Continued family contact during incarceration has been found to improve in-prison behavior and reintegration upon release. The value of prosocial contacts has been consistently found through empirical work that examined in-person visitation and phone calls. In recent years, computerized tablets have become more commonplace across U.S. prisons, yet little to no research has evaluated how this advancement in communication has altered experiences of incarceration. While prior research has established the importance of continued prosocial contact, we are unaware if having access to video and electronic communication changes the effect of continued contact during incarceration.
To address this gap in literature, the proposed study will examine the impact of tablet introduction in Delaware prisons through quantitative and qualitative work. The multi-method nature of this project will capture abstract concepts often overlooked within quantitative work, while still delivering “hard numbers” from the surveys that will assist policymakers in understanding the changes tablets have caused. Specifically, the surveys will highlight descriptive data that demonstrates an insider perspective of how the tablets are functioning in the prisons and provide guidance on important topics to be covered in the interview portion of data collection.
Although data collection has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am excited to begin surveying in the immediate future. There are two stages of data collection for this multi-method study.
Data Collection: Stage 1
First, I will collect approximately 500 cross-sectional surveys from incarcerated individuals across male prisons in Delaware. The surveys are partially based on prior visitation literature. but largely reflect conversations had with previously incarcerated individuals and department of corrections staff. The surveys ask questions on tablet usage amounts, services used, and opinions on how visitation has changed since tablet use became normalized. Some examples of questions included on the survey are:
- I get worried that my tablet privileges will be taken away;
- I am more comfortable filing grievances now that I can do it over the tablet; and
- I feel like there is less tension in the prison now that we have access to tablets.
Additionally, there are questions regarding quality of the relationship and visit (e.g., Video visiting with this person helps me get my mind off negative things; Even though I care about them, video visiting with this person can stress me out) as only recent scholarship has acknowledged that the connotation of the visit may alter its effect.
Finally, the survey collection will include those who do not use the tablets; there is a skip-to section that prompts for reasons why some choose not to use the tablets, which will provide comparison points for those with high usage.
Date Collection: Stage 2
The second stage of data collection will include 20 to 30 interviews of incarcerated persons regarding their opinions on tablet introduction and how they believe it has impacted their incarceration. The interviews will be semi-structured and informed by the findings of the surveys, although they will also include several questions to be asked of each respondent. Some questions within the interview focus on what incarcerated users of technology thought of the tablets when they were first introduced in the prison, how they think correctional staff have responded to the tablets, and what their thoughts are on the costs of services.
Project Funding & Impact
The generous grant from the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology has helped fund this project in multiple ways. The grant funds have been used to purchase scannable surveys for the quantitative portion of the study. which drastically improved the timeline of the project and the accuracy of results by avoiding hand-input of data. Additionally, the grant will pay for participant and respondent compensation, analytic software, conference costs, and other supplies needed for the study. The IACFP has made this project possible by providing funds for each necessary component of the study.
Tablet use in prisons may allow for better experiences of incarceration by providing access to music, movies, and increased availability to family and friends. However, it is important to acknowledge the nature of tablet contracts and the companies that privatized the correctional communication industry. The proposed study aims to identify how tablets are changing continued communication during incarceration and advance correctional understanding of how technology access can change prison behavior. This exploratory study will frame future work by building an understanding of how incarcerated persons perceive the tablets and how the program can improve. It is believed that practical policy implications can be made from results to enhance prison policies regarding the tablet programs and help inform the public about the contracts written by the limited selection of communication providers.
Note: Updates to this article will be provided when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are revised and surveys can be administered.
*References available upon request.
About the Author
Hannah Cortina is a criminology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware and a research assistant at the Center for Drug and Health Studies. She earned her Master of Science in Forensic Psychology from the University of New Haven, where her studies focused on the psychological impact of incarceration on inmates and correctional staff. Hannah currently works as the Project Director on a large randomized study in Delaware prisons evaluating the efficacy of a cognitive behavioral therapy. Her co-authored work has been published in Criminal Justice Policy and by the American Enterprise Institute.