MARCH 1, 2018
By Mari A. Schaefer
"Ladonn, a 43-year-old man from Philadelphia, was apprehensive about taking a yoga class. But after 15 years in prison, with an anxiety level that was “though the roof,” he was willing to give it a try.
At the twice weekly classes held at the aptly named State Correctional Institution (SCI) – Retreat in Luzerne County, Ladonn found out yoga was hard work — and he liked it.
“It helped with anxiety first and foremost,” said Ladonn, whom the Department of Corrections would identify only by his first name, in a phone interview. “That was my main thing.”
Yoga, aromatherapy, and linens in an earthy shade of green are not expected prison fare.
But for the last year, inmates and staff across the state have been testing policies and programs that focus on reducing violence and time inmates spend in solitary confinement, as well as increasing overall wellness. And, they are doing it at minimal cost.
Studies are being carried out at 25 state correctional institutions with the help of BetaGov, a team of consultants that encourage innovation through a bottom-up approach. The research ideas came from 15,000 state prison employees including correction officers, chaplains, nurses and food service staff, said Bret Bucklen, director of planning research and statistics at the state Department of Corrections.
The ideas get a quick review by a legal team to see if there are any problems, ethical concerns or cost issues before being sent to BetaGov. Once approved, the randomized control trials, which tend to be small, can begin in a week or two and be finished in months. Prisoners volunteer to participate.
A traditional research model would take years, involve finding an academic partner to evaluate and design the program, and then get approvals and funding, Bucklen said. “BetaGov flips all that on its head,” he said.
Ideas that might seem off-the-wall proved promising.
Using lavender and cherry scents were associated with less misconduct in a behavioral management unit at SCI-Frackville. Piping soothing sounds into housing pods at SCI-Benner Township to improve sleeping conditions was found to have potential for improving behavior. Prisoners at SCI-Mahanoy who were given images to color while in solitary confinement enjoyed the activity, posted the work in their cells and often sent them home to their children or families, the BetaGov results indicated.
A study involving virtual reality that guides prisoners through a halfway house before they are released to such facilities is set to start up soon. The hope: that it will quell anxiety over the transition."
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