a limited indicator. In general, we can say that early data indicates that the program may have a positive effect on inmates’ behavior and well-being.

Conservation Technician Surveys

Beginning in October, 2014, program evaluation surveys were administered to inmate technicians from CCCC, MCCCW, WCCW, and SCCC. We received 21 participant surveys and 17 new hire surveys in FY15, a promising rate of return given that there were ~27 total in these positions during the year. The survey program continues, and we expect to have sufficient respondents to warrant analysis in FY16.

Science and Sustainability Lecture Series

Evaluating Environmental Knowledge
All students of the SPP Lecture Series from 2009-2014 were asked a series of true and false questions before and after attending a lecture. Answers were compared for individuals to see if students were gaining information from attending the program. Results found that incarcerated students are coming to lectures with a relatively high level of environmental knowledge, but are leaving having gained additional knowledge on lecture topics (23% increase in correctly answered questions at WCCW; 18% for SCCC). Lecture topics are different each month, therefore students acquire broad and diverse environmental content knowledge.

Evaluating Environmental Attitudes

From 2011-2014, students of the lecture series were asked before and after a lecture to rate their likelihood of seeking and discussing environmental information. Results showed that most students report a fairly high level of environmental interest before the lecture even begins, and most of them do not shift in that attitude. For inmates who do report a shift after attending the lecture, it is far more likely to be a pro-environmental shift. Pro-environmental shifts are strongest in relation to the lecture topic itself, rather than environmental issues in general. More broadly, from 2011 to 2014 attitudes steadily shifted towards the pro-environmental end of the scale; this potentially points to the cumulative impact of the lecture series and sustainability programs WCCW and SCCC offer throughout their facilities.

Average Likert scores for WCCW and SCCC pre-and post-lecture for 2011-2014.

Average Likert scores for WCCW and SCCC pre-and post-lecture for 2011-2014.

Lecturer Surveys

We began surveying guest lecturers of the Science and Sustainability Lecture Series in October, 2014, and have been disappointed by a very low rate of return for surveys given to lecturers beginning in October, 2014. The program coordinator has translated the surveys to online forms, and we except that this option will largely solve this problem.

Human/Non-human Connection Research

During the winter months of 2014-15, SPP forged a promising new partnership with the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in the graduate school for social work at the Denver University (DU). During FY15, we submitted a collaborative proposal for a Research and Practitioner Grant to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). We also began drafting a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study Coupled Human/Natural Systems. Both proposals include assessment of social/emotional impacts to inmate technicians from working with non-human life (plants in the conservation nurseries, frog, turtles, and butterflies in endangered species rearing and care programs). The NIJ proposal also comprises pilot research of social/emotional impacts for staff involved in those programs. The NSF proposal adds research on the effects of those programs on ecosystem services and biodiversity.

Challenges to Studying SPP Programs

Usually the first question we hear about the effects of SPP programs is What impact does SPP have on recidivism? We have found this a tough question to answer. We have been so successful that we aren’t sure whose recidivism rate to consider. There are several confounding factors:

  • SPP programs integrated into Washington prisons: flower and vegetable gardens, dog training, volunteers and visitors throughout the facilities. Who is and is not impacted by these programs??
  • Approximately 3,000 inmates are involved in SPP programs every year (~18% of general population); some stay involved for years, and get involved in multiple programs; others move on quickly to other opportunities; each prison has unique cultural elements that shape program experiences, and different experiences have different impacts
  • Washington State DOC recent Secretary is one of SPP’s founders, and he has had widespread influence, promoting rehabilitation for every Washington State inmate; do we compare SPP participants’ recidivism rate to other WA inmates, or to those from other state’s?

Adding to this, any social or behavioral research must undergo Human Subjects Review as mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The law gives extra protections to prisoners: any study involving prisoners requires approval from a board certified to consider research risks specific to incarcerated adults. The application and review process is time and resource intensive.

Future Research

The SPP has many goals for the expansion and improvement of our growing evaluations program. We would like to survey Washington DOC staff members who have been involved with multiple SPP programs. conservation/sustainability programs. We would like to survey the scientists who work on our conservation program teams. We would also like to evaluate how the SPP programming fits into the Washington DOC-defined “opportunities to contribute.” We are interested in creating a post-release survey program for former lecture attendees and conservation/sustainability program technicians. Additionally, we would like to investigate SPP-related changes in perceptions of prisons on the part of the media and the public.