UA Little Rock to Examine Arkansas Prison Culture and Climate

The four-year study will include input from inmates, staff and volunteers.

Black and white photo of prison cells

The Arkansas Department of Corrections has awarded the University of Arkansas at Little Rock a multi-year contract of more than $453,000 to study and assess prison culture and climate in Arkansas. 

“This multi-year project, funded by existing DOC revenues, will be the first of its kind done on the state’s adult corrections system,” said Solomon Graves, cabinet secretary of Arkansas Department of Corrections. “It will not only review operational issues within the Divisions of Correction and Community Correction, along with the Correctional School District, it will study issues related to staff recruitment, retention and the efficacy of offender programs.”

UA Little Rock criminal justice professors Mary Parker, Robert Lytle and Molly Smith will lead the four-year research project.  

“This is a project that I’ve been wanting to work on for a long time,” principal investigator Mary Parker said. “I have more than 20 years of experience on the Board of Corrections. This research project is the next step in continuing my service to the state of Arkansas.”

The study will be conducted from May 1, 2021 to April 30, 2025. The $453,805 award also provides funding for a graduate assistant, Cassidy Mitchell, who is a criminal justice doctoral student at UA Little Rock.

“Our faculty in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology continues to raise the bar in community-engaged research,” said Tusty ten Bensel, director of the School of Criminal Justice and Criminology at UA Little Rock. “This project is a great example of how our faculty and students engage with agency partners to improve our understanding of how the criminal justice system works, specifically in corrections.”

Each individual correctional unit in the Arkansas Department of Corrections has a unique history, mission and staffing as well as varied inmate, resident and client makeup, according to a press release. Each unit in the state’s system will be studied individually before larger conclusions and recommendations are made for the Arkansas Department of Corrections as a whole.

The first phase will include studies on Cummins, Varner, East Arkansas, Tucker and Tucker Max. Phase two will include Ouachita River, Wrightsville Complex and Delta. The third phase will include North Central, Grimes, McPherson and Pine Bluff units, and independent work release centers. The final phase of study will include Community Correction Centers and Probation and Parole Offices.

“This has the potential to be a game changer for the Department of Corrections. For the past decade, we have worked toward increasing our utilization of data-informed decision making,” Graves said. “Along with our newly created Quality Improvement and Program Evaluation unit, this UA Little Rock partnership will give our board and leadership team the type of actionable data we have only dreamed about.”

The research project seeks to understand all aspects of prison life in Arkansas. To accomplish this, the research team will survey offenders, prison staff, family members of offenders and volunteers. This is one of the few large-scale projects that includes visitors and volunteers, Parker said.

“Families are a critical dynamic to incarceration and adding their perspective to the study gives us invaluable information on the impact of incarceration on friends and families of those incarcerated,” she said. “Most people do not realize it but hundreds of volunteers work in prison providing religious programming, therapy groups, dog training, meditation, etc. for the inmate population. We will be surveying a sample of this population to gain their perspectives on what we can do better in our individual prison to improve multiple dynamics of the culture in prison.”

The research team will also conduct focus groups with medical, educational programming, unit support, management, and training staff as well as probation and parole officers and staff members. 

Researcher Robert Lytle said he’s excited about the opportunity to learn more about and help inform practices related to correctional staffing. 

“Corrections can be a challenging field to work in, but I believe it can be equally satisfying,” he said. “Corrections staff have the ability to help people in need, protect the community and provide a public service. My hope for this project is that, over the next several years, we will be able to support efforts to improve correctional work environments and inmate management.”

At the end of the study, UA Little Rock will provide a final report with conclusions and recommendations about each unit in the prison system, a review of the educational programming throughout the system, recommendations with corresponding best practices for DOC administration, and recommendations to improve the culture and climate throughout the system.