Beth Huebner part of UM System team awarded $200,000 grant to support corrections research
Beth Huebner, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, is teaming with other researchers in the University of Missouri System to try to improve the prison environment in the state.
Kelli Canada and Clark Peters, associate professors in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri–Columbia, are leading the research team, which also includes MU assistant professor Ashley Givens and Janet Garcia-Hallett, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
“I think it’s exciting to bring all these criminal justice faculty together from across the universities,” Huebner said. “Kelli and I have collaborated informally. We chat a lot. We have a lot of the same interests, and we’ve applied for a number of grants together. We’re really hoping to merge the rural and urban or suburban perspectives.”
The 4½-year research project will be piloted at Moberly Correctional Center, a 1,800-bed minimum/medium-security facility located 35 miles north of Columbia.
The prison is the inaugural site of the Missouri Veterans Project and the state’s first dorm for veterans. It houses two intensive therapeutic communities for offenders committed to personal growth and sobriety. It provides opportunities for offenders to give back through programs such as Puppies for Parole and Restorative Justice. It also offers 48 courses and groups that build skills in areas such as anger management, parenting, employability preparation, cognitive interventions, addiction management and understanding the impact of crime on victims.
The researchers will conduct climate surveys and collect data to provide objective analysis to the Department of Corrections.
“I am a firm believer in using research and data to make good decisions,” Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe said. “We’re thrilled to work with the University of Missouri, to join the network and to implement evidence-based practices, policies and programs that advance our goal of improving lives for safer communities.”
Much of Huebner’s prior work has been focused on examining incarceration in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. For the past few years, she has been directing research on how to reduce the jail population in St. Louis County with support from two grants, totaling $4.5 million, from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as part of its Safety and Justice Challenge.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research on actual prisons,” Huebner said. “For a long time, many prisons understandably have been closed off from research, just because of safety in the custodial environment. So this is a really new way of thinking. I’m really proud of the governor for backing us and the Department of Corrections.
“This is something that’s very different from what they have done before. I’m just excited that they’re willing to experiment with a new way of doing institutional corrections.”
The faculty members are still planning the specifics of their research, but she is hopeful about what they can uncover.
“I think it will be important to show that we can keep incarcerated people and staff safe while still providing a very humane environment,” she said. “I’m hoping that we can show that there are other more humane or more flexible ways of incarcerating people – an alternative to the 24/7 in the cell, kind of very traditional corrections.”
The prisoners aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit.
“We’re at a staffing crisis in Missouri,” Huebner said. “We don’t have enough people to work. The people in the prison basically are incarcerated for eight-hour shifts. If we can make that better for them as well, I’m hoping that will have some good outcomes, as well.”
She noted that they’re adopting a model that has worked elsewhere in Scandinavian countries.
There sometimes has been reluctance in the United States to take from international corrections. But there has been increasing openness to different approaches amid the growing push for criminal justice reform.
“This is a very exciting time to be in in this field,” Huebner said. “I think it’s exciting that there are private funders like the Arnold Foundation, who are really willing to experiment, to try something new.
“We don’t know if this is going to work or not. It’s not been done in the U.S. extensively. But I’m excited to see that. You know, we’re kind of shifting away from pure punishment and understanding that maybe we can punish people in a little bit more humane way that will hopefully have better outcomes in the long run.”
Colorado, Delaware, Iowa and Vermont were also chosen to be part of the initial phase of the Prison Research and Innovation Network.
“We look forward to supporting Missouri in its efforts to employ research and data to improve prison culture, operations and design while creating more humane and rehabilitative correctional environments,” said Nancy La Vigne, vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute. “Missouri’s leadership and commitment to transparency and accountability will help spur lasting change for people who live and work in prisons.”
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