Can the Circle Be Broken? Results of Study on Prisoners May Help

by Tara Laskowski

By looking at an inmate’s experience while in jail, professor June Tangney hopes experts can develop ways to give this population a better chance at a new life once they leave prison.By looking at an inmate’s experience while in jail, professor June Tangney hopes experts can develop ways to give this population a better chance at a new life once they leave prison.

Some studies estimate that more than one in 100 Americans live behind bars, and two of every three prisoners who leave jail will head back there within three years. Mason psychology professor June Tangney hopes her research will help break this cycle of recidivism.

By looking at an inmate’s experience while in jail, Tangney believes that psychologists, sociologists and criminologists can develop ways to give this population a better chance once they leave prison — and make society safer.

Frequently cited for her extensive research in the areas of shame and guilt, Tangney has conducted a longitudinal study of jail inmates since 2001, one of the first studies to comprehensively track inmates after their release to see how they adjust to life back in the greater community.

So far, the study has received more than $1 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Tapping into Emotions

Tangney and her team of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, in partnership with the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, interviewed more than 500 prisoners.

June Tangney

They focused on factors that may reduce criminal recidivism, substance abuse relapse and HIV risk behavior.

The average study participant spent six months in jail and was charged with at least one felony. The inmates agreed to give the researchers access to their health and criminal records, be videotaped and undergo several intense clinical interviews.

Collecting such extensive information informed an examination of the link between the inmates’ emotions, criminal activities and risky drug and sexual behavior.

Tangney believes shame and guilt play key roles deterring immoral and antisocial behavior, and that positive results could follow by tapping these emotions and developing programs to help inmates develop the self-awareness to better understand themselves.

“Emotions form the core of our motivational system,” she says. “They provide the press — the driving force — and the direction for our behavior.”

And although people sometimes use the terms “shame” and “guilt” interchangeably, Tangney stresses that they are two distinct emotions.

Shame involves feeling bad about oneself, while guilt involves feeling bad about a particular behavior. A phrase such as “I did that horrible thing” would express shame, whereas “I did that horrible thing” would express guilt.

“Shame often leads to a desire to escape or hide,” says Tangney. “In contrast, guilt can motivate confession and repair.”

Caron Heigel, a fourth-year clinical psychology student working in Tangney’s lab, observed firsthand the changes the project has brought to inmates. Heigel, who started working with the project in 2005, came from a background of counseling and had conducted a program with women in jail.

“It really opened my eyes to the need of this population,” Heigel says. “And June has been able to implement changes that have had a positive effect on the inmates and the county. To see that effect is awesome.”

Increasing the Positive Outcomes

One key piece of Tangney’s work involves studying the inmates’ success or failure once they are released from jail. Researchers follow up with the inmates, conducting clinical interviews one year after their release, and then again four years later.

Once released into the community, inmates alone must make decisions and manage their emotions. Tangney’s approach helps with this difficult, frustrating and often frightening transition by giving inmates the management skills they need for painful, bad feelings.

“What we are looking for is, how are they doing? Are they paying their taxes, being a productive member of society? Are they homeless, or do they have a full-time job?

“You can imagine a whole lot of outcomes for people who are released from jail, and we hope to increase the positive ones,” says Tangney.

Their findings aren’t completely heartening: 40 percent of the inmates interviewed were arrested within a year of their release. Two-thirds of those interviewed either were arrested or committed an undetected crime within the same time frame.

The data do show, however, that involvement in programs and services offered by the jail may predict good outcomes.

In an experimental evaluation of the jail’s Impact of Crime Workshop, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources, Tangney’s group found a trend that the participant group engaged in fewer crimes — both detected and undetected — after their release.

Part of the project’s NIH grant funds will support development of programs and classes for use in the jail to help reduce recidivism.

Jeff Stuewig, research assistant professor and data manager for the Inmate Project, hopes that these programs will soon be implemented.

“The justice system and the courts are overloaded. If we can find points where we can intervene with these individuals and that these interventions show real-world effects, this could make a difference not only for those individuals, but also for potential victims, family members and the local communities,” he says.

This article appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2009.